My Biz: Former law student thrives as Cedar Rapids tailor

'I learned a lot from Armstrong's'

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Tu-Anh Ngo steps away from her sewing machine when a customer enters her shop on a quiet weekday afternoon. Taking measurements on alterations to two pairs of pants, she tells the man they’ll be ready in a week.

“Could I get it maybe a little earlier?” the customer asks.

“Eleven o’clock Monday, then?” Ngo said.

“That’d be great,” the customer said.

That’s typical of the service at Ngo’s one-woman shop, Anh Tailor. She’ll mark her 26th year in business this fall — “Time just flies, you know.”

“I love it,” said Ngo. “I like to do things like this.”

Then a law student in Saigon, Ngo fled the country when the city fell in April 1975. She settled in Iowa and took a job at Armstrong’s department store in downtown Cedar Rapids, where she learned tailoring.

“I learned a lot from Armstrong’s,” she said. Before, “I knew a little bit about sewing, but just for myself.”

When Armstrong’s closed in 1990, Ngo went to work at the Von Maur store at the Lindale Mall. There was a problem — too many of her customers followed.

“They followed me to Von Maur,” she said. “But it seemed that it’s not right to take time from my work for Von Maur to sew for a customer. Some people told me, ‘Why don’t you open your own shop?’ With my husband’s help, I decided to do it.”

She and her husband, Ro Ngo, located and renovated the home that’s housed the shop since its opening in September 1991. The couple rents the second floor to a residential tenant.

Ro Ngo retired from teaching math at Washington High School in 2001.

“Without my husband’s help, I could not do it,” Ngo said.

Ngo said her customer base has become somewhat younger, thanks in part to e-commerce.

“They order things from online, and it comes but not the right size,” she said. “A lot of times they just return it, but some people decide to alter it and come in here because the second time (the replacement item) doesn’t fit, either.”

Ngo has tried hiring help, but “it didn’t turn out good. I have a very small shop here. This kind of work takes a lot of time. Just myself, I think, works better.”

The September 2008 flood brought “a lot of water, right up to here,” Ngo said, indicating a point about four feet above the floor. “We had a lot of help from the people and the city — some of my customers, they knew me for many years.”

With some city disaster recovery money and help from friends and family, Ngo reopened the shop. Flood recovery was a challenge, but she’s seen worse.

“Since I was a little kid, I saw people get killed, every day,” she recalled.

Ngo’s mother still lives in her hometown, west of former Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City — near Cambodia. She’s visited once, in the early 1990s.

“I came here by myself, with American help,” she said. “I love this country, I honestly tell you. People are so nice, so kind.”

l Know a business in operation for more than a year that would make an ideal “My Biz”? Contact michaelchevy.castranova@thegazette.com.

AT A GLANCE

l Owner: Tu-Anh Ngo

l Business: Anh Tailor Shop

l Address: 626 First Ave. NW, Cedar Rapids

l Phone: (319) 365-2365

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