Mail-order Clothing Business Part Of Town's Fabric


March 04, 1991|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

BURKITTSVILLE -- Back in 1979, five Californians came to Burkittsville, a small rural town in western Frederick County.

One Californian coming to Burkittsville might have been just a new resident in town. Two Californians might have raised concern about outsiders coming in. But five Californians -- that was a full-fledged hippie commune in this quiet community of about 200 people.

Martin Paule and his fellow Californians, though, did not come with flowers in their hair. They came with an idea to start a home-based business making all natural-fiber, free-flowing clothes -- clothes with a conscience.

That idea has flourished into Deva, a million-dollar mail-order industry that is now a fixture of the 19th century town, located in an old, renovated home and two workshops on Main Street.

"When we first arrived here, there were all kinds of rumors around town about us," Mr. Paule said. "People saw our original logo [a circle with two intertwined triangles] and thought we were a group of Satan worshipers. We heard we were supposedly playing midnight volleyball games in the nude."

But when residents saw the hard-working efforts of the Deva (pronounced day-va) owners, they came to accept them.

"These people have seen that we're just working our butts off like anyone else," Mr. Paule said. "There's a mutual respect that has grown over the years between us and the townspeople."

Mr. Paule, 44, came east 13 years ago with his 13-year-old son, his two partners, John and Nancy Coker, and their 3-year-old daughter. They had built successful fast-track lives for themselves in Los Angeles but sought a more fulfilling lifestyle.

Mr. Coker's parents lived in Frederick and had invited him to come back east and work in the family business. They came east, not to work in the business but to start their own -- a specialty bookstore that today would be considered a New Age bookstore.

But when they decided that the area could not support such a venture, they searched for another way to express their values and make a living. They happened to meet two yoga teachers in California who were making loose-fitting clothes for their students, garments suitable for yoga exercises.

The Cokers and Mr. Paule bought the business from the yoga teachers and startedmarketing the clothes through a mail order business which had sales last year of about $1.4 million, Mr. Paule said.

The Cokers left the business several years ago and moved back to California to embark on their original mission -- the bookstore. Deva is now run by Mr. Paule and his wife, Rose Marie Gerstner, who does most of the clothing designs.

"It started out as a part-time occupation and now represents a full-time livelihood for a lot of people," Mr. Paule said. The company employs 14 full-time workers on the premises and another 20 home-based stitchers. Most of those workers are from Burkittsville or close by, as Deva has been a mini-boon for the small town.

Nancy M. Hauker, known as "Sam" among her fellow workers, is one of the townspeople who has been a longtime Deva employee.

"This is a great place to work," she said. "It's a lot of fun, but it can be crazy, because you can be doing anything from shoveling snow to modeling clothes. It's a comfortable place."

Mrs. Gerstner said, "by and large, the town works here, and we all feel real comfortable with each other. The town has been very accepting of us."

When Deva wanted to expand several years ago, it ran into zoning roadblocks and talked about leaving Burkittsville. The town's Ruritan Club came forward and offered to rent the basement of the old elementary school that it owned in town. The basement now serves as the cutting room for the garments Devaworkers create.

Betty L. Brown, the town's postmaster for more than 20 years, sees a lot of Deva's business passing through her post office. And she is glad to see it.

"They have been an asset to the town, a very important part of it," she said. "They are very low profile, very nice people."

The owners all used to live in the Main Street house that serves as their headquarters. "But the lines started to get long at the bathroom," said Mr. Paule, as the families grewalong with the business.

Mr. Paule now lives with his wife and two children in a home a few miles outside town. He has two older sons who live in California.

L Mr. Paule said the company is not looking to grow much more.

"I feel there are real finite limits on how much you can grow with a cottage industry and keep the values that we have," he said. One of those values, he said, is that "Small is beautiful."

With a customer list of 80,000, Deva must work hard to preserve a close relationship. When workers fill orders, they often write personal notes on the invoices, particularly if they know the item is a birthday present or for some other such activity.

"We still have a one-to-one relationship with some of our customers," Mr. Paule said. "We have extremely loyal customers, almost evangelistic."

Another way to keep the intimacy intact is that every piece of garment has the name of the stitcher sewn on a tag inside. Any praise or complaints by a customer goes right to the stitcher.

"It shows that the stitcher is proud of his or her work and stands by it," Mr. Paule said.

The philosophy of the product -- free flowing -- carries over to the atmosphere of the workplace.

"We basically try not to have too many rules and regulations, but we have a few just to make sure the trains run on time," Mr. Paule said.

And they do play volleyball, although not the way the townspeople first thought when Deva was a curiosity and not part of the town's fabric.

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