Patchwork success

Dean and Jan Mast | Photo by Mike Strathdee

Unexpected events take Masts from employees to owners of Pennsylvania quilt shop

Jan and Dean Mast had worked at The Old Country Store in Intercourse, Pennsylvania, for almost three decades when they got the chance to buy the business. But after going through two bankruptcies with the previous owners, they were not interested. Their longtime bosses walked away from the business after the second bankruptcy.

“We answered that we have zero interest, and I remember saying, I don’t even want to work in the town, thank you very much,” Jan Mast recalled. “After 30 years with one company and such a sour note to end on, we were getting out of Dodge and not looking back.” The bankruptcy trustee hired Dean Mast to monitor the building. When a solid offer from a reliable party came through, the trustee awaited a signed sales agreement to close the deal.

Jan Mast had several job offers. But then the prospective buyer for the store backed out. Dean was told to prepare the building for public auction. The Masts realized that they had enjoyed working together. They reversed course and decided to make an offer for the business. Nine years later, they oversee thriving retail and online operations in the small community 10 miles east of Lancaster.

As with most businesses, there have been bumps along the way. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and 2021 brought them surging sales, stress, and surprises. After working hard during the first six years of owning the store, Jan Mast was happy to spend a few days focusing on home sewing projects when the initial mandate for non-essential businesses to shut down came through. Her staycation was cut short by the realization that quilters stuck at home were shopping online for fabric. “It was like the bread and milk of a snowstorm,’’ she said.

The Masts returned to work, watched orders pile up, and knew they had work ahead of them. The next day, double the orders arrived. They recruited a daughter to come in and help but found themselves going in earlier and staying later each day. “When masking became the expectation, the demand for fabric skyrocketed. Customers were buying popular fabric for sewing or hobby and then tacking on… fabric to make masks.” Feeling like gerbils on a treadmill, they asked a second daughter to come home from college and help. “We came home every evening exhausted, and we had to get up and do it again the next day, six days a week, sometimes seven if things were out of control.

“It took a toll on our marriage while we had always loved working together. We had done it our entire married life. Suddenly we were in each other’s business 24 hours a day and all the while under an appreciable amount of stress.” The stress wasn’t just caused by the workload. They worried about the unemployed staff. When could they safely bring them back? Were they collecting unemployment? Would staff want to return? Eventually, the Masts brought a few staff back that they knew needed the income.

Old Country Store History | Photo by Mike Strathdee

The first rehire was a widow who had worked for them full-time and had yet to file for unemployment benefits. Then they called an Amish employee who worked in the online store and was eager to return. That second choice was costly. “Turns out, COVID was rampant in her church, and the first day she got into our car, she got a ride with us to work, she coughed,” Mast said.

The employee claimed her spring allergies were just acting up. But soon, the Masts were experiencing COVID symptoms when “home testing wasn’t (yet) a thing, and we were mostly communicating with others through Zoom. So, we kept on our gerbil treadmill and pushed through as best we could, all the while selling more and more fabric that we couldn’t re-order. Online sales, however, were our saving grace. They kept the business alive. We can realize (that) despite our exhausted state, we have much to be thankful for.”

“We eventually opened the brick-and-mortar store. Thankfully our staff all returned along with our customers.” The Old Country Store employs 18 people, many part-time. Re-opening the store required a series of decisions, like what churches, clubs, restaurants, other businesses, and schools have had to negotiate. Mask-wearing, time off for workers, whether to offer sewing classes and how to make that space feel safe. “It was a challenge.” “Most importantly, we learned to extend grace, grace to those who felt differently about the pandemic than we did. We came out the other side relatively unscathed.”

Mast describes the pandemic as “a banner couple of years for the quilt and fabric industry. We gained customers, we gained sales, we hired additional staff, and, for the most part, had good numbers.” Those numbers include online purchases that account for nearly 40 percent of The Old Country Store’s revenue. Fabric, quilt books and patterns, thread, and “sewing notions” — the small instruments and accessories used to complete sewing projects — are all available.

“Online sales… were our saving grace. They kept the business alive.”

— Jan Mast

Orders placed by one p.m. get shipped the same day. Online store inventory is separate from the inventory of the brick-and-mortar store. The Masts’ online store also offers long-arm (machine) quilting services. “The hand-quilting tradition runs strong in our community, but for many quilters, the prospect of spending weeks or months on hand-quilting isn’t possible (they’re working full-time; they were never taught how; they don’t enjoy that aspect of quilt-making), so machine quilting is becoming more commonplace and accepted,” Jan Mast explained.

The size of the quilt or the limitation of the machine often limits quilting on home sewing machines. The store ships finished quilts across the United States. At the time of this writing, they had a three-to four-week backlog for their longarm quilting service. New ventures include a quilter’s retreat space above a classroom building adjacent to the store.

Dean Mast sees several years of growth ahead, particularly for fabric. There are between 10 and 12 million quilters in the United States. He said that the retail market is expected to grow to nearly $5 billion by 2025 or 2026. To learn more about The Old Country Store’s quilting services, visit:


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