R.Lily Stem closing; quilters mob store, say it will be missed

Cherie Ables of Livermore looks through fabric.
Cherie Ables of Livermore looks through fabric. Modesto Bee

A chilly wind and overcast skies didn't stop lines from forming at a modest Roseburg Square store Thursday.

Stretching nearly 20 deep at some points, the line of mostly women patiently waited to go inside R. Lily Stem Quilts and take part in what many called a sad event: The first day of a retirement sale by the store's owner.

"It's not just a sale on fabric," said Lynn Hoyt of Modesto. "It's a quilt store."

Hoyt was one of about 6,000 customers of R. Lily Stem who received letters this week about Marilyn Nelson's impending retirement. The Modesto store is set to close March 6.

Those customers were invited to come Thursday to buy patterns, fabric and other quilting staples before Nelson opened the sale to everyone.

And come they did. Inside, it was hard to tell where the line for cash registers stopped and where dozens of hardcore quilters browsing in the aisles began.

As Nelson rang up an order for one customer, the woman told Nelson how much she'd miss the store.

"I'll miss it too," Nelson told her. "It's been my life."

Nelson, who's retiring to become a nanny for her grandson in Encinitas, said she was surprised by the outpouring of support from customers at her store, which opened in 1986.

"I have lots and lots of mixed feelings," Nelson said. "When you start a business, you don't know how it's going to end, and now I'm surprised and thrilled beyond belief."

She asked a shopper in mock amazement: "What are you all doing here?"

Shoppers waiting outside said it wasn't that R. Lily Stem sold fabric or other items that couldn't be found anywhere else. Many quilters buy their items online these days, they said.

But Arlene Park of Oakdale said Nelson's store trafficked not just in quilting necessities, but advice, help and friendliness.

"I like going to their classes, and I like to meet other quilters," Park said. "I've never met a quilter I didn't like."

Park and others said R. Lily Stem was known for a friendly staff that liked to help both novices and seasoned quilters.

The store also had regular classes taught by "expert" quilters. And it was the southernmost stop on the Quilt Rush, a spring event where quilters went from store to store and collected patterns to put together, with prizes at the end.

Nelson said she saw many quilters grow in ability over the years. And some customers even went from children who came in with their mothers -- and sometimes fathers -- to quilters themselves.

But Nelson's retirement doesn't mean quilt stores are fading away, those waiting in line said.

"There's a major, major group that's into quilting," said Kathy Dickson, 52, of Salida. "It's on the rise again."

Janis Ayers of Modesto said she didn't become a passionate quilter until she retired eight years ago.

When she got Nelson's letter, Ayers said, she felt a mixture of surprise, sadness and understanding.

"I met a lot of friends here," Ayers said. "Now I'll have to go to Oakdale, or maybe Turlock. But they were very helpful here."

Nelson said she prided her store on helping customers. And even as a nanny, she won't stop being a quilter, she added.

"I've got all those unfinished projects to get to now," she said. "To be a nanny is a great reason to retire."

Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at or 578-2331.