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Time Machine: West Side Sewing

Four generations endure, expand and come back after '08 flood

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Verna and Walter Davidson opened the Sewing Machine Exchange at 325 First St. SW in 1920. They offered new and used sewing machines, took trade-ins, rented machines and offered to do hem stitching and picot edging for clients.

The Exchange lasted a little more than a year, closing when the Davidsons divorced and went their separate ways.

Six years later, Jesse and Gertrude Schermerhorn Axline bought the store and reopened it as the West Side Sewing Machine Shop. They added sewing machine and vacuum cleaner repair to their sales business.

The store included living quarters for Jesse, a native of Quasqueton, and Gertrude, from Hazleton, and their young sons, 11- and 10-year-old Francis and Raymond.

By 1929, the Axlines had moved the shop to 125 Third Ave. SW and added washing machines and Victrolas to the business. They dropped the Victrolas after about a year.

In 1939, the shop was featured in the Margo Shopper Christmas series, a Gazette series that promoted area businesses.

In the article, Margo said people could find a sewing cabinet at the West Side Sewing Machine company because it had “some of the duckiest ones, which fold up into a small-sized living room table, and inside are complete, with bright colored thread, scissors, needles, in fact, all the essentials for sewing, and what’s more, plenty of space for the mending that usually gets left around!”

SECOND GENERATION

When Jesse retired from the shop in 1950, he sold the business to his son and daughter-in-law, Francis and Helen Axline. He and Gertrude were vacationing in Minnesota when she died in 1956. Jesse died in 1974.

In 1969, the shop moved back to First Street, this time to 418 First St. SW. In addition to selling and servicing Eureka and Hoover vacuums and Necchi, Elna, White and Viking sewing machines, Francis added a fashion knit fabric department and professional seamstresses to help customers match fabrics with patterns and provide sewing instruction.

One of the professionals hired was Marie Johnson. Marie’s husband, Chuck, had grown up with Francis Axline. She told Gazette reporter Suzanne Barnes that Chuck and Francis had to clean sewing machine cabinets for Francis’ father, J.C., before they could go out to play. Marie had a long career with West Side Sewing teaching a skill that she loved.

Francis and Helen owned and operated West Side for 25 years before retiring in 1973.

THIRD GENERATION

A third generation of Axlines took over the shop in 1973. Francis’ son, David, and his wife, Penny, led a crew of expert repairmen, hired five professional seamstresses and offered a wide selection of sewing machine brands. By 1976, West Side was the authorized dealer for Necchi, Riccar, Nelco and Dial & Sew machines.

David was elected to the board of directors of the Independent Sewing Machine Dealers of America in 1977 at the organization’s annual convention in Kansas City.

Penny added high quality fabrics to the store’s inventory in 1981, and the little shop stayed competitive against the big chain stores. Customers came from St. Louis and Kansas City to buy West Side’s unique fabrics, according to Dave.

West Side’s love of community came out in many ways. One of those was an assembly line for volunteers to sew comfort pillows for hospice and mastectomy patients in 1999. The volunteers also made comfort caps for women and children who lost hair during chemotherapy.

By the turn of the millennia, West Side was selling top-of-the-line Husqvarna machines that cost $6,000. Its continued expansion and its stellar reputation in Cedar Rapids resulted in a No. 39 ranking among 1,200 Husqvarna dealerships in North America.

Computerized sewing machines that can do intricate embroidery were added to the store. In 2003, more than half of the business was focused on home decorating, embroidery and quilting and the classes to teach with those skills.

THE FLOOD

Catastrophe hit the business in 2008 when the historic flood decimated huge sections of Cedar Rapids. West Side, which had never been flooded, was a mere block away from the rising river.

Dave took precautions by raising his merchandise 3 feet above the floor, but a few days before the river crested on June 13, he knew it wouldn’t be enough. A truck was brought in and filled with as much merchandise as it would hold.

The store, an Oreck Vacuum center and two storage buildings were swamped by 10 feet of water. Dave estimated the loss of merchandise and fixtures at more than $200,000. Restoring the buildings would have cost another $400,000, he thought. (FEMA estimites would later round up that total to $1 million.) Even if he did restore the location, he wasn’t sure he wanted to face the chance of another flood.

Dave and his 10 employees moved the business to a temporary storefront at Westdale Mall, then returned to the flooded site to gut and clear the buildings. The business received helping hands from the Chamber of Commerce, a Small Business Administration loan, reduced rent from Westdale Mall and assistance from its suppliers.

Still, the business was cramped. The First Street store had operated out of 7,000 square feet; the mall store had 2,700 square feet.

The city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency bought out the First Street site in 2011. The Axlines used the money to buy the former Famous Footwear store at 4100 First Ave. NE. Loyal customers who’d followed the store from First Street to

FOURTH GENERATION

Westdale moved with the business, now managed by Shelley Axline Cervantes, the fourth generation.

Westdale Mall didn’t survive, closing — with the exception of two anchor stores — in 2014.

But West Side Sewing is now in its 90th year of business, operating out of its spacious building on First Avenue East.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; diane.langton@thegazette.com

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