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This 90-year-old Tucson business owner still works 30 hours a week

This 90-year-old Tucson business owner still works 30 hours a week

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Claire Grunstein’s approach to business may be atypical, but her philosophy has kept her family’s business afloat and thriving for 72 years.

“My husband would never look at the money in the registers at the end of the night,” Grunstein said. “He would count the hugs and kisses he got that day. If he got a lot of hugs and kisses, it was a great day.”

At age 90, Grunstein still works more than 30 hours each week at her longtime family business, Fabrics That Go, a fabric store spanning more than 13,000 square feet at 3105 N. Campbell Ave.

“We have a history in our family of trying to help people,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about, pass it on.”

Grunstein’s long-lasting work ethic is fueled by her early childhood, when the Great Depression was in full swing.

“Being poor was wonderful; it taught me a lot,” she said.

Fabrics That Go’s original store, under a different name, opened its doors in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1945, just before World War II ended. Herman Grunstein, Claire’s late husband, returned home from the Air Force and helped his father get their family business off the ground.

“Herman came home safely and his father asked him to stay and help him for a couple days,” Grunstein said. “That couple of days turned out to be over 70 years.”

Twelve years after the business started, Claire and Herman married and she soon jumped on board with the family business. The couple worked side-by-side for about 60 years.

In 1978, the Grunsteins traveled west to spend time with relatives.

“We landed at night and I said, ‘Look how beautiful it is. Nothing sparkles like Tucson,’” said Grunstein. “My nephew put us up at the Skyline Country Club and I woke up in the morning and said, ‘What is this paradise?’ It was so beautiful, like nothing I had ever seen.”

The Grunsteins completed their move west intending to retire, but they quickly realized they had a passion for business they could not ignore. Since then, they’ve had three different Tucson store locations on Campbell Avenue.

Their existing store has been on Campbell, near East Fort Lowell Road, for the last two decades, according to Grunstein.

While Grunstein’s son, Robert, handles day-to-day operations, Grunstein still plays a large role in buying and selling products at the store.

“It’s not work to me, it’s fun,” she said.

“OLD-SCHOOL IDEALS”

Jean Closs-Ames has worked for Grunstein for about four years as a manager at Fabrics That Go. “Claire keeps it lively,” she said. “She’s tough, she’s a perfectionist and she has old-school ideals.”

Grunstein says forming strong connections to the community and with customers is key to having a good business. She also notes the importance of catering to the local audience.

“If you take the time to look around, you’ll see there’s no comparing,” she said. “We do all the buying, we look at everything before it’s bought. We have salesmen coming to us with the best buys because they’ve known us forever. I think we have excellent taste. It’s not cookie-cutter.”

For Grunstein, receiving new shipments of product still “feels like Christmas every time.”

“If you can’t find it here, it doesn’t exist,” said longtime customer Darlene Gies. Gies says she has been coming to the store for all of her family’s refurbishing and fabric needs for decades.

Tucson’s gem and mineral shows bring an influx of visitors to Fabrics That Go from all over the globe every year, Grunstein said.

“Herman and I didn’t travel very much because we worked around the clock,” she said. “People came from countries I didn’t even know the names of. When I get them, I always talk to them. We talk fabric, but we also talk about where they came from and I learn about where they live. I travel vicariously and I learn a lot from all of them.”

Grunstein says a large portion of out-of-town visitors come from Germany, many of whom love Western aesthetics.

The best-selling fabric at the store, which Grunstein says she designed, is named after her.

“I asked the fabric manufacturer, I said, ‘You named it Claire?’ He said, ‘No, I named it wild.’”

Grunstein celebrated her 90th birthday on July 12 with customers she considers friends, at three different parties.

“I never had a party in my life. People didn’t do that in those days,” Grunstein said.

“I’ve made hundreds of parties, but all of a sudden, I had a party. Not only one, but I had three. That makes up for everything! I felt like queen for the day.”

Outside of work, Grunstein finds other ways to keep busy and remain social. You can often find her at the poker tables at Casino del Sol on the weekends.

“I have lots of friends there; we have such a good time,” Grunstein said. “When I’m at a table and some of the men that know me see me, they say ‘I don’t want to play with Claire.’ They have a name for me — Killer Claire — but the dealer calls me St. Claire. You know which one I like better.”

Clarisse Markarian is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at starapprentice@tucson.com.

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