Paula Powell, who walks with a cane and whose house is full of rooster memorabilia—rooster dish towels, sprooster napkin holders, rooster figurines—is not exactly the confrontational type. She prefers to spend her days at home sewing and fondly scolding the dogs. But in March 2015 she decided to take action in the matter of some missing T-shirts—thousands of missing T-shirts. One could argue the shirts weren’t actually missing, since most were known to be sitting in a locked warehouse in Grapevine. But after appeals to the police, legwork by a private investigator, and an emergency visit from a corporate rescue team, the majority of the shirts still hadn’t been released from captivity. People’s memories were at stake. Paula figured that if someone was going to liberate the shirts, it would have to be her.
The person in possession of the shirts was Beverly Pennington, Paula’s former boss and friend. Working out a deal with her was, for Paula, as fraught as a hostage negotiation. But Bev finally agreed to let Paula come to the warehouse to collect 356 boxes of T-shirts, the remnants of a once-promising business called Tees Into Treasure, as long as she signed a document stipulating that she would assume total responsibility for them.
That morning, Paula and her husband, Jim, a retired window glazer, pulled their minivan and a small SUV up to the Grapevine warehouse. Bev was in the front office and refused to come out. A third would-be rescuer, a former customer of Bev’s who’d volunteered to help Paula, arrived at the warehouse with a U-Haul she’d rented. That customer, who asked not to be named in this story, had been at odds with Bev in the past, and the sight of her set Bev off. As Paula would later recall, Bev texted Paula to say that the woman and her U-Haul were not allowed on the property. Paula and Jim, who couldn’t afford to rent a van, would have to manage the boxes by themselves.
The final months before Tees Into Treasure shut down had been desperate ones. “All this stuff had been moved so many times. There were boxes that were broken open, things that had been stuffed in bags,” Paula said. “It was just pathetic.”
Paula and her husband crammed as many boxes as would fit into the two vehicles, so many that they couldn’t see out the back windows. It took nearly an hour to drive to the storage space Paula had rented near their home, in Mansfield. There they unloaded everything, moving as fast as their exhausted bodies would allow, Jim doing his best to keep Paula from lifting boxes that looked too heavy and Paula doing her best to lift them anyway. Then they went back to Grapevine to repeat the process. On the way, Paula says now, she got a terse text from Bev, telling her that she needed to finish by 3 p.m. The landlord was kicking the business out the next day.
Back at the warehouse, Bev’s deadline looming, Paula and Jim looked at the hundreds of boxes that remained and considered the limited capacity of their two vehicles. Jim turned to Paula. “We’re not going to be able to get all this in there,” he said. Paula looked back at her husband. She can develop a certain steeliness when the situation warrants it. “Yes, we are,” she said. “I’m not leaving anything behind.”
In 2012, when Paula answered a Craigslist ad seeking skilled seamstresses, it was impossible to imagine things would ever get so bad.
Right off the bat, Paula felt an affinity for Bev Pennington, the woman who had placed the ad, a slim and girlish mother of four in her early forties. In addition to raising children and working as a realtor, Bev had spent the past decade sewing, monogramming, embroidering, decorating, and organizing; in person, she looked something like a Pinterest board come to life, cute and color-coordinated and chipper.
Starting in 2011, when her family moved to Texas from Florida, Bev began to parlay her various domestic skills into a persona and business she called Mominizer. As Mominizer, Bev would organize your home office or decorate your kids’ playroom or reupholster your chairs. Part of the genius of Mominizer was that it was more than just a business; it was an extension of Bev’s personality. She was, she wrote on her website, “mom-in-chief of 3 boys, 1 diva, 1 hound, multiple hamsters, fish and frogs and wife to one very patient man”; her passion was “organizing and making beauty. Most often out of chaos.” On the charming, chatty Mominizer blog, she offered organizing advice and images of projects in progress. She also shared stories about the joys and struggles of parenting in a tone of sunny self-deprecation: her four kids were adorably exasperating; her husband was so obsessed with baseball it was practically one of his love languages. When you purchased an afternoon of home-organizing from Mominizer, part of what you were buying was this fantasy of Bev’s crafty, inspirational, enviable life.
