An old lady and her old store

  • Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Taylor Griffith/Journal Scene Longtime employees at People, Places & Quilts say the owner, Diane Frankenberger, is the secret to the store’s 25 years in business.

Photos

“Yes, an old store… and an old lady! You should call the article that!” Diane Frankenberger said with a laugh.

Frankenberger is 70 years old and proud, and her store is getting old, too – May 3 her business, People, Places & Quilts, celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Twenty-five may not seem like much in people-years, but Frankenberger can tell you it’s not been easy running a business all that time. She’s dealt with good times and bad, renovations, struggle and expansion as Summerville has grown around her.

When she opened, the previous owner, ninetysomething Elmore Cauthen, gave her some words of wisdom: “I asked him for some advice and he said, ‘Diane, it’s just the first 50 years that are hard.’”

It was her attraction to Elmore and Lila Gray Cauthen and their historic storefront – what was once Cauthen’s Hardware Store, which was built in 1913 – that made Frankenberger want to buy the property.

She renovated the 6,000-square-foot building in the 1980s and built smaller stores within it, similar to a mall, to help pay the bills.

“At first we just had a little space in the front. Then we were the whole downstairs, and eventually we took over the whole building.” She started selling folk art and antique quilts, but after three years of doing business they took on fabric too.

Eventually the store grew to its magnitude today, selling fabric, quilts, sewing machines, supplies, books and hosting classes.

Amazingly, Frankenberger is a self-taught quilter, just like she’s a self-taught businesswoman.

“I have no education,” she admitted.

She learned to quilt the simple way: “You cut some squares, put stuff in the middle, and put something on the back. And that’s how I made my first quilt.”

The store’s name – People, Places & Quilts – originated from a lecture Frankenberger gave at a quilt show years ago.

“Someone asked me what my talk was about and I said ‘Well, it’s about the places I’ve lived and the quilts I’ve made, and the people I’ve met along the way.’”

She wrote a book about quilting titled “People, Places and Quilts” and gave the store the same name.

At one point there were two PPQ stores – the downtown Charleston shop was open for 13 years before closing in 2012.

Her trials as a business owner have not always been easy.

“The town died,” she said of the 1980s when she returned to Summerville from Alexandria, Va. “It was just deader than dead. I’d say 40-60 percent of the storefronts in downtown were vacant because there were two Walmarts on either side of town. But then Rick Sutton and Cada McCoy formed DREAM and brought the town back to life.”

Downtown may be revitalized, but big chain store like Walmart and Jo-Ann Fabrics still pose a problem for the business. “There are definitely places that sell fabric for less, but our best product is not the fabric, it’s going to be our customer service.

“I love to sell stuff but I’m not going to sell it if I don’t believe in it.”

She said her “bizarre” sense of humor also brings a sense of fun to the store no chain could ever have.

To Frankenberger, the hardest part of being a business owner is learning to manage people, but she said it’s also the people – her employees and her customers – that make the business such a success.

And being fearless: “I am a risk taker.”

That’s for sure; before opening PPQ, Frankenberger was a housewife “hosting cocktail parties” and raising her children while her husband worked for the U.S. Navy. She has no formal education beyond high school and no business experience.

But when the Journal Scene asked employees what they think the secret to PPQ’s success is, the answer was immediate.

“Diane. Her artistic ability and her vision are just outstanding. ...It’s the artistic ability that really runs the shop. It’s her vision that keeps it going. That’s the difference between it being the special place it is and just an ordinary store,” said Sue Runnerstrom, a longtime employee. “She’s very humble. … I don’t know if she’s aware how big a part of it she is. All of us come and go, but she’s the one steady factor.”

Frankenberger said she’s “not the type to retire” but hopes to stop working one day and have her daughter, who works at the store, run the business.

But for now Frankenberger is still running the show at People, Places & Quilts – and she couldn’t be happier.

“It’s good, it’s great. It’s just the best.”

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