Daily photos by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Audrey McCaleb measures at Willow Tree Fabrics. She works for her mother, Ellen, in Decatur.
Willow Tree returns to Mallard Shopping Center
By Eric Fleischauer
At Willow Tree, the legacy of Paul “Bear” Bryant is measured in yards.
And while Alabama’s offense looked solid against West Carolina, Auburn wins the most yards in the confines of Willow Tree.
Located in Mallard Shopping Center on the east edge of Decatur, Willow Tree is a fabric store. Crowded into its nooks and crannies are 1,000 bolts of fabric. A major challenge for owner Ellen McCaleb, 47, is making sure that her inventory of the moment matches the tastes of her customers.
The black-and-white houndstooth, enough to cap a generation of Bear Bryants, is McCaleb’s big seller this month. And to her surprise, the orange-and-blue cloth zips off the bolt like a Brandon Cox pass. Crimson-and-white sells, but at a slower pace.
No surprise to anyone but her NASA engineer husband, a University of Tennessee fan, the orange-and-white fabric has yet to reach the cutting room.
Willow Tree Fabrics owner Ellen McCaleb has bolts of cloth in Alabama crimson and white, Auburn blue and orange, and Tennessee orange and white.
Importance of selection
The importance of inventory selection is most obvious — and easiest — when a football theme is involved. Knowing her customers is central to McCaleb’s success, though, and requires more than watching the sports page.
“You watch your customers,” McCaleb said. “You see what they’re interested in. You’ve got to get in your customer’s head.”
Love is in the air — or was a few months ago — and she’s seeing numerous pregnant women squeezing through the aisles for fabric to decorate the nursery. Infant-appropriate fabrics are therefore enjoying more floor space.
“Right now there’s a big boom in people having babies. We’re doing lots and lots of nurseries,” McCaleb said. “They want their diaper bags and their rooms and their car-seat covers to all coordinate.”
McCaleb, who operates the business with her 20-year-old daughter, Audrey McCaleb, maintains her inventory in part with occasional trips to Showtime, a massive fabric market that has shows twice a year in High Point, N.C.
Matching the right fabrics with the right customer is not just profitable for McCaleb, it’s a personal delight.
“When we work with a customer who is unsure, we’ll give them suggestions. We’ve lost the fear factor of taking this fabric here and mixing it with that fabric over there,” McCaleb said. “When they come back and say, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t believe how beautiful it looks,’ that’s incredibly rewarding.”
Even minor geographic changes cause a dramatic shift in what sells. McCaleb started at Mallard Shopping Center, which is on Point Mallard Parkway near Priceville, but jumped at the prospect of higher traffic when space came available on Beltline Road.
It was a mistake, and she returned to her old haunt — and a crowd of former customers — a few weeks ago.
Most of those customers, she said, are from “Hampton Cove-ish” areas in Madison County, plus a fair number from as far away as Nashville and Birmingham.
“We didn’t realize we were going to lose them when we moved away from (Interstate) 65,” McCaleb said. “Most of our customers on the Beltline were people that were going to Fred’s. They were wanting cheaper stuff, the stuff you can get at Wal-Mart. That’s not what we carry.”
Aubrey McCaleb and her mother, Ellen, at Willow Tree Fabrics. The store specializes in fabrics for home decorating.
Indeed, Willow Tree is among the handful of Decatur shops reversing the retail leak that more often spills Decatur dollars into the Huntsville market.
“The customers I cater to, for the most part, would never walk into J.C. Penney’s and buy a pair of curtains and hang them up,” McCaleb said. “They’re just not going to do it.”
They are more likely to buy fabric from Willow Tree and have a seamstress make the drapes. Many of her customers change those drapes seasonally.
“I can’t imagine doing that, but I’m not arguing,” laughed McCaleb.
“They don’t want roosters in their kitchen,” McCaleb said. “They want a more upscale look than that.”
Those well-heeled customers were not interested in battling traffic to get to her Beltline location.
Moreover, she briefly lost the business of interior decorators who regularly make runs down I-65, stopping at convenient fabric stores on the way.
Willow Tree customers may be too upscale for roosters, but houndstooth apparently is acceptable.
“They’re doing a lot of draperies in houndstooth. It bothers my eyes, but whatever,” McCaleb shrugged. “Some people make purses or backpacks, or things to sit on at tailgate parties. Even diaper holders. I’ve got more on back order.”
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