Florence, Alabama

“Come on in. May we help you?” As soon as you push open the heavy wood and glass door and step onto the creaky floorboards, you know you’re someplace special. And that place is Wilson’s Fabrics in downtown Florence, Alabama, where northwest Alabama families have been coming for 61 years for everything from fabric for wedding dresses to emergency repair of buttons and hems. Robbie Wilson, 60, is closing the store his parents — his father was “The Tall Man with the Low Prices” — founded. At one time, the fabric business was good. From this first storefront, the Wilson family expanded their company into six stores across northwest Alabama. But after business peaked in the 1980s and ’90s (remember all those gorgeous handsmocked dresses we made back then?), the company had to close store after store until only this, the original, remained. Small local fabric shops are going the way of small local bookstores  — probably already have. “People don’t sew anymore,” said Robbie Wilson, smiling ruefully, when I went to pay my last respects at the shop earlier this week. The combination of readily available inexpensive ready-to-wear clothes and the steady rise of big box do-it-yourself chains such as Hobby Lobby and Jo Ann’s Fabrics didn’t help, either. Plus, downtown Florence took a major hit when the local family-owned department store sold out and then closed a few years ago. “But Florence is a vital and changing downtown,” Wilson said, ever optimistic. “It’s just going to go in a new direction, with new opportunities.” Someone has leased his store space and is opening a gift shop there, he added. But nothing will replace the antique cash register, the yellowing handwritten signs, the piles of fabrics and patterns in the back where you knew treasures lay hidden, just waiting to be unearthed. Like so many others, I have many Wilson’s memories. I remember chasing my brother under the fabric tables when we were little. Later, when my own children were little, I lovingly fingered fine cotton and browsed through smocking plates as I planned Easter outfits. And later still, when I worked at the newspaper office just a couple blocks away, I’d duck into Wilson’s for thread or ribbon or pins or whatever I needed for an ongoing project. Sigh. We’re going to miss you.