Family History

This past weekend I went camping with Dan and Marty for father’s day. We got to talking around the fire one night and they told me some incredible stories about the early days of The Sewing Machine Shop.
The Schoenberg family’s connection to sewing machines goes back a long time, well before the birth of The Sewing Machine Shop. Up until the Nazi invasion during World War II, Dan and Marty’s great-grandparents owned and operated a well known store on Grodzka Street in Krakow. The shop sold fabric for suits, and the business shipped these fine fabrics all over the world. Stypik Schoenberg, Dan and Marty’s grandfather, worked for the family business until an arranged marriage had him move across the Pacific Ocean to Argentina, where he ran a factory owned by his new father-in-law.
Stypik had three children. The eldest was Ramon, who grew up and was educated in Switzerland as a mechanical design engineer. Amazingly he spoke 5 languages: English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Italian. After his education, Ramon returned to Argentina and took over the factory, which built sewing machine components for Husqvarna AB of Sweden, one of the largest sewing machine manufacturers in the world. He had 5 children, Marty being the oldest son and Dan the youngest. Due to political instability in Argentina, the family was forced to move, ultimately relocating to Richmond, California in 1965. Marty was 7 years old and Dan was 2.
Ramon was hired as engineer for pump company in Berkeley. His wife, Doreen, worked as a school teacher. To make extra money on the side, Ramon worked two days a week fixing sewing machines. Many times he would take Marty along with him. Marty told me he remembers that Ramon would put an old junker machine in front of him and hand him a set of screwdrivers. “Take apart everything you can,” Ramon would say. Marty did as was told, disassembling machines into hundreds of little parts, and so began the foundation of a skill set that would serve Marty well for the next 50 years.
After high school, Marty began fixing sewing machines for the Berkeley Sewing Machine Company. Several years later he invested in a van and some tools and started a one-man business that did travelling sewing machine repair, called “Sewing Machine Engineering.” Meanwhile, Dan had recently earned his degree in Aeronautical Engineering and was selling Kawasaki motorcycles in Richmond. Marty saw how his youngest brother was a natural salesman, so he recruited Dan to join Sewing Machine Engineering. They rented a storefront in El Sobrante and changed the name of the company to The Sewing Machine Shop. The rest is history: Marty fixed the machines and Dan sold them.
Sitting around the campfire, there were a couple stories that really made me laugh. In particular, there were a couple stories about one of their earliest customers. I’ll call him Freddie.
As I mentioned before, Marty had a van he used for travelling sewing machine repair, and it was full of tools. It had the usual type of tools– screwdrivers, wrenches, nuts, hammer, etc. But it also had tools that are specific to sewing machines– unique, specialized gauges used to measure critical settings on specific models of machines. Anyway, one day Marty’s van was stolen. The police found it a couple days later in the parking lot of a church in El Cerito. The van still worked, but all of his tools were gone. Later that week, Marty got a phone call from this guy Freddie. Freddie did upholstery for a living, and Marty had fixed his industrial machine on multiple occasions in his travelling van. “Hey Marty, I have some tools I am looking to sell. Are you interested in buying them from me?”
So Marty meets up with Freddie and Freddie shows him the tools for sale. Guess what? All of the tools stolen from Marty’s van are right in front of him, as clear as day, including all of the unique sewing machine tools that the average person just doesn’t stumble upon. “What do you say, Marty? Do you want to buy them from me?” Marty could hardly believe the audacity of this guy. Did he think Marty was that stupid? “Okay Freddie, this is what we’re gonna do,” Marty says. “You’re going to hand me over those tools, and in exchange I won’t call the police. Okay?” Freddie agreed to the terms of the deal, and Marty got his tools back.
But that wasn’t the last time they heard from Freddie. A couple years later he came into the store to buy a new Consew industrial straight stitch machine. At that time Dan and Marty would do individual payment plans, so Freddie paid his first installment and took the machine home. Not surprisingly, Freddie never followed up to pay the second installment. Or the third. Or the fourth. Dan and Marty had been stiffed for a significant amount of money. That kind of thing stings no matter what, but especially back then when the business was just getting off the ground. However, redemption was just around the corner. A year or so later, Freddie came back into the shop with his machine to get it repaired. He had completely forgot that he had stiffed Dan and Marty out of all that money, and they didn’t remind him. Freddie happily handed over his machine to get repaired, and they didn’t give it back to him until the machine was paid in full.
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