Around the same time, Bev started another business, making patchwork quilts out of old T-shirts. Tees Into Treasure suited Bev’s particular skill set—not only her creativity but also her ability to marshal sentiment for money-making purposes. Entrepreneurial-minded crafters like Bev have created a host of Pinterest and Etsy enterprises, small businesses that are often touted as a bright spot in a struggling economy. Online marketplaces make it easier than ever for small-scale crafters to find customers across the country, or across the world. Etsy’s blog features an ongoing installment called “Quit Your Day Job,” about illustrators and ceramicists and jewelers who’ve left the nine-to-five behind and are living the dream as full-time artisans. What you don’t hear about as often are the less-perfect stories, the ones where the demands of reality, with all its mess and clutter, get in the way.
Tees Into Treasure sold on Etsy and Amazon; to drum up more business, Bev also partnered with online coupon sites, like LivingSocial and Groupon, and quickly found herself with more orders than she knew what to do with. It turned out that there were thousands of people out there whose attics and basements and spare rooms were cluttered with boxes of old T-shirts they never planned to wear again but couldn’t bear to throw away.
Soon, Bev had so many quilt orders that she dropped her Mominizer work to focus on Tees Into Treasure full-time. Overwhelmed with demand, Bev put an ad on Craigslist and started hiring quilters. Even this became part of her business’s appealing story, which she recounted in an interview on a local morning TV show: not only was Bev helping people make memories, but she was also providing work for stay-at-home moms and retirees who needed to supplement their Social Security income.
Bev was “as sweet as could be” during their first meeting on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Paula recalled. Bev’s young daughter was there, looking, with her straight hair and cute outfit, like a miniature version of her mother. Bev handed Paula ten sets of shirts and asked her to bring the finished quilts back within a week. “I was back by Monday because it was fun,” Paula said.
By the spring of 2014, Bev had rented the warehouse in Grapevine, and the place was stacked with boxes full of shirts from baseball teams and fire departments and marathons, from Hard Rock Cafes and Springsteen concerts. These boxes contained more than just shirts; people also sent in their babies’ onesies and their teenagers’ gymnastics warm-up suits. One woman asked if it would be possible to cut up her wedding dress and transform it into a quilt. Bev said yes, because her quilters could do anything. Certain quilts served as memorials of sorts, which unsettled some of the seamstresses: “They didn’t want to play with the dead-people clothes,” said Paula. “I considered it to be kind of an honor to put them together. I would put a little embroidered memory patch on there, ‘In Memory of Papa,’ and the date and all that. They’re gone and this is a way to remember them.”
Bev paid around $30 per piece, which a nimble-fingered quilter could complete in two hours. Paula had done her fair share of sewing jobs—including assembling red satin G-strings for topless dancers—and this was her favorite one by far. Not only did it pay better, but it was satisfying to create something that might become a family heirloom. For nearly a year, she had as much work as she wanted. When Julie Bassett, Paula’s niece, got laid off from a job as a collections agent, Paula recruited her as a quilter. The two women would drive an old stock trailer of Bev’s to the warehouse and load it up with boxes of shirts sent in by customers. Paula put Jim to work cutting out squares for her to sew. At her quilting peak, Paula was making $300 a week working from home in her pajamas, doing something she enjoyed. “It just felt like we were one big family,” said Paula. “[Bev] was always so happy to see you.”
“Oh, it was fabulous,” agreed Julie. “I’ve never laughed so much at a job.” In the summer of 2014, Bev started another business: The Art of the Handmade Gift, an embroidery and monogram shop. Dee Dee Stone, Bev’s tax preparer, saw Tees Into Treasure’s robust financials (Bev would eventually claim to have sold close to 11,000 quilts over the course of four years) and loaned her nearly $70,000 to get the new business off the ground. “The profitability at the time the loan was made warranted that decision,” she said, choosing her words carefully.
Bev hired Julie as the production manager for the embroidery business. Between full-time employees at the warehouse and the dozen or so quilters, Bev had close to twenty people working for her. Julie made so many headbands, pillows, and key fobs for sororities that she had the Greek alphabet memorized. On days when Bev brought her children to work, they’d keep themselves entertained as the women listened to the radio and shouted out jokes to one another over the clatter of the machines. The portable cooling units Bev provided seemed better at making noise than actually cooling the warehouse down, but despite the heat, Julie always looked forward to going to work. The women took turns making lunches and opened up to one another about their lives—Bev’s marital difficulties, another woman’s upcoming wedding. “Everybody knew everybody’s thing,” Julie said. “We really all got along.”
