For this Worthington sewing store, business is booming in the age of coronavirus.
Almost two months ago, Anita Gastaldo, owner of Sew to Speak, began encouraging her customers to make and donate masks. Fast forward to today, and thanks to a devoted and ambitious customer base, the small business has donated hundreds of masks and PPE to hospitals, nursing homes and rehab centers. March also was the store’s best sales month in its 12-year history thanks to the heavy discounts Gastaldo offered on mask making supplies. (She can barely keep elastic in stock.) Customers are also buying up everything from sewing machines to embroidery kits as they look for creative ways to fill their hours spent at home. This Friday, Sew to Speak, which is known for its variety of in-store classes, will begin offering virtual classes. Columbus Monthly spoke to Gastaldo about running a small business in the age of coronavirus. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
What has it been like adjusting to this new normal as a business owner?
Well, for me, kind of been amazing. We have been super busy. We are selling lots of fabric. Maybe 75 percent of the fabric we're selling is for people to make masks. And also we sell sewing machines, so that has been awesome because we'll get a machine in, and it will sell. And then we'll get more machines in, and they'll sell. They're just coming in, going out as quick as, just unbelievable. Last month I had my best month ever in 12 years, bigger than Christmas. December is usually our most profitable month. And it's funny because so much of my fabric I've discounted to help people make masks, and we were giving away free elastic for a while, but we were bombarded with people coming in for elastic, so I had to stop giving it away. ... We are so busy. We're like two days behind in shipping.
Logistic wise, how many employees do you have, and how are you filling all these orders but also keeping your employees safe?
That's one of the hardest things. So I have one employee who needs to work because she supports herself. We've been giving her most of the hours. So she goes in, she fills the orders, and then I check voicemails. We have a couple other people that go in to help fill orders also in the evening. I'll go or a staff member will go and fill more orders. And then I have another woman who goes in for a couple hours a day, and she takes her daughter in with her, and they do some photography and cut fabric. We're just doing one at a time. There's only been a couple times when we had more than one staff [member], and we tried to wear masks.
When this first started, what were you thinking in terms of your business? How did you wrap your head around it?
I am really lucky that I'm married to a man who's a researcher. He's an English professor, and he reads everything. We knew early on how bad it was going to be. I didn't really care about the business, honestly. I just wanted to be able to live and have my family live and have my customers survive. I was just really freaked out in the beginning. I didn't care. I thought, somehow it'll all just work out, but I just want people to live. A couple of my staff members also did some research about masks, so we decided to focus on helping people make masks. We had already gotten some of our things online, because we've been trying to work on that, but mostly we have in-store customers. A couple people that were working from home worked on the website and kept adding items. From the beginning, people were calling for machines and stuff, so I was able to keep paying people. And I thought, OK, we'll just keep going with this. I also got involved with a PPE gowns with Ohio Save A Hero. My first month of COVID was crazy. I was working 12-hour days.
How did you get involved with making PPE?
Two women from Abercrombie & Fitch called me, Jess Audey and Sara Marks. They were really the brilliant ones who created this. They were approached by some doctors who saw that there was going to be a need for equipment, that they were going to run out of gowns. They created a pattern for gowns, and they asked if I would be able to help make them. I put out a call to my customers, and I got 350 email responses from people that said that they would sew. ... It was incredible. I don't even know how many we made, but we made hundreds of these ripstop nylon waterproof gowns that went to EMS. I think we ended up using about 100 people. Some of them made five. Some of them made 40.
In the beginning, the conversation around masks was all over the place, but now, the consensus is, it's best to wear one. When did you decide to start focusing on masks?
A couple of my employees did research, and they found out that there have been studies showing that masks do help. These are university studies. I think Stanford did this. I saw in Denver, a store there that they were starting to make masks. I thought, OK, let's just do this. ... I would say I've probably collected 1,000. I have drivers that take them. They were going to doctor offices, emergency rooms. They're going to nursing homes. We also have a drug and rehab place that we gave them to.
Besides buying masks supplies, are your customers buying more sewing supplies in general?
Absolutely. They're doing all kinds of stuff. I think anything that's soothing, because people's anxiety levels are so high. So anything that's soothing like simple stitching, repetitive stuff, so quilting has been big. I haven't seen as many people making garments, but a lot of quilting and a lot of embroidery.
I know things are changing rapidly every day, but how are you planning for the future?
We are going to focus on virtual classes and keeping people inspired, keeping them home as much as possible. We don't see an end to this soon. I'm expecting that things are going to be different for over a year, and I don't want to have a crowd of people in my store until we have a real solution to the spread. We will not have any large groups. If we do any classes, it will be two students, one teacher spread out. And so we'll just plan on how to help people virtually, continue to offer [store] pick-up. We are going to continue to work mostly online. I really am anxious about the opening up of retail businesses and having a spike. It's also not fair that some people would have to go back to work. I'm not making any of my staff work. They don't want to work, they don't have to work. They're not gonna lose their position. We're just planning to continue what we're doing and take it month by month.