After nearly 40 years, specialty shop leaving downtown Lawrence but will reopen with a new model for retailing

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Stitch On Needlework Shop will leave its downtown location of 37 years in July. The shop, 926 Massachusetts St., is pictured on April 20, 2021.

The pandemic soon will bring to an end a longtime downtown Lawrence business — but probably not in the way you are thinking. Instead of running Stitch On Needlework Shop, 926 Massachusetts St., out of business, the pandemic is steering the shop’s owner to a new way of thinking about retail.

Owner Leslie Ahlert will close the store in July after 37 years of doing traditional retail in downtown Lawrence. She then will reopen the store in a new building that is being constructed at her rural home south of Lawrence. The new location will be an appointment-only retail location.

“The pandemic absolutely gave us this idea,” Ahlert told me. “It caused us to realize there are other ways to reach our customers. We realized we can do this and do it in a more intimate way.”

Stitch On Needlework sells a variety of quilting, cross-stitch, embroidery and other such craft products, in addition to stocking a variety of gifts that appeal to quilters, crafters and others.

At nearly 40 years, the business definitely is part of the been-there, seen-that crowd in downtown Lawrence. But Ahlert said the move away from downtown did not have anything to do with any concerns she has about downtown or its future.

“I’ve been here to support downtown for 37 years, and I wish it the best,” Ahlert said. “It is just time for me to work less.”

Ahlert said that realization was one of the positive aspects to emerge from the pandemic. When the brick-and-mortar store reopened after closing for a couple of months, she decided to cut back on the store’s hours at that time.

“There were definitely blessings that have come from COVID,” Ahlert said in an email she sent to customers of the store. “We are no longer open on Sundays, which I have thoroughly enjoyed having one day to myself for family, relaxation, house chores and working on puzzles.”

That change in schedule was one moment that got Ahlert thinking about a change. Another was when the business started doing two Facebook Live sessions per week, which Ahlert said greatly helped the business survive during the pandemic.

“We realized this can be a way to lean toward retirement without retiring,” Ahlert said.

In some ways, it also will be a way for the business to expand. The new space will allow the business to offer some workshops, which once was a part of Stitch On Needleworks’ offerings, but those were discontinued about a decade ago.

The business will have more time for those offerings, in part, because it won’t be worrying how to keep the doors open a certain number of hours each week. The new location won’t have set business hours, but rather customers will need to call ahead to make an appointment to shop at the store. The business will continue to sell products online, as well.

“We are so excited for this new chapter for Stitch On,” Ahlert wrote to customers. “This will allow us to circle back to where I started as a business owner and focus more on friendship, camaraderie and education. We are thrilled that this new venture will allow us the space and time to do more workshops, classes, sew-ins and more. If this pandemic has taught us anything, friendship and camaraderie are invaluable.”

So, where will this new building be? That’s a sign of just how much is changing with Stitch On. Ahlert said she didn’t want to disclose the location of the building because she doesn’t want customers stopping by without an appointment. Plus, the pandemic has given her the confidence that she will be able to communicate the location to future customers in a variety of ways, when the time is right.

It will be interesting to watch how many other businesses in Lawrence take away some of these same lessons from the pandemic. Retailing already was shifting to an online model in some ways. That has been predictable for a while. But will the pandemic add a new twist to the brick-and-mortar model by pushing retailers to an appointment-only system? It would be one way to control some overhead costs. But don’t ask me for business predictions. I’m lucky if I can predict when the mute button is on during a Zoom meeting.

I’m guessing, though, many retailers have had at least one of the same takeaways that Ahlert did during the pandemic.

“In business, you have to be fluid and changing and focus on doing what you do well,” Ahlert said. “I can’t be everything to everybody.”

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