An Ode To Mary Jo's -- And The Other Places That Stitch Our Lives Together

Aug 26, 2019

I’m not a fabric store kind of guy. I’m more like a “please, Lord, don’t make me go in the fabric store” kind of guy. But even I had to respect Mary Jo’s Cloth Store in Gastonia.

It was like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for people who sew, like my wife and her friends. They could spend hours in there that, to them, felt like minutes. To me, the minutes felt more like months. But the joy on my wife’s face when she found a piece of fabric she loved – well, that I understood.

I’ve felt that way in record stores, thumbing through crates of vinyl in hopes of finding some rare bootleg or some new artist who might change my life. I’ve felt that way in bookstores, curling up in a chair and sorting through a stack until I found the one book I had to have. OK, maybe three or four.

The fans of Mary Jo’s can make one last pilgrimage this week. After 68 years in business, the store is closing at the end of the month, maybe sooner if it runs out of stock.

The store’s founder, Mary Jo Cloninger, died two years ago. And the store had to fight two powerful forces – one, the decimation of the textile industry in North Carolina, and two, the transformation of shopping into something you do without leaving your house.

Those haven’t been the only changes to our region and our culture. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe how much Charlotte has changed since I moved here 30 years ago. But it turns out the changes that mean the most to me don’t have to do with new roads or tall buildings. It’s the little stuff I miss.

I miss the Scoreboard, the great sports bar that used to be way out Independence Boulevard. I miss Anderson’s, where deals got done over breakfast. Of course I miss the Double Door, where the blues and the bartenders never changed.

And I’m going to miss Mary Jo’s – not as much as my wife will, but I’ll miss it just the same. Places like Mary Jo’s give our area its texture. They belong only to us. They’re the raw materials for what we make of ourselves, the same way a beautiful piece of fabric becomes a dress or a blouse.

The good news is, even though Mary Jo’s is closing, it’s not going away. It will live on in our closets. And after that, in our memories.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.