Over the course of six decades, Midwest Sewing & Vacuum Center has tried a little bit of everything to keep customers coming in the door.
“Back in the day, we used to sell sewing machines and give away a shotgun,” Troy Heinrich recalled this week. “The husband didn’t care. They just want a shotgun.”
Heinrich, who manages the store for his mother, is still trying out different promotions, although they don’t currently involve firearms. This year, he’s taken three busloads of sewing enthusiasts on field trips to a specialty thread store in Hamilton, Mo. Customers have already started calling to sign up for the next one.
Midwest is also giving away numerous $60 shopping sprees, $600 discounts and more to mark its 60th year in business.
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During the actual anniversary week starting May 4, Heinrich said, “We’ll be giving away about eight sewing machines.”
Located on Pattie just off Douglas Avenue in downtown Wichita since it opened, Midwest is today the state’s largest dealer and repairer of sewing machines, Heinrich said. It’s been able to maintain that position despite drastic changes in the market it serves.
When Heinrich’s father, Kenneth, started in the business in the 1950s, he did so as a door-to-door salesman in western Kansas. He’d leave at the beginning of the week and “wouldn’t come home until those things were gone,” his son said, sometimes trading for pigs, turkeys and whatever else cash-strapped farmers had to offer. “Didn’t matter what it was, he’d buy, sell or trade.”
Heinrich eventually began managing Midwest and then bought it from its founder.
At one time, Midwest would sell over a thousand sewing machines from its booth at the Kansas State Fair. They placed thousands of the devices in schools around the state, where students were taught to use them. Today, sewing machines have gone from being a staple in most households to something used mainly by hobbyists and crafters.
“A lot used to be used making clothes,” Heinrich said. “Today, you get a lot more quilters, and the embroidery thing has grown tremendously.”
Midwest has always sold commercial sewing machines, and that part of its business is more important than ever today.
“My father used to say, if you look at everything out in the world, 90 percent of the things you touch started with a sewing machine,” Heinrich said, mentioning items such as clothing and car seats. Boeing used one of Midwest’s machines to sew padding liners for the Space Shuttle, he said.
Troy Heinrich said his father was an innovator in several respects, being the first dealer of Swiss-made Bernina sewing machines in this country, one of the first advertisers on radio station KFDI, and co-inventor of a large quilting machine called the “Ken Quilt,” which was made a few doors down from the store.
Through the years, Midwest has had locations in Hutchinson, Salina and the Towne East and Towne West malls. Today its second store is at Maple and Ridge. From a high of 29 people, Midwest today employs 17 people full and part time.
Ken Heinrich also added other product lines through the years, from stereo components and microwave ovens to ceiling fans. One that stuck was Simplicity Vacuums, which are made in Missouri. Although more costly than some other brands, Troy said the machines fit in with another bit of his father’s business philosophy, which is reproduced on numerous signs around the store: “The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of a cheap price is forgotten.”
In addition to sewing machines and vacuums, the store carries a large number of accessories for each, plus a few odds and ends such as air purifiers.
Ken Heinrich died five years ago. His wife, Dixie, is president of Midwest but is not active in the business day to day. They would probably have a hard time recognizing today’s sewing machines, which do much of the work that used to be done by people, and cost anywhere from $128 up to $15,000.
The more expensive machines often include features that can scan in designs, digitalize them and then direct the machine to carry out the pattern. Today’s high-end machines are so heavy that their cases come with wheels.
Yet another adjustment Midwest has made was becoming active on social media, where many of today’s sewers, quilters and embroiders flock. It’s just another way, Heinrich said, to stay relevant in a business that’s been “very good to my family.”
Now you know
Midwest Sewing & Vacuum Center
Address: 111 Pattie and 7160 Maple
Owner: Dixie Heinrich