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Fabric maven Claire Grunstein, age 90, still brimming with creative ideas

At age 90, Claire Grunstein of Fabrics That Go, is full of design ideas, still drives and works 30 hours a week at her store in Tucson. She is happy to tell the story of how a family-run business stays successful for decades and how a married couple stayed together working side-by-side for 62 years.

In 1978, Grunstein and her husband, Herman, who died in 2016 at the age of 93, arrived in Tucson thinking they were going to retire from the family’s fabric business. After one month Herman asked, “How much tennis can I play?” By mutual agreement they decided they would rather be working.

Some of the Western designs available at Fabrics That Go (Korene Charnofsky Cohen)

Starting out with a small fabric store in 1978, they eventually opened Fabrics That Go on Campbell Avenue. Grunstein says the 13,000 square-foot store has about 10,000 bolts of fabrics from around the world. The store also attracts customers from around the world, many who come to Tucson for major events such as the annual Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase. 

The family’s fabric business originated in 1945 in New Jersey, right before the end of World War II. After returning home from serving in the Air Force, Herman began working in the business in Paterson, at the time considered the silk capital of the world. His father had asked him to help out for a couple of days, but it turned into a 71-year career. The family also opened two more stores in New Jersey, in Bloomingdale and Pompton Lakes.

“The stores were very homey,” says Grunstein. “Once in a while someone comes into the store in Tucson and we find out they had been customers at one of the stores in New Jersey.”

Working and achieving goals has always been important to Grunstein, whose parents were immigrants — her father from Poland and her mother from Russia. “My parents were very religious Jews and their work ethic is what inspired me to be a hard worker,” she says. Her father was a house painter and also painted showrooms for various businesses. Her mother worked in the garment industry, doing jobs such as setting sleeves.

“My parents worked all day and then went to night school to get an education,” says Grunstein.

Born on July 12, 1927 in Queens, New York, Grunstein was the youngest of four children. “We were poor, but people thought we were rich because my parents were the first among our family and friends to buy a house,” she says. “Being poor taught me to appreciate everything. As a child my only toys were a rag doll made by my mother and the doll’s cradle made by my father.

“I got out of high school at age 16 and my father told me that girls don’t go to college,” she says. “So I started out working secretarial jobs and then got a job as a buyer for a millinery company that had an office in New York and sold to stores all across the country.”

Working in an office across the street from the New York Public Library gave Grunstein the opportunity to keep learning from books, and she says she acquired good taste in clothing because Lord & Taylor was also across the street.  She met Herman at a dance held at one of the big hotels in New York. They dated for two years and married in 1954. They raised two sons, Robert and Gary.

After getting married Grunstein quit her job in New York and worked full time for the Grunstein family business. She and Herman worked seven days a week in the store and also at home. “We ate, slept and talked the store,” says Grunstein. “We built something together and were very proud of every achievement.”

At home, Robert, Gary and Claire’s parents all helped with some of the work. Fabric did not come on bolts in those days and the family would fold fabric onto boards to place in the stores. “My brother and I used to take discontinued patterns out of their envelopes while we watched television,” says Robert, who now manages the day-to-day operations of the Tucson store. “The pattern companies wanted retailers to return the envelopes so the patterns could not continue to be sold.”

“Greeting people when they come in and making them feel at home,” says Grunstein, is one of the keys to a successful business. She also attributes Fabrics That Go’s success to having an outstanding selection of fabrics and other items, keeping up to date with popular designs and doing quality work. The company also reupholsters furniture and makes bedspreads and draperies for homes, hotels and restaurants.

“People can trust us because we have been here so long and we really want our customers to be satisfied,” Robert adds. “Many customers often return with additional projects, and people hear about us through word of mouth.”

Fabrics That Go has fabrics for furniture, clothing and craft projects. They have one of the largest selections of Southwestern designs, including hard-to-find vintage fabric with Western themes. The store has an extensive collection of antique buttons, plus jewelry and clothing, including a reversible jacket Claire designed. She has also designed a fabric named “Wild,” which she says is very popular. They also have made drapery to cover the ark for a Torah and customized tallit (prayer shawls).

“Our business and our marriage were both successful,” says Grunstein.

“Herman was one of a kind, and people remember him for his sense of humor — it was the best thing about him — he entertained everyone with humorous stories and jokes. It was fun just being around him. If I got angry about something, it wasn’t long before he had me laughing instead. He was so caring and he made people so happy. He came up with a motto for the business — happiness by the yard.”

“I believe I am much more creative now than when I was younger,” says Grunstein. “I have four inventions in mind, but need someone to help me with them, want to create more fabric designs and I also would like to team up with a furniture company and design furniture that would make life easier for the elderly.”

Grunstein hasn’t let technology pass her by and she is proud to say that she has a PC, an iPad and an iPhone. And although she really loves to work, on Friday, Sept. 15, she reminds everyone who works in the store that she needs to leave by 2:30 to get home to Atria Campana del Rio so she won’t miss the Shabbat service conducted by Chabad Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin.

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.