Mannie Massengale shows off the batik fabric that sets Kiki's Quilt Shack apart. Photo by Edward Smith.
Even as quilting shops around the country close, a Fresno stitchery found education, outreach and even a record store as a way to bring a once-shuttered anchor location in North Fresno alive again.
Kiki’s Quilt Shack opened at 5747 N. Palm Ave. Aug. 1, taking over the former Walgreens space that had been vacant since 2012 at Palm and Bullard avenues.
“It takes quite a while to find the larger tenants now,” said Jim Burden, owner/general manager of Bullard Palm Investors, owner of the shopping center.
There are almost three stores in one at Kiki’s. Of the nearly 18,000 square feet they now have, 4,600 is dedicated to classroom space, according to Mannie Massengale, co-owner with his wife, Kiki. They have another 6,000 square feet where they house dozens of sewing machines and their 4,000 bolts of fabric, and off at one end is the 3,000 square feet that will soon house Spinners Records.
“Most retail outfits want to move boxes and plastic. That’s not our No. 1 item, even though you look out and see we have the beautiful expensive and non-expensive sewing machines,” Massengale said. “Our biggest deal is education. That’s why I hired the best.”
To staff those teaching positions, the Massengales brought on three “ambassadors” from different companies they house in properties the husband-and-wife team own. Cathy Brown and Diane Ahold, both from Baby Lock, a sewing machine company and Linda Holmes from Singer Pfaff Viking, teach attendees techniques in the three classrooms lining the rear of the store.
Massengale used his background in sound technology to design the spaces.
“We have the most advanced classrooms around,” Massengale said.
Workers equipped the three classrooms with soundproofing and 4K TVs.
“You can buy your machine on Amazon, but you can’t buy your education,” said Massengale, who says that their “uniqueness” will inoculate them against competition to online rivals.
One of those classes will be a “101” course Sept. 16 as outreach to bring in millennials and Gen Zers to the craft. They’ll teach the basics, and with the amount of machines available, attendees don’t even need their own machines.
“To keep this craft and this art going, we have to embrace them and we’re doing that through education,” Massengale said.
Other courses include tutorials on everything from purses to rugs to — of course — quilts.
Their previous educational space of 400 square feet severely limited the number of people who could attend. In addition to classes, Kiki’s hosts expos and retreats every year, all of which have sold out.
Of the sewing retreats they host, the first class sold out in two minutes, Massengale said. The second class took two days to fill up and the third sold out in three weeks. They had to go to event centers throughout the city to accommodate the crowds of attendees.
But their expanded space now means they can host events like their sewing expo in March 2020 at home.
“They’re waiting in line to purchase those tickets,” Massengale said. “They’ll sell out in about an hour.”
On the retail side of things, the availability of high-quality fabric sets them apart from big-box stores, Massengale said.
Beside cotton fabrics, they have rows of high-quality batik fabric, which like designer clothing, has to be ordered months in advance. And it’s those specialty items that bring in what can be particular customers, said Massengale.
“They’re very, very studied individuals and they’re very loyal to the store,” Massengale said, “almost like a football team.”
Customer Helen Harding has been going to Kiki’s since it opened in 2016. She likes the batik fabrics because among other things, “if you make a mistake, you can use the other side.”
Alongside the 4,000 bolts of fabric will be a revival of Spinners Records in a separate, soundproofed section of Kiki’s. Massengale closed the Tower District store in 2016 when the Kiki’s venture turned out to be bigger than he expected.
Massengale wants to create a “Chicago Speakeasy” feel with a lounge, coffee and juice bar where guys can hang out and “listen to groovy tunes” while their wives shop. Spinners will open in October.
He likens the mechanics of record players to the sewing machines used at Kiki’s, and they offer repair services on both types of machines.
“It’s more of a happening space,” Massengale said. With all of the furniture — even the registers — on wheels, the space can be readjusted to host expos or even concerts, using Massengale’s connections in the music scene.
Kiki and Mannie started the eponymous quilt store after they sold their third-party administration company, HealthComp Administrators, which did underwriting for health insurance, for 23 years.
“My wife kept showing up with sewing machines and she’s getting into my man cave,” Massengale said. When the owners of the sewing company at Bullard and West avenues suffered health problems and were going to close up, Kiki and Mannie wanted to buy the company to turn it into what it has become today.
“It’s not just a quilt store, it’s an enterprise,” Massengale said.