A last chance at the past on Beggars & Choosers' final day | Casual Observer | Indy Week
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A last chance at the past on Beggars & Choosers' final day 

Beggar's banquet

click to enlarge Pam Smith (left), owner of Beggars & Choosers, closed her store Jan. 2. The shop had been robbed Oct. 24, which changed the way she felt about her business. "I've always loved what I do, and right now I don't," Smith said. - PHOTO BY REBEKAH L. COWELL
  • Photo by Rebekah L. Cowell
  • Pam Smith (left), owner of Beggars & Choosers, closed her store Jan. 2. The shop had been robbed Oct. 24, which changed the way she felt about her business. "I've always loved what I do, and right now I don't," Smith said.

It was a fitting farewell for the eclectic vintage shop Beggars & Choosers. Cars choked Pittsboro's main drag and people bundled in scarves and hats scurried to the emporium, where customers packed nearly every inch of all three floors.

On Saturday, Jan. 2, Beggars & Choosers owner Pam Smith closed her shop after 32 years. She bid her customers adieu dressed in a black velvet swing coat, seeded pearl chandelier earrings and a dash of sparkly eye shadow that glistened when her eyes filled with tears each time a friend wordlessly embraced her.

"I wasn't prepared for this," Smith said, gesturing to the crowd that oohed and aahed over the array of hats, suits, dresses, furniture and toys from yesteryear.

"Maybe she'll reconsider closing the store," one shopper said. "I can't believe someone would rob her. People are so stupid," another added.

On Oct. 24, burglars emptied Smith's cash register and display cases containing gold and silver jewelry. The financial loss totaled $30,000, but the personal loss—of her joy and passion for opening her shop of treasures each day—was far more devastating.

Established in 1977 in a brick building catty-corner to Pittsboro's only traffic circle, Beggars & Choosers' ever-changing window display and frequently risqué mannequins quickly spiced up the conservative town. Each summer, Smith's pinup mannequin, dressed in a polka-dotted '50s swimsuit, guarded the door. Hand on hip, the mannequin puckered her lips and appeared to blow kisses to passersby.

On this final day, a mannequin in a full-length pink dress ushered in the crowds.

"I've spent my whole life in this store," Smith's son, Noah, said as he manned the cash register.

He was wrapping a $25 robin's egg blue ceramic pot from the 1970s, a $55 broad-ax head and a curious Tibetan doll for $75. "It's going to take a bit of time for us all to adjust."

Upstairs, Smith's carefully culled collection of apparel and accoutrements created a scene akin to a Mad Men dressing room: pillbox hats, silk dupioni coatdresses, elbow-length leather gloves, pearl chokers, leather spring-clasp handbags and pink cashmere sweater sets adorned with pearl buttons.

click to enlarge This $95 lamp has eyes like Tammy Faye Bakker Messner's—except it doesn't cry. - PHOTO BY REBEKAH L. COWELL

It was stunning, especially if this was your first view, and a few Beggars & Choosers virgins swooned.

Longtime customers, like Jane Allen Wilson, headed for the object they had coveted in past trips and now was too good to pass up, since its price was discounted by half.

"I bought my first dress from Pam when I was just a girl," said Wilson, clutching a retro teddy bear and a striped '60s skirt and wearing a crushed blue velvet pillbox hat. "It was 1950s-style Marilyn Monroe dress made out of navy silk with a cream-colored collar, and it fit me perfectly."

Wilson paid Smith $15 for the dress, which had a broken zipper, and went home to fix it herself. "From that day I was hooked on vintage," she said, "and I've been shopping here for close to 30 years."

Rummaging through a rack of dresses, two women from Raleigh—living history re-enactors in their spare time—were looking for the right World War II-era dress for their upcoming trip to Pennsylvania for a "Battle of the Bulge" re-enactment.

"I wish I had brought a box," one friend said, her arms loaded with garments and hats.

Another group of college-age friends from Carrboro and Chapel Hill took turns trying on clothes and admiring themselves in a floor-length mirror.

What lures these hip young women to rummage in a vintage shop with clothes as old as their grandparents? "I'm looking for something no one else has," said Robin Davies, posing with a fur stole priced at $35. "Vintage clothes are more womanly than the clothes I can buy in the department store."

Wearing a brown felt hat with outlandishly dyed pheasant feathers, Amanda Shive showed me her treasures: leopard-print stilettos, two handbags and a '50s "fake" dress suit.

"See that narrow waist," she said, holding up the dress, "you won't find anything like that outside of a couture shop."

click to enlarge So many people packed the store on its last day that it took at least an hour to get through the checkout line. - PHOTO BY REBEKAH L. COWELL
  • Photo by Rebekah L. Cowell
  • So many people packed the store on its last day that it took at least an hour to get through the checkout line.

She admired her silhouette in the mirror one more time and whispered "elegant" before heading for the seemingly endless checkout line.

Why do we love these vintage objects?

"The past becomes alive when you put something on from any of those periods: '40s, '50s, '60s," said Wilson. "We can re-create an image from another time and it's magical."

Ringing up a mason jar of precious glass buttons ($20), Smith smiled when I asked her what I wanted to recapture when I nestled a purple velvet cloche studded with brass dots in my hair.

"You're trying to recapture the innocence in life," she said.

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