As the summer went on, though, Julie noticed Bev crying at work with alarming regularity. She also seemed suddenly desperate for outside money; periodically, according to Julie, there was a mad rush to tidy up the warehouse because an investor was coming through. Julie began to look askance at Bryan, Bev’s husband and a handsome former college baseball player. “He’s very well-spoken, he’s educated, he’s a nice guy,” Julie said. But she and at least two other former employees began to question Bryan’s contributions to the business. “He would drive to Waco and pick up batting for the quilts. He would drop stuff off. But day-to-day getting his hands dirty in the warehouse? Nuh-uh,” Julie said.
“He’d come by the warehouse and talk about how he had a really good workout that day,” Julie said. “And we’re all sweaty and like, ‘Okay, well, we’ve been working out all day too.’ ” As the business began to run into money problems, the marriage seemed to suffer. Employees remember hearing Bryan arguing with Bev behind the closed door of the warehouse office.
The coupon sites, which had netted Tees Into Treasure thousands of customers, were turning out to be a mixed blessing. In order to be competitive on the sites, Bev would offer a deep discount on her quilts; a twelve-by-twelve square quilt would have cost $300 if you purchased it directly from the company; it was only $150 with the coupon. Once she factored in the overhead, materials, and the money for the quilter, these half-off quilts netted the company only about $6 apiece, according to Bev.
The hope was that Tees Into Treasure would make up for the discounts through volume, as well as add-ons like embroidery, but that proved to be a problem too. After a special ran, the company would receive the bulk of the money right away, even though the customers had up to a year to send in their T-shirts. Predictably, the orders would all come in a rush right before a big holiday—and so after weeks of just a few orders a day trickling in, there would suddenly be more than one hundred every day for a week—which translated to hundreds of boxes stacked in the warehouse, all needing to be transformed into quilts over the course of a couple of months. “She’d run a special and get paid for all these quilts up front, and that’s how she’d pay for whatever was in the warehouse to get finished,” Julie said. “The biggest sale she ran she sold something like fifteen hundred quilts. That was quite a bit of money. Then when she ran another special, she barely sold five hundred. That was when you started to see the cash kind of slowing down.”
One day late in the summer of 2014, Bev told Paula and the other quilters that she wasn’t going to be able to pay them. Paula was concerned—she counted on that money to pay her bills—but it wasn’t unusual for payments to be delayed, and Bev had stockpiled enough goodwill that, for a little while, at least, the business kept humming along. Throughout September, the orders kept coming in, the warehouse employees kept sorting boxes of T-shirts, and the quilters kept quilting. Bev believed in her dream so fervently that she convinced everyone else of it too. “Up until the day I left, I thought, ‘We’re going to be able to turn this around—we’ve got orders coming in, we’ve got this investor. I’ll stay late, I’ll work till midnight every night—for one thing, it’ll be cooler when the sun goes down,’ ” Julie said. “I guess I was a little naive.”
Two weeks went by without pay, and then a month. Toward the end of September, Bev, normally so chatty and responsive, stopped answering Paula’s phone calls and texts. Dee Dee hadn’t received her monthly loan repayment in August—nor would she ever get another. But people around Bev seemed slow to catch on to the increasingly dire reality. “Bev is a very charming person,” Julie said. “She’s very personable, people-oriented. That’s why those quilters quilted for her for weeks and weeks without getting paid. Because they all liked her. And she would sound so sincere on the phone: ‘I’m so sorry. We’ve got an investor coming in. It’s just a timing issue. I’ll get you all caught up.’ ”
“I kept thinking that I was going to get my money because I was her favorite,” Paula said. “She told us all that.”
One morning in October, Julie arrived at the warehouse to find Bev more distraught than usual: There was a large sum of money missing from the business account, she said. But, according to Julie, Bev said an investor was willing to rescue Tees Into Treasure from financial ruin on one condition: Bev was going to have to let some people go, including Julie.
Julie still sounds baffled by how abruptly things ended: “She never told me there was a problem; she always said she was pleased with my work. My husband was like, ‘You need to let it go and move on.’ But when I’m sitting there, watching my aunt, who’s still owed thousands of dollars—it infuriates me.”
