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May 29, 2007

The funky fantasists of Frankfort Avenue

In the 2000 block, there are no mall cops with twinkie green lights. There are some women-owned shops that aim for the soulThe women are all friends: who get together for coffee and support, and they send customers to each other’s shops.With all of the planned blockbuster construction projects in the news, not to mention last year’s release of the photo book “Louisville Then and Now,” archival shots of downtown have emerged frequently of late. Forty or 50 years back, the Starks, Heyburn and L&N buildings commanded the skyline, and with miles of riverfront prominently lined by scrap metal yards, sand terminals and oil storage tanks, Louisville looked like the small, parochial city it was.Of course, some of the best memories in that long-ago Louisville were made in places that have since been demolished or by now abandoned, including the rows of first-run movie theaters along Fourth Street and good ol’ Stewart’s Department Store.Time has moved on, though, and so much of what makes up Louisville today was completely unimagined back then. It must have been difficult to foresee the coming changes in building design, for example. Louisville got a modern behemoth in the 800 Building, which became the tallest in the state when it was completed in 1962, and the early 1970s brought more change, places like the Belvedere and the Citizen’s Fidelity (now PNC) and First National Bank (now National City) towers.While our architecture may have been striving for modernity, culturally we were straggling. Foreign dining pretty much meant Italian. Coffee came in one size and one flavor and cost a dime or a quarter.  Louisville had few bookstores and no book merchants with cafes and Friday night guitar strummers.Likewise, lower Frankfort Avenue — the Clifton area — was a place that 40 years ago (20 years ago, for that matter) would have had work to do to reach nondescript. For those who didn’t live there, the area was a mere route to downtown. Not hip or trendy. Certainly not hot.Today, legitimate funk resides along the corridor. That change, of course, didn’t just materialize over one magical night. It was brought on by real people, who in many cases left the rat race for something less conventional but more personally rewarding.Obviously, scores of entrepreneurial individuals have added to the overall vibrancy of Frankfort Avenue, but one particularly compelling group is clustered in the 2000 block. In that stretch you’ll find a handful of delightful and unique shops, selling clothing and other goods that aim for the soul. And these shops are all owned and operated by women who, in their own way, solved this equation: This is what I want to do. How can I make a living within it?Introductions are in order.JUDY  CHAMPION2023 Antiques2023 Frankfort Ave.Judy Champion owns 2023, a boutique that sells vintage furniture, accessories and clothing. The numerical nomenclature, borrowed from her street address, has less to do with the year it may imply and more with centuries — as in the 20th. It is now the 21st century, after all. The 1950s are pretty far gone, and the top end of vintage now hits the early 1970s.Champion opened 10 years ago after some time at the Swan Street Antique Mall. “I’m not a business person,” she notes, which is somehow obvious as you walk through her door, and I mean that in only the most flattering sense. She is one of the lucky ones who has found a living and a life from the things that interest and excite her, which is a neat trick for someone who wanted to go into chemistry (she was the only girl in her high school physics class), migrated toward graphic design and art history and raised three kids. Grandmother of seven.JANE  BOWLINGSister Dragonfly Gallery2021 Frankfort Ave.Next door to 2023 is Sister Dragonfly Gallery, owned by Jane Bowling. Like Champion, Bowling began in a completely different field, in her case the practice of clinical psychology in the public health sector. She became a tenant in the rear apartment in 1993, the year the original gallery owner started the business. She helped out on weekends, enjoyed the work, became the manager and bought the business in 2000. During those years, she also completed her degree, then worked on her doctoral dissertation. She eventually left the mental health field and now runs the gallery full time, while continuing a limited practice as a licensed psychologist in part of her residence.Like all of the owners, Bowling was happy to assume the responsibility of self-employment if it meant shedding the suits. “You don’t really make any money,” she says, “but the trade-off is the autonomy of making your own decisions and not living under a bureaucratic setting.”The store keeps her busier than she ever was at Seven Counties, she says, but it affords the opportunity to impart therapy of a different sort to her spectrum of customers. “I do more work here than I ever did there,” she says. “(And) I do more healing work here than I ever did there.”Tara Dickerson & Ingra KrebsTARA  DICKERSON and INGRA  KREBSGirltalk2040 Frankfort Ave.Across the street and up slightly from 2023, Girltalk is hard to miss, with its pink and black exterior motif. When Champion pointed out the store and what it sells, I admit envisioning owners Tara and Ingra as the Jobs and Wozniak of girlie stuff — two young women dropouts following their passion to sell …  pink things. And that would have been cool, but what I found was even cooler.Tara Dickerson and Ingra Krebs both worked for the Cobb Group. Krebs, a history major, became a stay-at-home mom while Dickerson remained at Cobb, then telecommuted after the homegrown company was bought out. They’ve been buddies since college and always talked about opening a shop. “I’d say we had six different business plans over the years,” Dickerson recalls. But kids ’n’ jobs ’n’ stuff blocked their dream, as they will. When Dickerson’s telecommuting job was eliminated, she landed at Hawley-Cooke as a buyer — not for books, but for everything else the stores sold.When that Louisville company was sold to Borders, it seemed like the time to jump. Today Dickerson taps the experience she gained there to find and deal with wholesalers, and the intuition she developed to know what her customers like.Girltalk started in a Middletown strip mall, which didn’t afford the sort of walk-by and (slow) drive-by customer traffic that would do it justice. They found that sort of spot and moved to Frankfort Avenue last November. What the two have accomplished is a whole greater than the sum of its parts.