Screaming Mimi’s is a time capsule and treasure chest rolled into one. When I walked into the store with Manhattan Sideways team member Julia, she immediately began to touch everything. Fur, chain mail, velvet, and numerous other textiles poured out from the racks to form corridors to walk down. Julia excitedly described the feeling as being in an interactive museum. As I observed her with a smile on my face, an alarmingly plush pair of leather underwear challenged her to reach out and confirm it was as heavy as it looked. She then delicately handled a cream-colored dress from the 1920’s - one of the store’s oldest items - which she found to be equally enticing. As she allowed the lace to slip through her fingers, she reflected on the many decades the dress had experienced.
The store is a mecca for creativity, with clientele ranging from walk-ins to artists seeking inspiration. Some of these artists include television and stage costume designers, as well as fashion designers and editors. When we walked in, Laura Wills, the store’s charismatic owner, was casually chatting with someone whom we would later learn was Lynn Yaeger, a fashion editor for Vogue magazine and a personal friend of Laura's.
Laura opened her first location on the Upper West Side in 1978, “before vintage was popular.” She had just left a position tailored especially for her at department store Abraham & Straus to begin her own business, and now says, “I just wasn’t a corporate animal, so I thought maybe I can do this myself.” A standout among typical vintage boutiques that sold “ye olde” clothing, Laura offered "Rockabilly" items and later moved to styles inspired by contemporary and designer fashion. Her discerning eye has helped keep her merchandise selling, as all the pieces must pass her careful inspection before going on the rack. “Just because it’s vintage doesn’t mean it’s good,” she quipped.
The store’s name is as loud as the clothes it holds, a far cry from usual vintage shop titles that tend to include adjectives about recycling and time. We learned that the name arose from Laura's days at A&S, when she and her best friend were working in the fashion department. Laughing, Laura recounted, “We were the two wild ones in the store.” They could be heard loudly chatting while deciding which festivities to attend in the wild 1970s New York party scene. Her co-workers would say of the two, “Oh, goodness, there goes the Screaming Mimis down the hall.” Laura maintains a sense of humor about the title, and admits that she would have given it a little more thought if she had known the store would survive so many decades.
One of Laura's first salesgirls was none other than Cyndi Lauper, who worked at the store in the early 1980s. After Lauper became well known, Laura went on tour with her as one of her stylists. “She worked for me, then I worked for her for the next fifteen years.” Much of Laura's early staff can be found dancing in Lauper’s music video, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
The vintage shop’s items are arranged by decade, article type, and price. We even discovered an eighteenth century Frenchman’s coat with fur ruffling, saved from a costume warehouse. This coat hangs in the men’s section, which features a variety of shoes, including golden glitter heeled boots. Menswear has been a staple since the business’s original opening and, according to Laura, helps draw in a significant male clientele.
Although Screaming Mimi’s sees regulars who stop in frequently to inspect the new arrivals, most customers come in to construct looks for events, including masquerade parties, jazz themed parties, and 20’s-style proms. Prices range from $8 accessories to $1,500 designer clothing. Dani Cabot, a stylist at the store, said, “There’s something for everybody, any budget.” Dani is one of the several stylists who helps customers construct looks, a service which is rare for thrift shops. This interaction is an integral element of Mimi’s. Laura mourns the diminishing connection between customers and employees in other retail businesses. "Here, we offer an experience.”
Unlike many fashion stores, Laura goes out searching for her inventory instead of ordering it online. “I’ve always like the hunt,” she admitted, and told us that she would much prefer a quick trip to Brooklyn than an internet search. Her pieces come from flea markets and auctions across the country - there are even a few pieces from the Metropolitan Opera. This careful selection helps to ensure that her pieces are one-of-a-kind; every item has a story to tell, and Laura's heavy curating gives those stories a voice.
“It’ll be forty years next year, but I’ve never gotten tired of it,” Laura noted, and then Dani added, "The excitement is palpable, which is why I love working here.” When Julia and I were getting ready to leave, we looked around at the numerous boxes surrounding the two women, and inquired as to what was happening next. Grinning, they told us that they were gearing up for a huge jazz-themed lawn party, which would bring in an influx of customers. Even after all this time, Laura ended, “I still feel equally passionate and excited about all of it.”
Beneath the Spanish Benevolent Society lies La Nacional, one of Manhattan’s most authentic Spanish restaurants and the most easily accessible part of the society. Just by walking down the steps into the dimly lit basement lounge, we felt the bustle of 14th street quickly recede and we were transported across the ocean. La Nacional has the same relaxed, no frills atmosphere as most tapas bars in Spain. We gazed at the old photographs from the society’s earlier years on the walls and then had the option of sipping a drink at the bar, sampling some classic simple Spanish tapas such as tortilla de patatas, croquetas or chorizo, or dining on a full meal of paella. Perhaps the most authentic option, though, was to simply have a seat by the television to watch the fútbol game - it is always on. For visitors from Spain who want a taste of home, those of us pining for the Spanish travels of our past, or New Yorkers simply curious about a new culture, La Nacional is the place to go.