With no income coming in, some of Bev’s quilters stopped quilting; with fewer employees—and those still around bracing for what seemed like the inevitable collapse—the warehouse became more haphazard and disorganized. Still, Tees Into Treasure kept taking orders, and Bev kept telling anyone who would listen that she was on the verge of turning things around. At the end of October, Bev told a local news website that Tees Into Treasure customers could “definitely expect to find quality manufactured items” and that nothing made her happier than seeing the look of joy on customers’ faces when they saw their completed quilts: “When they truly love what I have done for them, it is the best feeling.”
Our clothing is inextricably tangled up with our memories, our T-shirts especially so. Many of us end up with a drawerful of shirts that are too ratty to wear but that we can’t bring ourselves to get rid of. What made Tees Into Treasure so appealing was the promise that it would transform old clothes into, if not treasure, exactly, then something cozy and comforting, a physical representation of warm memories. The lure of this idea was strong enough for thousands of people to put their favorite shirts in boxes and mail them off to an address in Texas.
In 2013 Natalie Perry, a 39-year-old from Chicago, had Tees Into Treasure transform a dozen souvenir T-shirts from her travels into a quilt. It turned out beautifully. In the spring of 2014, she sent her 5-year-old daughter’s favorite baby clothes—the little Michael Kors sweatshirt dress, the sweater with a big pink heart on the front—to Grapevine.
By December, she was concerned the quilt wouldn’t arrive in time for the holidays, but when she emailed Tees Into Treasure, she received an encouraging reply: great news, her quilt was the very next one on the list! A few more weeks went by, and the quilt didn’t appear. She emailed again and got the same stock response. The next several times she tried to get in touch with the company, she received no reply at all.
When Natalie Googled the company’s name, she stumbled upon a Facebook group of similarly upset customers that was surprising in its breadth—at its peak, the group, called Tees Into Treasure–Rescued Tees, boasted nearly six hundred members—and vehemence. Just as the internet had enabled Bev’s business to grow all too quickly, it amplified the backlash. There are plenty of disgruntled customers to be found online, but members of the T-shirt rescue group channeled their frustration with a particular intensity; when some customers couldn’t get their T-shirts back from Bev, they reacted as though their very memories were being held hostage. “I hope KARMA comes in like an Unexpected Tornado to the Penningtons Life just like they did with All of Our Emotions!!” went a fairly typical post.
By the time Natalie found the group, there were hundreds of posts from dozens of members. Galvanized by the shared feeling of having been cheated, the members quickly developed a remarkable camaraderie. They complained about getting lost in LivingSocial’s customer-service phone trees and about sending repeated, unanswered emails to Tees Into Treasure. They exchanged tips for how to get refunds from the coupon sites and from credit card companies. And, of course, they shared stories about their missing shirts, some of which were connected to family tragedies—mementos of a sibling or spouse who had died. More than anything, though, the Rescued Tees members turned to one another for emotional support. “I can’t thank this group enough. It’s important to know that we’re not alone and that someone is listening to us,” one woman posted. “If it wasn’t for this FB page, I think I’d just start SCREAMING with frustration, so thank you.”
Paula discovered the Facebook group in February, and at first she was stung to read theories that posited that she and the other quilters were all in cahoots with Bev and that Tees Into Treasure was a massive scam cooked up by a group of pseudo-Christian grandmas who were just out to steal strangers’ money and mementos. Paula joined the group and set the record straight: the quilters, she told everyone, were victims too. Word spread among the other quilters, who used the group as a place to vent their frustration at not having been paid by a person many of them had considered a friend. As the customers kept calling everyone from Bev to the Grapevine Police Department, trying to figure out what had happened to their T-shirts, Paula and the other local quilters served as eyes and ears on the ground, providing key intel (was Bev’s car parked outside the warehouse that morning? Then why wasn’t she answering the phone?) to the more far-flung members of the group.
Meanwhile, the T-shirts were stuck in limbo. Some had been made into quilts; some had been cut up but never assembled; some had never been taken out of the box. Bev didn’t have the money to send them back or the stamina to sort through the disorder. At first, Bev had a frostily cordial relationship with the Facebook group. If a member signed a release, Bev would give that person’s box to Paula or another local woman involved in the group, who would arrange its return. Dozens of boxes of T-shirts made it home this way, and the group’s page filled with extravagant gratitude: “Thank yous just seem so inadequate! You will never know how much this means! YAY!! OH HAPPY DAY!!” Group members were realizing that a coordinated effort was the key to getting their complaints taken seriously. Together, they came up with a script to use when calling the coupon sites and submitted dozens of complaints to the Better Business Bureau.