“I want to hear women laughing when they come in here,” Dickerson says. “That’s really important to us. It’s not serious. It’s just fun and funky.” She continues: “When I hear two women come in and they’re screaming in the front room laughing … I’m like, thank you. I did it. It’s working.”Which may explain the sign near the checkout counter: Veni, vida, visa (I came, I saw, I shopped).ANGIE  RENZIMona & Lisa’s Vintage to Vogue Boutique2031 Frankfort Ave.Angie Renzi was a sales rep for professional hair care products before she started the Mona & Lisa shop, way out Oldham County way in Buckner. She was focused more on furniture, but it didn’t work out there.“I loved all the people out there. I really tried to make it,” she says. “I had a few customers who tried to support me, but it just wasn’t enough.”But the rent was cheap, and she learned the nuts and bolts of running a business. Talking with Renzi, this dumb ol’ guy in his Target ensemble suddenly understood the nature of vintage clothing. I had thought vintage a euphemism for used. It is not.In guy parlance, you might put it like this: A 1995 Dodge Stratus is a used car. A 1968 MGC convertible (if you could find one) is vintage, a real jolt to the testosterone pump. And so in the same way, a classic 1950s dress from Saks, suggestive of the sort Audrey Hepburn might have worn, jump-starts … whatever it is women might want, uh, jump-started. And on that point, I should quit while I’m ahead.Like the girls at Girltalk, Renzi has benefited greatly from the move to Frankfort Avenue. Rather than see her as competition, Elizabeth Schaaf of Elizabeth’s Timeless Attire mentored Renzy. (After also spending time with Schaaf, it is clear she is incapable of anything else.)“What I’ve learned,” Renzi says, “is what they’ve Tara Dickerson & Ingra Krebs taught me.”ELIZABETH  SCHAAFElizabeth’s Timeless Attire2050 Frankfort Ave.Schaaf is the pioneer of the block; this month she hit the 20-year mark. When she began, her neighbors were a DAV store, an appliance repair shop and a pharmacy that mostly delivered. Some friends and family thought she was nuts to begin her business, but again, fate nudged open a window.Schaaf had worked in PR for the old Louisville Chamber of Commerce. Then her cushy job with benefits was eliminated. I asked if she might still be there had it not. “You know, I wonder,” she muses. “I might still be there.”Schaaf had been collecting vintage clothing for 20 years. She figured she would open the shop for three months, long enough to sell off her collection. There was no lease or business plan. She didn’t even know about quarterly taxes.Like so many, though, she was lucky to not realize that what she was doing could not work. After those three months, she knew she would never return to the 9 to 5 world.Today she travels to New York and Paris to search for clothing and accessories. (They are deductible business trips — sweet!) Repeat customers have aided longevity, in that little girls from long ago now bring in their little girls. Her business is built on relationships and happens to turn a profit.Take a step backAll of the shops are similar in size, and in their content of controlled clutter. All have a nook or a curtain to a back room from which Rod Serling could emerge, because in many ways this is “Twilight Zone” territory — which might explain the success of the stores.Serling’s stories were typically about redemption, or of actually being able to twist space-time enough to drag a second chance from it. Few Baby Boomers have concluded our childhood sufficiently enough that we wouldn’t jump at the chance to pull a time trigger.Maybe at Elizabeth’s, it’s a piece of jewelry just like your granny had, or maybe at 2023, it is the tri-legged accent lamp that sat on top of your family’s big RCA color TV. At Mona & Lisa’s you might find a modern interpretation of a classic image. And while Girltalk and Sister Dragonfly are not about vintage, they are, quite possibly and respectively, about fulfilling a childhood want and expanding your current horizons.In fact, despite their similarities, all of the shops are different and reflect the personalities of the owners. Jane Bowling is a trained clinician. It shows in the subdued order of her shop. Judy Champion is a tad mysterious, with a store layout that is a simple labyrinth. Angie Renzi is the sister everyone should have, with a display that says, “Hey, just come on in, ‘cause life is too short.” And maybe the spirit of sculptor Barney Bright lingers, for Renzi’s space was the site of his studio for nearly 50 years.Tara Dickerson’s and Ingra Krebs’ pink bonanza is like walking into a Dr. Seuss book, which shows just how serious they are about not being serious. And Elizabeth Schaaf has pretty much created a cloud with a door in it. Hers is a little world of a few hundred square feet that belies the ridiculous state of 2007. Even to a guy in Target duds, that is obvious.All of these women are friends. They get together for coffee and support. They send customers to each other’s shops. They are part of a community they’ve helped build. This is the way it once was everywhere. This is the diametric opposite of Big Box expanse, X-Box riots and the mall cop with his twinkie green light.If you look closely enough along the street, you might even see Andy and Barney waving to Helen and Thelma Lou. At the very least, you can observe the phenomenon of the once ordinary having become the extraordinary. Contact the writer at fairbrooks@att.net