To quote comedian Flip Wilson and his 1960s Geraldine alter-ego, "What you see is what you get" at Living Vintage on Chapman Highway in far South Knoxville.
What you see is '50s, '60s, and '70s style everything, from LPs to Wild West TV trays to mod mini-dresses to silver bracelet charms.
What you get is co-owners and sisters Theresa "Tree" Griffin and Beth Ely, 44 and 48 respectively, who are there to sell stuff, sure, but also to be completely immersed in the bygone time. They play Beach Boys music at the store because that's what they like; they sit side-by-side on '70s-style padded stools to tend the counter; and Griffin wears mod-patterned shirts and a favorite peace-sign necklace all the time, not just at work.
Those decks of duck playing cards? "We had ones just like them, playing cards with our grandfather in the summers in South Michigan growing up," says Griffin.
The lamps on that shelf over there? "They're pretty groovy," says Ely, in a natural tone. "Cool" is her most-used adjective, and she uses it to explain why this little store in a fading strip shopping center 10 miles from Henley Street bridge is starting to catch on. "The whole mentality is really cool," she says. "Customers love our mid-century stuff. It's very streamlined, good and clean architecture. That idea kind of took off after World War II, when people started building houses with these open spaces. It was all about leisure and enjoyment, but really fun, not like formal entertainment. I think people are trying to get back to that."
The sisters aid and abet this return to the past with spruced-up garage sale and flea market finds, and sales inspired by a recessionary economy. "You wouldn't believe the number of people who come to us, we get calls every day, ‘I have these glasses I'd like to sell,'" says Ely. "People are trying to get rid of their excess stuff and turn it into cash money."
As many items as they can bear to part with end up on the store shelves, or artfully arranged into homey settings at the store, which is open just four days a week, Wednesday through Saturday. "The mid-century stuff, it's not the easiest stuff to find in Knoxville," says Ely. "I don't think it was ever popular here, though it was extremely popular in the rest of the country and in Nashville."
Ely and Griffin price goods to sell in a recessionary economy, too—a wooden croquet set is $28, for example, a Nancy Drew book $1, a table and four chairs $160. Ely also pushes the "green" aspect of vintage buying. "Everything we sell has already been manufactured, so we're leaving zero-carbon prints. No one's cutting down a tree, or firing up a furnace. And we're keeping it out of the landfill."
Another reason for the appeal of vintage cocktail shakers and Deco furniture is the popularity of Mad Men, the '60s Madison Avenue television series now entering its third season of cocktail-dress and creased-hat drama. "It's coming back August 16, I can't wait!" says Griffin.
The sisters, who grew up in Chicago and moved here with their family around 30 years ago, have long been on the periphery of the local antique business. "Our mom has been in the antique business for years, and Tree and I have both had a booth at the antique mall," says Ely. "Mom and Tree love going to garage sales and all that stuff, and at some point you just have to have a store! It's cool on mom's end, because her hobby pays for itself."
The store opened a year and a half ago, just as the modern recession stopped being a whisper and started being openly acknowledged, but their three-year plan still calls for the store to be in the black. "Emotionally, logically, you'd think the recession would be good for this kind of business, but we don't know for sure," says Ely. "We have great weeks and then a terrible week. Tree is the one with the money to invest. She has another job, and her husband owns a business. Her plan is, we signed a three-year lease, and are putting money into advertisements and inventory. We'll hold out for three years and see if it catches on."
Current customers pretty much love the place. "I still love that shell lamp I bought here!" is the greeting from a 20something woman in jeans (not bellbottoms) with long, dark hair.
Another browser, Laura Whyte, is 48 and remembers when. "I come here a lot," she says. "I come to get lost in time, to go back to my childhood. Holding on to the past... I love holding on. My mom comes here to go back in time with me."
Ely and Griffin enjoy family time at the store, too, sharing the crossword, folding clothes, rearranging the furniture. Says Griffin: "We like to sit around together and complain about getting old."