For the last 30 years, Connie Wlaschin has kept the men and women of Naval Air Station Lemoore looking their best.
Her shop, In the Alley, performs custom alterations and tailoring. She specializes in adjusting uniforms to meet military regulations.
“I love working on uniforms because I can help these kids get in shape for their inspections. I’m happy to be able to do that,” Wlaschin said. “I love being able to help civilians and the military,”
At 70 years old, one might expect Wlaschin to be slowing down. She admits that she’s not as fast as she used to be.
“But I still tell the same amount of people that I’ll get the job done in a couple days,” she said. “Soon I’ll have to add some more days to that. Not yet, though. I’m just glad I’m still able to do this.”
In the Alley opened its doors on Feb. 11, 1985. At the time, Wlaschin had just gotten a divorce and went to work at the alterations department of a local dry cleaner. She and her friend, Delores Benitez, didn’t care for the way the shop treated military customers, often sending them away if they had rush orders.
Wlaschin said Benitez would often sneak out of the shop and offer to make the alterations her boss had rejected.
The dry cleaners eventually laid Benitez off. So Wlaschin decided to go into business for herself.
“I went to a real estate place and they had a building on Fox Street they wanted to subdivide,” Wlaschin said. “We ended up with our shop literally located in the alley.”
Where’d she get the money? She took out a cash advance, using a credit card that belonged to her ex-husband.
“I paid it back, of course,” she said with a laugh.
When the shop opened, they already had customers waiting: Sailors who had followed the two women from the dry cleaners.
In their first week, they were contacted by the Marines on base, who wanted their own personal seamstress. The Marines asked Wlaschin if she had a price list.
“I said sure and wrote up something real quick,” Wlaschin said. “They looked at it and told us we got the contract. The next day, we met them on the base. We had to alter uniforms for 13 young men. We were there all day, taking measurements and making adjustments. We had them finished a week later. They were shocked.”
Benitez retired just under two years later. But Wlaschin continued toiling away.
“I absolutely love this job. I just love it,” Wlaschin said. “This job is perfect for me. I love being able to do something different every 20 minutes, every hour. I have uniforms, flight suits, bridesmaid’s outfits, table cloth covers. It’s something different every day, 10 times a day. I also have absolutely wonderful customers.”
She only has one rule: If it isn’t regulation, she won’t do it.
“I once had an airman come back and tell me that a first class told him his patch looked too low. I told him, we don’t go by looks, we go by measurements. He told me I had to change it. I told him I couldn’t do it and he was shocked. I said I’d redo it if his first class could show him where in the regulations it said that the patch was on wrong. I even offered to call and tell him myself. But he never came back.”
Of course, it hasn’t all been easy for Wlaschin. There have been several bumps in the road over the last 30 years.
Once upon a time, the base alterations shop used to encourage customers to seek out In the Alley. Now that’s dried up. Then there was the time a woman, fired from the base alterations shop, went around telling people she worked for Wlaschin while producing sub-par work.
“I still get people who think she worked for me,” Wlaschin said. “She never worked for me. The only person I ever worked with was Delores Benitez.”
The biggest setback, however, was when Wlaschin found herself served with an eviction notice. The property owner wanted to tear the building down and said she had to vacate within 30 days.
Unfortunately, Wlaschin wasn’t too familiar with California law. She should have been given 90 days, plus compensation.
“Normally I check into these things, but we were so busy trying to meet the deadline that I just didn’t get a chance,” she said.
To make matters worse, Wlaschin also lost a key element of her business: The front door.
“One time I caught a Navy guy putting a sticker on the door. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was ‘zapping’ me. It turns out, this is a good thing. When a squadron leaves a sticker on a business, it serves as a stamp of approval. We had 20 years-worth of stickers there, from squadrons both local and out of state, from some that don’t even exist anymore. They were supposed to give me the door, but they removed it and we never saw it again.”
Today, Wlaschin is still struggling with the new location. Though the house at 523 C St. gives her more room to work in, it’s been hard to get the word out to her former customers.
“I’ve had a lot of panicked phone calls since I moved,” Wlaschin said. “One lady called and said she had heard that I retired and moved to Hanford. I told her she would know if I retired if she read my obituary in the paper. I am not retiring, God willing.”
Wlaschin’s son, Dan Wlaschin, helps out around the shop. He says most people think his mom is out of business, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I’ve seen her working until 11 o’clock or one in the morning just to get things done,” he said. “People will drop stuff off, go out to eat, come back and their alterations are all done. She puts in far more hours than are listed there on the door.”
Yet none of these troubles have slowed her down. In fact, Wlaschin is keeping herself busy with the part of the job she’s loved the most these last 30 years: The work.
“I just love this job. I absolutely love it,” Wlaschin said. “I used to tell people I work better under pressure. Now that I’m getting older, maybe I don’t work as well under pressure. But if it’s an emergency, I can get it done in a hurry -- unless there are 20 emergencies ahead of you. Even then, I still try my best.”