Sew & Tell

Friendly chitchat and superior knowledge make Smitty’s a village institution

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

smittys1212In 2006, Bob Smith, for 30 years an employee of Al Danis’ Essex Junction business, The House of Sewing, took up the flag when Danis retired, and launched Smitty’s Sewing Machine Service. The business has thrived under the cheerful and expert tutelage of Smitty and his wife, Penny.

Bob Smith (whom everyone, including his family, calls Smitty) loves to chew the fat. It’s a talent that has garnered him a slew of friends, a lot of customers, and a great business reputation. It once got him a vacation.

Smitty and his wife, Penny, own Smitty’s Sewing Machine Service on Maple Street in Essex Junction. He’s an expert at repair and sells three lines of new machines — Elna, Necchi, and Toyota — plus used machines. His customers range from home sewers to northern Vermont schools that teach consumer science (formerly called home economics), from dry cleaners such as Gadue’s to theater costume departments at the University of Vermont’s Royall Tyler and St. Michael’s College.

Peter Harrigan, the chair and professor of fine arts at St. Michael’s, teaches costume design as part of his job. He’s known Smitty for the entire 22 years he’s been at the college and in Vermont.

“We have a series of sewing machines,” says Harrigan. “Smitty has kept them in good repair a long time now, because learning can be fairly tough on the machines. He’s been remarkable ... and he makes house calls!”

Smitty tells about the time a few years ago when Matt Ryan, a reporter for the Burlington Free Press, was in the shop interviewing him for a feature story. While Ryan was there, Harrigan happened by the shop. He knew Ryan from St. Michael’s and began telling him the various kinds of service Smitty performs.

“We got finished with the interview and it was almost like Matt was gape-mouthed,” says Smitty. “I said, ‘Are you OK?’ He said, ‘I’m fine. I came in here expecting to do a story on a dying art, and I can’t believe it.’”

Helping Smitty accomplish all this is Penny, who does the books, handles the phones, greets customers, and serves as troubleshooter. She doesn’t do much as far as repairs, preferring, she says, to work on bigger mechanical items, such as cars. “There are so many little moving parts on a sewing machine,” she says, “it was kind of overwhelming. But give me the brakes on a car and it’s very easy.”

Her parents owned a tire company and service station, Amour Tire and Battery in Burlington, where Penny was the only one of their eight children who loved to hang out. “My mother and father worked together,” says Penny. “My mother was the secretary. They have both passed on, but they would just die seeing us today, working together in a business.”

“Penny’s brothers and sisters will come in and call us ‘Lucy and Cliff’ — her mother and father’s names,” adds Smitty.

A native of Warrensburg, N.Y., Smitty came to Vermont to study history at Johnson State College. He chose Johnson because three of his teachers at Warrensburg Central High School were alumni. “I hoped it would be a good place to get my grades up and eventually go to Brockport State ... which never happened,” he says with a laugh. “I was a party guy; participated in athletics — baseball, basketball, and cross-country. But I did graduate — a real plus for my parents.” He laughs again.

Smitty’s first job out of college was working as a mason tender for Leo Bardin, a bricklayer. “We did the McCarthy Arts Center at St. Mike’s, Fremeau’s jewelers, the Essex Junction post office,” says Smitty. “That’s where I met Penny, by the way. She was the first woman I’ve ever known that drove a Take 10 truck.”

“That’s a coffee catering truck,” says Penny. “This was in 1970. We’d go to the job sites because somebody had to serve them their lunch and coffee.”

One Friday night, Penny received a call from a friend, Patsy, who said she and her husband had someone they wanted her to meet. “I said, ‘Oh, boy,’” she deadpans. “I am not into blind dates.”

When Patsy asked Penny how things were going on the Take 10 truck, Smitty, who was present during the call, perked up. He said, “Take 10? Ask her if she goes to the post office in Essex.”

When Penny said yes, Smitty told his friend to ask her over. “I said all right, because I thought I knew who he was,” Penny says. “I went over there after work and there was this long-haired Hippie with a big smile on his face; a beard; long hair. This was not who I thought it was.”

As they talked that night, though, Penny began to realize that Smitty was different from everybody else she had dated. They were married in 1973.

