Hamilton honors couple as ‘2022 Small Business Person of the Year’

The owners of SANE Sewing and Housewares are set to retire next February.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Having started, sustained and grown their family business over the past 46 years, the now-local business partners Marian and Warren Wohlafka will be taking a step back from their store soon after receiving Hamilton’s Small Business Person of the Year award for 2022.

The married couple started “Sewing Aids and Notions for Everyone,” a small, 43-item catalog in Long Island while they were pregnant with their only child, Karen.

“If we knew where we’d be 46 years later, we would have called it something different,” Warren joked.

Back then, Marian was a home economics teacher who kept running into high costs when supplying her classroom, while Warren was a fabrics buyer.

As Karen tells it, her parents decided to put together a catalog and distribute it to nearby schools with sewing departments to make it easier for home economics teachers to get their supplies.

Today, the company is known as SANE Sewing and Housewares; and what was once contained in their Long Island basement has grown to take up a tucked-away warehouse on the westside outskirts of Hamilton, and Karen is soon being handed the reins.

The business is still mainly focused toward schools, and the couple explains they supply anything that a school might need for a sewing or kitchen classroom.

The front of its most recent (and final) printed catalog has a blurb that reads, “Today’s Classroom Supplies at Affordable Prices for your Family & Consumer Science Department.”

Karen, who will be taking over day-to-day operations when her parents officially retire in February, will be taking over as the company makes a slight shift away from their too-costly catalog and moves toward a fully-digital order system.

The family said going to an all-online product shouldn’t change its business too much. More and more of the orders have come in online, anyway, and their connections with repeated, bulk-ordering schools are the largest chunk of their business.

While the business looks different now, Karen still grew up with SANE and it shaped her childhood in some way. She decided to come back after spending nearly a decade in engineering, and will soon be taking on the full responsibility.

“I remember when I was really young, all of the boxes of thread had handwritten letters on them, so when they were getting orders, they would tell me what to pull,” Karen said. “They left it on a low shelf so I could get it myself.”

When she was 10, she’d roller skate through the aisles of a larger storage unit for efficiency’s sake. When the family would watch TV together at night, Karen recounted, her parents would sit on the floor of the living room, cutting fabric and organizing orders.

The family moved to Hamilton in 1999. They had spent six or seven of the years prior considering eastern states, but set their sites further west as time went on. They wanted a smaller town, somewhere to buy some land. They wanted it close to a large city, but wanted it less crowded and with less traffic.

“We found Cincinnati as the major town, and we found Hamilton outside of it,” Marian said. “And, we fell in love with it.”

Marian said friends and family in Long Island had a hard time understanding why the family would relocate to Ohio, of all places. Often, they were asked, “Why Ohio?”

“Hamilton afforded us the ability to buy six acres not too far away from town, so we were happy there,” Warren said. “We realized we could go to a lot of major cities within two hours driving, where on Long Island you’re lucky if you get off the island in two hours.”

As a catalog-based distributor and not a brick-and-mortar retailer, the family was able to bring SANE to a new state without a major impact on business.

“We had the advantage that we could take the business with us,” Warren said. “We could take it anywhere we went.”

After moving to Hamilton, Warren and Marian continued to operate SANE purely as a distribution center. But, gradually, more residents began meandering their way to the warehouse.

“We had enough people starting to come in, asking questions and looking for things and we didn’t know we needed it until they told us,” Warren said. “And, that’s how the retail portion grew.”

In 2002, SANE became a permanent retail fixture. Often, listening to customers who came in was how Warren and Marian learned to expand their inventory.

“We tend to find what people want, even if we don’t carry it,” Marian said. “If we could find it, we will buy it for them, whether we carry it for the schools or not. And if they want it, maybe somebody else will want it.”

Warren explained that even though foot traffic has increased as time has worn on, most of the company’s business still comes through schools. So much so, in fact, that about 75% of the yearly revenue comes in June, July and August.

Often, schools will only make one purchase a year, and those orders naturally fly in when schools prepare for their next academic year. This makes summer months a form of slightly controlled chaos, as Marian and Karen explain it.

“[When] they send all their purchase orders in for the new year, we gotta get them the goods,” Warren said.

Warren said the majority of customers come from major metropolitan areas on the east coast, along with consistent buyers in Ohio, North Carolina and Illinois.

“The rest is increasing little by little as people find us,” he said. Locally, more folks have come by the longer SANE has been around.

“We don’t advertise a ton,” Karen said. “The amount of word of mouth that gets people here…”

“It’s unbelievable,” Marian interjected.

“We get to know our regulars by name,” Karen added. “It’s become a community, a hidden gem for a lot of the community.”

Their general dependence on schools has made way for a very consistent business model over the past four decades. Marian and Warren said they’ve only really been scared about what’s going to happen on two occasions.

“COVID scared us, period… the schools were out and we had no clue what was going to happen,” Marian said. “They weren’t teaching our department.”

While their business made it through the economic impact of COVID, it’s still echoing in the supply chain.

“Last year was really bad as far as the supply chain,” Karen said. “This year, it’s better, but there’s still things that we just can’t get.”

But, while customers last year were sometimes completely out of luck, this year, there are usually other options that SANE can offer.

“And we’ll absorb the price difference on some of it,” Marian said. “If we substitute, we always substitute better rather than lower because they’re customers and we want to keep them.”

Another time, in the early 2000s, prices had changed so rapidly that the printed prices of their items really only brought an extremely small, if any, profit margin. Receiving orders in bulk, in such quick succession, meant their only real option was just to brace themselves.

“Maybe we’ll make it, maybe we won’t,” Warren recalled thinking at the time. “That was it, the rest was pretty good.”

As the years have gone on, the two have gradually phased themselves out of the company. Warren is still there often, but not as often as he was. Marian usually just works summers, and was even able to take some time off the past two summers. Warren has spent that extra time in the store preparing Karen to fully take over.

“We’re getting tired. We will be 75, both of us, in February next year,” Marian said. “Enough is enough.”

Warren, personally, is counting down the days.

“You can only have so much fun,” Warren said.

The couple said winning the award was a perfect send-off for them as they prepare to enter real retirement.

Marian said she thought it was amazing that Hamilton even had the award, and added that she “never, never expected anything like this.”

“We are very unassuming people,” Marian said. “We don’t advertise a lot, we don’t push a lot.”

But, Warren and Marian’s business contribution in Hamilton isn’t just limited to SANE. They were also instrumental in helping Karen’s friend Lynelle open TerraLuna, a Pilates and massage studio.

“It’s really scary starting a business, and she was scared to start a business, so we walked her through it and explained to her what she needed to do, and any time she needed advice, we gave it to her,” Warren said.

Marian said contributing to the success of another business in Hamilton feels like a way of helping the city grow in its own right.

“Hamilton is growing so much and so well,” Marian said. “I loved this city when we moved here 23 years ago, but it’s just doing incredibly well now, and to have one of our babies open another store, it’s like, ‘Wow, look what we did!’”

For Warren, ending his career with this recognition makes him feel recognized in a way that he had never expected.

“After 46 years, it’s a pat on the back, I guess is basically what it feels like,” Warren said. “You did all this stuff and somebody actually appreciated it. It makes you feel really good.”

“I’m just thanking Hamilton for being a wonderful town. They’ve been a wonderful town for us,” Marian said. “We try very hard to give back to Hamilton in the best way that we can.”

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