By Julie Stoiber Inquirer Staff Writer
The plaid silk is a showstopper, bold blocks of fuchsia crisscrossed by bands of black and kelly green.
"This is a drapery fabric," Susan Stapler said. Then she unfurled it and grinned. "But imagine it as an evening gown."
She's got the Stapler eye for color and texture and - above all - possibility, a gift handed down from her grandfather, Charles. He launched the family fabric business from a pushcart on Fourth Street, and over more than a century, it grew into a supplier of fine textiles with an international clientele.
Now, Stapler Dress 'N Drape is closing, its last day timed to coincide with Stapler's 70th birthday in late April.
"My parents worked till they were 90," she said. "I don't want to."
Flashy red-and-white "going out of business" banners appeared in the Walnut Street windows last month, ushering in a parade of bargain-hunters and long-faced longtime customers.
Michael Stapler, Susan's brother, is selling the four-story, 19,000-square-foot headquarters. He declined to discuss a potential buyer.
But, he said, "it should be quite a good use for the building if it works out."
"We're not sad about the business closing," Susan Stapler said. "I feel sorry for the city; they're going to miss the kind of service, the kind of customer relations we provided.
"The important thing is, everyone's important," she said. "I can sell a young person a remnant for $3, and we treat them the same as a person who needs a full set of custom drapes."
That's the legacy of her cigar-chomping father, David, a tough boss in a tartan wool vest who sold fabric by draping himself in it and telling the customer, "This is how it will look."
"It's all in the way you show the fabric, how you talk to people, how you pay attention," Susan Stapler said.
Pop's insistence on follow-through came back to her a couple of weeks ago when she was at a party in New York. There she met a couple from the Hamptons, who complained they couldn't find drapery material.
"I'll send you a sample book," she told them.
She has since filled their order: 65 yards of linen and lining.
David Stapler and his seven siblings grew up working for their parents, Charles and Sarah, who operated South Philadelphia shops known for imported silk and wool and Swiss cotton for christening gowns. In the 1940s, David moved the business to the 1200 block of Walnut Street with his brothers Ed and Izzy.
He sent fabric to Albert Einstein and Mamie Eisenhower and received notes of appreciation in return.
"I am only sorry you did not send the sample before my choice of draperies was made," wrote the first lady.
His original fabric designs, created with students from Drexel University and Moore College of Art and Design, were motifs he imagined or saw. One was based on patterns from vases at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, another on Philadelphia's street grid and landmarks. One fabric commemorated the Declaration of Independence and featured the iconic inkwell and signatures.
Stapler's, where Susan's mother, Reba, also worked, was known as the place where anything was possible.
" 'Whatever you want,' that's what they'd always say," said Msgr. Louis D'Addezio, recalling the days when David and Eddie ran the store.
In 1979, when Pope John Paul II said Mass in Logan Square, the bishops' vestments were made of fabric from Stapler's.
"We needed a specific gold water-taffeta, a specific red velvet, a specific gold braid," said D'Addezio, director of special projects for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
He was at Stapler's last week picking up silk, and lamented the store's passing.
"It's another institution of Philadelphia, gone away."
Stapler's has made drapes and upholstered chairs for City Hall, decked out a bridal party in Hawaii and a castle in Scotland. One Christmas, Susan Stapler sold hundreds of yards of velvet to Bill Cosby for gift-wrapping. She ordered hot-pink felt for a basketball player's pool table.
Over the years, Stapler's drew customers from abroad who were here on business or for medical care or family visits. David Stapler had them sign his guest books, which are lumpy with the coins and keepsakes they gave him and which he taped next to their signatures.
One day a woman from Ireland wandered in while her husband was at a conference. Stapler's ended up making drapes for every room in her house.
On another occasion, Susan Stapler was helping a customer who had just bought a home in West Philadelphia. When it came time to get the address for delivery, the house turned out to be the one at 46th and Pine where Stapler grew up and where she was married (she later divorced).
"Fabulous," Stapler said. "Great stories."
Though she will officially retire, to travel, volunteer, and enjoy the peace of her pale-banana-and-green Center City apartment, Stapler said she would still help treasured customers. She will refer them to Artmark Fabrics Co. Inc., a wholesale operation in Frazer that Michael Stapler cofounded in the 1950s after splitting with his father and uncle.
"They were difficult men to work for," he said.
Even after Michael bought the Walnut Street store for Susan from his father in 1993, David Stapler was a presence there. He couldn't stay away from the place where his father's black-handled shears - the ones Charles used when he opened the first shop in 1897 - are displayed in a frame against a red silk-velvet backdrop.
"This was his life," Susan said.
He died on Thanksgiving Day 1998. At his funeral, he lay in a coffin draped with fabrics of his own design.