Freddy Farkel’s Fabrics for the Frantically Frugal. Try to say that tongue twister fast three times. It’s a cute and catchy phrase based on an old comedy skit, devised by proprietor Fred Shapiro as a way to advertise his discount decorating outlet. With Fred as Freddy Farkel, his daughter as Sparkle Farkel and another as Fanny Farkel, the good-humored nicknames helped keep conviviality in the decades-old family business, even through economic ups and downs. Today, the Watertown textile warehouse is also known by the more sophisticated name of Fabric Showcase. But Shapiro still gets phone calls asking to speak with Freddy Farkel, and he gladly assumes his alter ego, fielding questions about fabrics, upholstering and draperies. “Customers ask if there really is a Freddy Farkel, and I say ‘yes.’ ” said Shapiro. “And no one loves fabric more than him.”
Shapiro has been in the industry for 70 years, starting out at a small storefront in Brighton, in his father’s upholstery shop. They cut, pinned, and stitched slipcovers and he grew the business to include designer fabrics and remnants. Shapiro, 85, today buys bolts of fabric directly from mills domestically and overseas — he claims to have one million yards of home decorating cloth in stock. He spoke with the Globe about keeping a brick-and-mortar store afloat when more and more online fabric retailers are emerging.
“My dad came from Europe in the 1920s and worked from dawn to late at night. When I first joined the business, I picked up the phone and a gruff voice was on the other side. Turns out it was Cardinal Cushing, as we were upholstering some pews and doing some draperies for the church. When the Kennedys lived in Brookline, we did some work for them as well — Ethel Kennedy sent us furniture from Virginia. We’ve also done benches and other projects for department stores, restaurants, and commercial installations, as we have 2,000 or 3,000 different types of vinyls and leathers. We have a plant in Holyoke, another in Salem, and a drapery workroom in Stoughton and Watertown. Some of our seamstresses have been with us for 45 years and really know their trade.
“I remember when we used to visit the fabric mills in Maine and Pennsylvania. Then competition from mills in Italy and France started producing competitive goods. The plants in the U.S. shut down and actually threw their looms into the ocean. Now China and Vietnam are paying pennies for wages, but domestic fabric is being revived. The mills come out with new weaves two to three times a year, and there’s no limit to the patterns, colors, and styles. We have a tremendous selection of tapestries, florals, and jacquards as well as chenille, cotton, canvas, wool, suede, microfiber, Sunbrella and silk. Linens come from Belgium, England and Hungry, and we also buy fabrics from Turkey, China, Japan and India.
“In any economy, people are looking for good value, so we do our due diligence. Savings is what customers come to us for. A fabric might retail at $59.95 but we sell from $35 to $40 a yard instead. You can’t discount the touchy-feely factor of shopping, something you can’t get online. And I know one thing: People can feel difference between cheap quality and good fabric. Our stock samples are arranged by color. Browse the red aisle, blue aisle, or other colors, and choose from coordinated bolts of fabrics on racks.
“Some people say I’m a natural salesman. I try to be personable and understanding and give honest advice – that’s what my dad taught me. The last four years in this industry have been tough, but it’s beginning to come back. The truth of the matter is that everything goes in cycles, and fabric that didn’t sell three years ago might be popular today. And as I said, I love answering the phone. I say, `This is Fred,’ and they’ll say, `Freddie Farkel?’ And I say, ‘yes.’”