OUR COMMUNITY: Pauline Southgate — Quilt Store Queen
Near the end of a long country road sits a cozy store with a cottage-like feel. Its white screen door resembles that of a classic farmhouse.
Step inside and you're surrounded by a full palette of colour. Handmade quilts hang from the walls, rolls of fabric neatly line the shelves, and tools and notions like buttons, hooks and thread sit in every nook and cranny.
This is Hamels Fabrics.
And this quaint little store in the country is more popular than one might think. Quilters from around the world know about it, says owner Pauline Southgate.
People from across Canada and the U.S. flock to Hamels. The store is on tourism lists in Holland and Japan. Reader's Digest puts them as the number one place to shop online for quilting materials.
"It's kind of weird. We didn't even know about (the mention in Reader's Digest) and a customer told us about it. Then we looked it up online and there it was," says Southgate.
It's not surprising. Their online sales are booming
About 40 per cent of their sales are from online business. Most online sales are shipped to the U.S., Mexico, Australia and European Countries. Some of the less popular countries are Fiji, Hong Kong and Mauritania.
But why is Hamels so popular?
"I think it's because, apparently, we have the biggest selection for an independent quilt shop in Canada," says Southgate. "This is one of the most comprehensive shops."
They carry 5,000 to 7,000 different types of fabrics.
When Southgate is ordering fabrics, she "just knows" what she's already purchased. "It's pretty much in my head. I've operated with my gut with all these years."
"We are really diversified," she adds. "We carry different brands and different types, where other stores will focus on one brand."
Hamels is the only store in the world to carry every single Moda pre-cut. Moda is a brand of fabrics, and pre-cuts are small squares of fabric that quilters buy in multi-pattern packs. They're kind of like beer sampler pack — you get a little taste of everything.
One pack, for example, will contain 30, 10-inch squares of fabric, and although they complement each other, no two fabrics will be the same. People like them because they're easier to work with, they add variety, and it's cheaper because they don't have to buy a large cuts of fabric from the rolls.
Southgate also believes social media is a big reason why quilting is so popular.
"Fifty years ago quilting was an old ladies thing, and nowadays we get a lot of young girls and guys who come in. The driving trend is Pinterest and Twitter," she says.
She has owned the store since 1991. She took it over from her parents, Lou and Yvonne Hamel, who started the family business in 1957 in Chilliwack.
After operating out of numerous locations in the city, nine years ago Southgate purchased the property she's on now at Lickman Road, and built the store in 2009 right beside her house.
She figured the move into the country would cut her sales in half — a perfect way to slow down and shift Hamels into a home-based, semi-retirement business.
The move didn't slow her down. Instead, she now has twice the business she had in the city.
People seem to like the small country stores, she says.
"There isn't a day that goes by that we don't have people here from Vancouver," says Southgate. "We ask our customers where they're from, and I actually find it really interesting. The farthest they come from is Japan."
A big bonus for them is their neighbour, Smits and Co.w Farm Cheese.
"That's been a big draw for us. The guy will go to get cheese, and the wife comes in to shop for fabric. They are a very good neighbour," says Southgate.
Having an interest in her customers is key to great service.
"I tell my staff that you have to be good to these people because were in the entertainment industry."
Yes, the entertainment industry. People who enter her store are in their happy place, she explains. They want to be there. They are doing something they're passionate about, and the staff at Hamels are there to share in their love for quilting.
Since Southgate grew up with Hamels, she has a decades of quilting experience under her belt. What is it about quilting that she loves?
"I don't quilt," she says bluntly.
That's right. The owner of one of the most popular quilt stores in the world doesn't quilt.
She has quilted in the past, but she was so addicted to it that she didn't want it to take away from running a successful business.
"The kick I get out of this is just as good as if I quilted," she says.