To reposition itself in a market now dominated by chain stores such as Jo-Ann Fabrics and Wal-Mart, the owners recently laid off half a dozen employees and began selling inventory at discounted prices.
"We're downsizing," said Ira Blank, a Pikesville resident who runs the business with his younger brother, Philip Blank, and brother-in-law Sam Levy.
"We're eliminating product lines that are not profitable and keeping the ones we know will sell. We're focusing on higher-margin products and more niche products," he said.
The layoffs - the first in the history of the company - were especially difficult, the owners said. In the past, employees had left mainly through resignation or retirement.
"Some employees came as teenagers and stayed with us for years," said Ira Blank's mother, Annette Blank. "It was like a big a family."
Located since 1996 in a family-owned building in the Meadows Industrial Park, Blanks sells fabrics and other items used in making clothing. It also sells material for upholstery and draperies, as well as hardware for decorating windows.
The goal of the clearance sale is to get rid of duplicate items, focus on specialty products (such as motorized drapery systems and mildew-resistant marine fabrics) and reduce floor space by one-third, Ira Blank said.
"There's a duplication of product lines," he said. "Carrying 15 different sacks of pins just takes up space."
So do items in the bridal department, where everything is selling at 40 percent off.
The plan for less storage space prompted the Blanks two years ago to put their building up for sale or lease and begin looking for smaller quarters.
The owners said the business could stay where it is and continue renting out space to tenants such as Allied Building Products and The Sun. Or it could move eventually to a new location.
The family has no immediate plans to move the business, Ira Blank said.
Founders Isaac and Minnie Blank emigrated from Russia to New York City in 1900, and then to Baltimore two years later.
They leased a three-story house on East Pratt Street and converted the first floor into a store that sold underwear, towels, pillow cases, curtains and fabrics.
Since then, two more generations of Blanks have worked in the business, including Isaac's son Albert; Albert's wife, Annette, and their children: Ira, Philip and Diane.
Albert and Annette joked that when they married (soon after Albert's return from military service in World War II ) Isaac didn't give them much time away from the business .
"He gave me a break - three days off," Albert said with a laugh. "I think maybe it was 2 1/2."
The couple's two sons, now in their 50s, say they have also spent their lives in the business, accumulating experience that sets Blanks apart from chain stores and discounters.
They say they have become known for their expertise in measuring hardware for bay windows and windows in buildings with curved walls, including Hampton Plaza on East Joppa Road in Towson.
The store supplied set material for television shows such as the "The Wire," and provided material to cover a building on Eutaw Street during shooting for Barry Levinson's movie "Avalon," Ira Blank said.
The owners aren't the only ones with years of experience in the business.
Joanne Westwood, the store's current sales manager, is the daughter of Virginia Godman, who worked at Blanks for nearly 40 years.
Westwood started working in the business part time at age 17. After taking a break to have three children, she returned.
"I've basically learned a little bit about everything," said Westwood, who will turn 60 in November.
Once dominant in the market, Blanks and other family-owned fabric businesses lost ground since the 1990s to stores that sell clothes off the rack for less money than it costs a person to buy material and make them.
The clothes may be cheaper, but they are also lower in quality, the Blanks said.
"It's like the difference between a Grade A polished apple and an apple you'd feed a horse," Philip Blank said. "You get what you pay for."
The fact that fewer women today know how to sew, and that many of those who do know now work full-time, also has hurt sales, the Blanks said.
E-mail Virginia Terhune at Virginia Terhune@patuxent.com