Their agitating began to pay off: “We were getting an acceleration of consumer complaints, and the feedback we were getting from the merchant was that they were entirely overwhelmed,” said Jim Bramson, LivingSocial’s lawyer. “[Bev] couldn’t tell us where the shirts were, whose shirts were where, where they were in the process. It was just a total muddle.” Faced with a potential PR disaster and realizing that merely issuing refunds wouldn’t be enough, LivingSocial did something unprecedented: it sent a team of employees from Washington, D.C., to Grapevine to try to solve the problem in person. They spent three days sorting through the hundreds of remaining boxes in the Tees Into Treasure warehouse, looking for ones that were labeled “LS.” They removed about two hundred boxes from the warehouse, Sharpied “RTS” (“Return to Sender”) on them, and brought them to the Grapevine post office. “This was really an extraordinary situation,” said Bramson. “I can’t think of another situation where we had to do something like this.” (Some of those boxes made it back to their original owners promptly; others took months to arrive, while others were never seen again.)
But there were still hundreds of boxes in the warehouse, belonging to people who had ordered their quilts directly from the company or through another coupon site. It was because of those stranded boxes, Paula said, that she began her strained text-message negotiation with Bev; ultimately, she and her husband managed to retrieve everything from the warehouse. She then divvied up the boxes among half a dozen former quilters who were willing to help. Paula kept her share stacked in what had formerly been her grandkids’ playroom. Every day, she’d pick another few to examine, trying to figure out who had sent them. (In the chaos of the final months, some shirts had been removed from their original packaging and separated from the quilt order forms.) She mailed the quilts that were completed; for the ones that hadn’t been started, she offered to return the shirts or finish the quilts herself. Tracking down customers wasn’t always a simple matter. “Emails were wrong, emails were out-of-date, phone numbers were disconnected. It was a lot of hunt and search to try and find the people,” Paula said. “It was like a job.”
Meanwhile, the Facebook group turned into a kind of online detective club. When a quilter would open a box with incorrect or missing contact information, she’d post a picture of the shirts online, and the group’s intrepid sleuths would start doing searches and making phone calls. One box with a missing invoice and no other identification included a few marching band shirts. A group member traced the shirts to a high school in California and tracked down that school’s band director, who eventually put her in touch with the person who’d placed the order. There were some other minor miracles along the way, like when three boxes somehow showed up at a clothing liquidation center. An employee opened a box and saw a dozen old T-shirts along with instructions for how to turn them into a quilt. “We were all kind of shocked that they ended up here, because they looked like someone’s actual shirts. Then when I went and Googled [the company name on the invoice], I found this whole community,” said Renee Cooper, the company’s marketing manager. With help from the group, Cooper was able to return the boxes to their owners.
The group also kept tabs on Bev. When they discovered that she and another employee, Erin Shedd, had started a new business in Grapevine, a short-lived concern called Preppy Girls Monogram Shop, they tied up its phone line and flooded its Facebook page with one-star reviews.
But despite the best efforts of the Facebook group, dozens of boxes remained unaccounted for: either they’d become lost in the shuffle or stuck in return-to-sender postal purgatory. The most dedicated members of the group refused to give up, going to great lengths to try to track down the still-missing tees. Donna Tilson, a retiree living in Montana, served as one of the group’s admins even after she got her shirts back. She used a family vacation to Atlanta as an excuse to visit the Mail Recovery Center, the postal service’s official “lost and found” department, hoping she’d be able to get access to its warehouse of orphaned mail to search for the missing boxes. (She was told that civilians aren’t allowed to look through the mail; warehouse staffers promised her they’d be on the lookout.)
The Facebook group’s dedication to finding the missing shirts sometimes tested nonmembers’ limits. A Grapevine police detective who’d offered to help with the case, even after the department determined that it was a civil rather than criminal matter, found himself inundated with calls and messages.
One group member called a private investigator who had more experience locating lost relatives than tracking down missing T-shirts. “She was rather emotional about the whole thing. These items had an extreme amount of sentimental value to her,” said the investigator, who asked not to be named. “It kinda connected with me. If my father, who passed—if I sent his watch in to be repaired and then the shop said, ‘We don’t have it anymore,’ that would be a crushing blow. I would’ve been very distraught myself. Maybe she caught me at the right time.” He agreed to help her out for a token fee. After he obtained the box from Bev, he too was besieged with requests from other members of the Facebook group. By the time he checked in at the warehouse again, there were no more boxes left—they’d all been picked up by either LivingSocial or Paula—but some of the group members wouldn’t take no for an answer. “It became a negative issue. What is it they say? ‘No good deed goes unpunished’?”