One day, they were visiting her parents at work. It was winter, and Smitty was unemployed. Ed Stone, an advertising salesman for WVMT, was there.

“We were all talking in the office,” says Penny, “and he realized that Smitty was looking for work. He said, ‘You know, I have a friend in Essex Junction, Al Danis. I heard him saying he was looking to hire someone. You go tell him Ed Stone sent you.’”

Smitty joined Danis at The House of Sewing in March 1976. They bought a home in Georgia, where they raised their two children and lived for the next 30 years. Smitty commuted daily to Essex Junction; Penny did clerical jobs, and sold auto parts for Northwest Auto Parts in Milton after the children were raised.

The Smiths made friends in Georgia as they had everywhere. One of the closest and longstanding friendships from that era is with Jim Bodenstein, the former owner of Buyer’s Digest Publishing in Georgia, and his wife, Kathy. “Jim always was and still is intent on putting people in the position to be successful,” says Smitty. “And that has been a bedrock of what we do here.”

Bodenstein is surprised by that comment, but he has high regard for Smitty as well, and says he and Kathy consider the Smiths their closest friends. “Smitty and I met through a church thing, probably somewhere around 1977,” he says. “We just grew closer and closer. We vacationed together, although haven’t done that for a while. We’re down in Florida and he’s up there working. We see each other in the summertime when we come up to our cottage in Alburgh.

In 2005, Danis decided to retire. He suggested that the Smiths start something up to take its place. “We did,” says Penny, “with about three weeks’ notice that they were closing. Everything fell into place.”

Smitty found space at 6 Maple St., right in the village, and they opened on Dec. 1, the day after The House of Sewing closed.

“To have all the old customers from The House of Sewing was really nice,” Penny says. Also nice was the call from Matt Ryan, whose story, Smitty says, created a “natural launching point.”

The Smiths commuted from Georgia for most of their first year in business, but their family lived in the Burlington area, says Penny, “and the kids were saying, ‘Move into Essex.’” They found a house in Essex and moved in toward the end of 2006.

Smitty and Penny run the shop; there are no other employees. Smitty’s sister, Kaley Wallace, a seamstress, works in an adjacent space. “It’s always the Seamstress at Smitty’s,” says Penny when asked the name of Wallace’s business. “A part of, yet separate.”

Succession is much on the Smiths’ minds these days. They’re toying with the idea of finding someone who’s good at mechanical and technical sales “and great with people,” Smitty says, with an eye toward going forward with the business. Even a couple might be considered.

“We tried to talk our kids into it,” he says, “but they all have their things.” There’s a ray of hope, though. Their daughter, Kaley, a registered nurse, announced that she’s going to come in and take a look inside the machines. “So maybe ...,” Smitty muses.

Penny, in the meantime, has cut back her hours occasionally to follow a new interest: home renovation. “It’s the latest thing my sister, my daughter, and I have started doing. My sister had a rental unit in Williston, a house, and it was trashed the last time somebody lived there. They had to renovate everything!

“We said, ‘We’ve got to do it ourselves.’ Our daughter has great taste for colors, so we started board and batten, wainscoting, painting, and we had so much fun. Now, I’m not a sewer — I don’t know if that word should get out — so for Mother’s Day, I got an air compressor with three nailers, and my younger sister got a miter saw. Now we’re doing things like crown molding and loving it.”

And that vacation Smitty’s chitchat discovered? After vacationing in Florida for years, the Smiths were looking for something different. “This lady, Joyce Ordway, bought a machine from us,” says Penny. “Smitty always chitchats with customers, and happened to say, ‘Where do you vacation?’ She said, ‘We go to Barbados.’

“But she said, ‘It’s not what you think. It’s an old plantation house; quiet; and the people are just so lovely. Why don’t you come with us?’”

Smitty came home that evening and told Penny about the conversation. “I said, ‘Are you nuts?’ I agreed to give it a try, but said no way am I staying with people I don’t even know.’”

The Smiths went to Barbados for a week. The Ordways (Joyce and Chuck) “were like parents,” says Penny. “They met us at the airport; showed us all about the exchanges. And now we’re best friends. So we go to Barbados now.”