Hostage fabric: Owner given the slip

When Ann Clark decided to have slipcovers made for her new leather couch, she headed up 29 North to Fabrics Unlimited and began looking for material. She also asked the staff whom they'd recommend to make the covers, and was given two names. One was someone she knew. Reasoning that it might be better to keep friendship out of the deal, she called the other woman, Janice Coppa, and they arranged to meet.

Coppa measured the couch, and they headed to Fabrics Unlimited together, where Clark chose a nubby cotton in neutral colors that would be a good alternative to the leather in warm months. She gave the $300 material to Coppa.

Clark saw Coppa once more, when she came back with the pieces she'd cut and, using tape, fitted them to the couch. Then she left, saying the job would take about six weeks to finish. That was in late July.

When more than six weeks had passed, Clark became concerned and claims she began trying to reach Coppa. Phone messages went unanswered, so she called Fabrics Unlimited, got Coppa's address in Gordonsville, and wrote her a letter– but again, there was no reply.

Eventually, Clark says, she got very specific in a message she left on Coppa's answering machine: "I want my fabric back."

Clark had ordered slipcovers not only to extend her decorating options, but, more importantly, to protect the leather from fading in the sun and to shield it from the claws of two kittens she'd adopted. As the months went by and the cats inflicted more and more damage on the couch– which, meanwhile, was getting plenty of sunlight in a living room full of large windows– Clark got more frustrated. Finally, she called me.

After leaving two messages on Coppa's answering machine, I called Fabrics Unlimited and spoke to owner Bill Herndon. Herndon said he'd known Coppa "for 15 or 20 years," but added that he hadn't heard from her in a while.

As our conversation wound down, his attitude abruptly changed from friendly to hostile when he learned that I intended to quote him. I couldn't understand why that upset him; after all, I had immediately identified myself as a reporter, and he hadn't responded by setting any limits. Besides, all he'd said was that he'd known Coppa for many years but hadn't seen her lately. Why was he so upset? I didn't get the chance to ask.

"If you put something bad in," he suddenly declared, "I'm going to sue you. Bye." Then he hung up on me.

My third attempt to reach Coppa was a success; she immediately declared that Clark was "absolutely right" and added that she regretted not handling the transaction in a more "professional manner."

"Several events happened in my life," she went on to say, including the deaths of her husband and mother and a move from Charlottesville to Gordonsville. Apparently the prospect of contacting Clark grew more daunting the longer it wore on; twice, she claimed, she'd called Clark's number– but, when there was no answer, had hung up without leaving a message.

Coppa said she would contact Clark and either return the fabric or finish the job. As of press time, however, Clark had yet to hear from her. Clark intends to try one last time to get Coppa to respond, and if that fails, she plans to take the matter to small claims (General District) court.

Business transactions such as contracting for draperies and slipcovers can be tricky: If the person you've hired declines to either do the work or return the materials you've paid for, you suffer a double loss. And, as this case proves, even if a person has performed similar work reliably for many years, there's no guarantee that won't change.

If you've figured out a way to structure such transactions so that they're not total leaps of faith, I'd be interested in hearing how.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.