Among the people who feel burned by Bev Pennington—customers whose T-shirts were lost, the quilters and employees she still owes money to, and the investors—there are some who took it as more than just a business arrangement gone wrong. “I’ll never trust anybody again,” said Erin, who lost the $6,000 she invested in Preppy Girls Monogram Shop, which folded after less than a year. “I will never have another woman friend in my life again.”
That animosity is difficult to square with Bev as she appears in person: open and generous and eager to explain herself. Her garage, where she’d started Tees Into Treasure, still serves as her workspace; it looks less like a picture-perfect showroom and more like a place where things actually get done, with fabric scraps littering the floor and the minor chaos of many projects going at once. Recounting the history of her quilt company makes her tear up, but she’s tired of being misrepresented and misunderstood; throughout our conversation she would periodically lean forward and look right at me, her eyes watering: “Do you know what I’m saying?” Bev’s seven-year-old daughter played an imaginary game that seemed to involve putting things in boxes, wrapping them in excessive amounts of tape, and preparing to mail them, as her mother explained that she was not the villain of the story but rather another victim.
Bev, who was born in Austin and grew up in Lockhart, said her grandmother taught her to sew when she was three. Her father died when she was young, and by the time she was fourteen she was emancipated from her mother and living on her own in an apartment, she told me. While in high school, she said, she worked thirty hours a week and still managed to graduate with honors. In college, she made money by sewing Laura Ashley–style dresses and selling them to classmates for $35.
After college and several years in Houston, Bev moved to Florida, where she and Bryan both worked in real estate outside Fort Lauderdale—until the recession hit, the bottom fell out of the market, and they lost pretty much everything they had. They moved to Grapevine to live rent-free in a house owned by a family member. “Was it a rough time? Yes, because the more money you make, your budget grows,” she said. “We did have to adjust. You go from driving a nice car to a minivan. Not that the minivan was bad.”
Bev said she did her best with Tees Into Treasure and points out that she had thousands of satisfied customers before the business was undermined by a host of haters and enemies. The Facebook group that others see as a source of support she sees as “a hate group.” Customers who helped out even after they got their T-shirts or quilts back, such as the one who rented the U-Haul to help Paula, are not selfless angels but meddling busybodies. “People’s humanity surprised me. You can’t even imagine why a housewife who has her quilts back could be so vicious when you don’t even know her personally. She’s a mom—why would she want to do things that would hurt your kids?”
Members of the Facebook group kept track of Bev, posted her address online, took pictures of her house. When Bev and Bryan bought a new car to replace the minivan, or when they took the kids on a dude-ranch vacation, she was bombarded with criticism, she told me. Oh, so you have money for a new car but not to pay the quilters? “[The quilters] got new cars. In fact, they bought houses and would tell me, ‘We couldn’t have bought this house without the extra income.’ But I drove a minivan so old that the electrical system literally almost killed me. But it was wrong for us to get a new vehicle. There was this huge double standard.”
As the Facebook group became more active, Bev felt her life was under surveillance. “Our neighbors at the warehouse were getting phone calls and threats. People were asking them to report on our whereabouts. You think, who has time for this?” And then worse things started happening, all of which Bev attributes to her Facebook enemies: the family dog was fed rat poison (but survived); her car was egged; her kids’ bikes were stolen.
“Paula, working at home part-time, made nearly seventy thousand dollars the first year she worked for me. These [quilters] who complain that they lost two thousand dollars, I feel bad, I truly do,” she said. “They were given a skill. They all have companies of their own now. They have my old customers. They won.” (Paula laughed when asked to confirm this; she said she made $18,000 in her top-earning year with Tees Into Treasure. “Nowhere in my and Jim’s twenty-five years have we made seventy thousand dollars between the two of us.”)
After Bev finally admitted to herself that Tees Into Treasure was a failure, her life continued to go downhill. She and Bryan split up. Preppy Girls Monogram Shop failed, and her friendship with Erin imploded. Bev deleted her blog and worked dinner shifts at Bayou Jack’s Cajun Grill just to make ends meet. She knew she probably should’ve been asking God to reconcile her with Bryan; instead she prayed that he’d get hit by a bus.
Bev admits that she wasn’t great with numbers and details, and that’s one reason Tees Into Treasure faltered. But as she sees it, there’s plenty of blame to go around. She blames the coupon sites: “Companies like Groupon, LivingSocial—they really chew you up. They eat their young. You have to do the next LivingSocial voucher to be able to survive. It becomes a cycle that they suck you into.” She blames her employees, whom she trusted too much, and the quilters, whom she paid too much. She blames Julie Bassett, whom she calls “evil.” She blames the Facebook group, for stoking bad feelings.
And then there’s the money that allegedly vanished from the company account in the summer of 2014 and set Tees Into Treasure on the road to financial ruin. Bev blames the theft, which she never reported, on an employee she would prefer not to name.
One person Bev doesn’t blame at this point is Bryan. He’d expressed doubts about the company, and she’d resented him for it; now she thinks they all would’ve been better off if she’d listened to him. In July Bev posted an unexpected photo on her Facebook page, of her and her ex-husband, smiling for the camera. After a year apart, they remarried in a small, private ceremony in September, seventeen years to the day after their first wedding.
After going underground during the worst of the drama, Bev has started posting regularly on Facebook, sometimes multiple times per day: a video of a cute puppy, pictures of her kids, funny memes that strike her fancy (“I Think My Soulmate Might Be Carbs”). She’s even thinking about resuming blogging.
But she’s worried about opening herself up again, aware that the enviable life she presented online might have made some people want to take her down. “I do think that, had I not been a public figure, had I not been someone easy to like and easy to hate . . .” she said. “You know what I mean?”
“Businesses fail all the time,” Bev said during our conversation, but I could tell that she didn’t really mean it: this failure was different, and not just because it was hers. She wasn’t the only one who took the whole debacle to heart: Nearly everyone I interviewed for this article cried at some point as they told the story. Some were mourning the loss of beloved mementos or the loss of a friendship; for others, the loss was something bigger and harder to put into words. Tees Into Treasure sold T-shirt quilts, but it also sold a kind of dreamworld, one where memories are treasured, businesses don’t fail, and people are kind and worthy of trust.
At least a dozen Tees Into Treasure customers never recovered their boxes. Barring a miracle, they don’t expect that they ever will. Sometimes Natalie Perry comes across photographs of her daughter in that sweater with the big pink heart on the front, the one she sent off to Tees Into Treasure to be made into a special memento she planned to keep forever, and the anger rises up again. Robin Feinberg, a single mom from South Florida, wept when she told her son that his favorite shirts from all his middle- and high-school teams and events were now gone. “You can’t replace something that has sentimental value,” she said.
Erin, once an employee, then a friend and business partner, is still bitter about how things went down. “Everybody feels sorry for [Bev]. That’s how she makes you feel,” she said.
Julie has flashes of anger but also has developed a certain sympathy for Bev. “I think she was trying to do the best she could for her kids, and it just got away from her,” she said. “I hate that she lost her business. I know it was her dream. I enjoyed working there because I learned a lot. Mainly I learned not to go into business with a friend.”
Paula speaks of her former friend and boss with a mix of gratitude and disappointment. She’s working with many of Bev’s former customers and has built herself a little business making T-shirt quilts on her own; she’s nowhere near as busy as when Tees Into Treasure was booming, but in many ways that’s a good thing. “I’m still alive, still sewing, still got a business,” she said. “I’m not as busy as I was but, you know, still trying. You have to go on.” The activity on the Facebook group has slowed down, though every now and then someone will pop up with a coupon for a half-off quilt and learn the whole sad story. Like her niece, Paula these days mostly just feels sorry for Bev. “She had a beautiful dream, she pursued it, and somewhere along the way it got away from her,” she said. Sometimes she wonders what would happen if she ran into Bev at Walmart, what she would ask her. “She could write me a check,” she joked. “No, I would kind of like to know why. What happened? If she could ever figure out where she went wrong. If she did overextend herself, just admit it: ‘I screwed up, I’m human.’ Everybody’s human, we’re all going to make mistakes. You just don’t have to take so many people down with you.” But Paula doesn’t think that she’s likely to have that satisfaction. If she ever did run into her former friend, the Mominizer, the woman who once turned tees into treasures, she imagines Bev would probably just turn around and walk away.