The City’s Hidden Emporium

Over its 15 years of establishment, Athens Underground has developed a world within the borders of Athens, Ohio. The vintage store is filled with historic objects and ephemera from the fashion world’s past, all placed inside its small, tavern-style build.

The shop, as the name implies, is located 10 feet below the concrete surface on the north end of Court Street near Ohio University campus. The storefront, reminiscent of a New York City alley, is plastered with university-wide event fliers and price tags between 50 cents to $1.50. The narrow passage leads to a small, mahogany brown door draped with a “We’re Open” sign across its center.

Once inside, an emporium of vintage and antique pieces stretch from Athens Underground’s far corners and worn coffee-colored hardwood floors. The store’s displays are split into two separate rooms. The first room, centered near its doorway, is filled with sunglasses, thickly-knitted wool sweaters and plastic-wrapped vinyl records organized by genre in record slots. The second room has a selection of tailored men’s suit jackets, trench coats and women’s sequin cocktail dresses, flower hats and prom gowns.

There, Barbara Stout stands in her cuffed jeans, boot socks, one-strap sandals and thick flannel top with the collar stylishly flipped upward. Her thin-framed glasses slip from the clutches of her shortened-brown hair as she frantically combs through a rack full of similarly styled flannel T-shirts with her right hand, while holding six hangers of wool Christmas sweaters in her left as she prepares for the winter to come. In her own right, she’s a local fixture herself.

Yes, Stout is the owner of Athens Underground and, at 65 years old, her 40-plus years of experience in vintage clothing signifies something different. Stout’s representative of the lifestyle. In fact, she thinks of herself as a high-end recycler.

Rather than allow valuable pieces of antique collectibles and items disappear into oblivion, Stout refurbishes them, washes them and steams them — three or four times over — in hopes of repurposing them. She wants people to see the same value she envisioned when vetting through the hundreds of thrift stores and shops in a year’s time to find them.

For Stout, this is routine. She’s been entrenched in the art of vintage clothing since she was 10 years old. Then, she’d scour out 50 cent Nancy Drew books — $1 if they were new — at local thrift stores when her family lived in Columbus. And in high school, she’d search through her grandmother’s closet to try on Great Gatsby-stylized nylon dresses and circle skirts from her grandmother’s past.

Back then, it was merely an extension of her interests in fashion, but one that would carry into adulthood. When she arrived at Ohio University, she worked at the film department’s costume shop through most of her four years. And after completing a degree in theater, Stout decided to pursue a career in New York City (NYC). Upon her arrival, she quickly realized it wasn’t her calling — a reason Stout declined to name.

Instead, Stout began selling vintage clothes before, by her account, it was even considered “vintage.” She got her start exchanging old lingerie she’d found, dyed, ironed and displayed for purchase in NYC subways during rush hour. Then, Stout began selling large quantities of items to more established retailers, which she refurbished from various thrift stores and antique shops in the city.

Eventually, she opened her own antique store, gaining moderate success during its operation. However, after 20 years of living in NYC, Stout decided to go back to Athens. Rather than compete in the oversaturated market in NYC, where there’s two-to-three vintage stores on every block, she wanted to re-establish in a location void of neighboring competitors.

Upon her return to Athens, Stout landed a job at the former clothing shop, “Second Hand Rose.” There, she worked as a sales representative while maintaining her shop in NYC. But when the owner decided to forgo the lease of the property in 2002, Stout stepped in and took over the store’s ownership, establishing a new business model and look to the shop.

Stout decided to reduce the display size, creating a more intimate feel, and shift the store’s look from a sloppy, thrift-store like appearance to a more orderly setting and renamed it “Athens Underground.”

Since the store’s opening in 2003, it’s become a cultural axis for many OU students. They gravitate toward the rarity of the store’s antiques and collectibles, which Stout said she picked up from various suppliers and locations on her travels.

Beyond students’ interest, the store has also garnered clientele outside of the city’s barriers. Stout attributes the store’s expansion to its reputable operations and orderly look.

“I think it’s because we’re clean,” she says. “We’re cleaner than any thrift store. We have customers that come from Marietta and Meigs County because there aren’t big stores like this where you can get this kind of selection.”

Beyond Athens Underground’s visual appeal, much of its draw are from the people. Joe Balding, who works as a sales representative at Athens Underground, said his four months of experience working in the shop have been great. Three days out of the week, Balding, who’s since retired from his previous profession, spends his time interacting with Stout and watches her attend to customers and other workers, creating a family-like environment.

“Barb,” he affectionately calls her, “[she’s] very easy to work for. She explains procedures clearly and is patient with new workers such as myself. I enjoy working with her a lot.”

However, despite much of the store’s past success, its sales have gradually declined in the last 10 years, especially during the city’s biggest event: “HallOUween Weekend.” Aside from a few high-priced transactions, mainly vinyl records and prom dresses, Athens Underground has struggled.

Since 2007, Stout said the store’s sales have dropped nearly 80 percent. She attributes the store’s decline to the expansion of the Internet, as the transactions of vintage products have become easier and more accessible to a larger consumer base.

“I think Halloween may have peaked,” she says. “But beyond that, the rise of the internet, the difference in economy and I don’t think people are quite as into it [in-store purchases].”

Though the Internet has contributed to Athens Underground’s drop in sales, many students also attribute the decline to the store’s “high” priced selection of vintage pieces. Amber Grigley, a senior studying microbiology and environmental health, believes the prices of Athens Underground’s items have hindered people’s interest.

“They’re personally too high for me,” Grigley says. “I feel like you could get small pieces like jewelry or a patch for a reasonable price, but the actual clothes are pretty pricey. I personally don’t think the shop is trying to cater toward the typical college student’s shopping habits or needs.”

Stout denounced this notion, insisting that the prices fairly reflect her efforts. Stout’s not only bought all the items she sells — aside from a few donations — but the process each of them undergo is a high cost, especially for clothing.

By the year’s end, Stout says she goes through 25 gallons of soap and writes off her water bill expenses on her taxes because of the volume needed to cleanse the material. But perhaps the biggest mistake students make, she says, is comparing Athens Underground’s prices to the city’s thrift stores.

“We are not a thrift store,” Stout says as the glasses from her head begin to slip and her voice grows louder. “I clean my stuff; I curate my stuff. Most stores aren’t curated. For an antique store, our prices are very reasonable. They don’t do the things that I do.”

Despite Stout’s denial, it’s evident: These issues have affected Athens Underground’s business. As a result, Stout has been forced to reshape the store’s business model, focusing on modernizing the shop like so many other Athens businesses have done. So far, she’s shortened the sales display to draw customers toward other sections of the store and, surprisingly, she’s decided to reduce the prices of items. Stout has even began selling items online to accommodate for the absence of in-store purchases.

“We’re transitioning,” Stout says. “Probably more space being occupied by books and records and CDs. You have to pay attention to what’s selling [and] what’s not. If it’s not [selling], mark it down.”

Despite the pitfalls that have amassed the past decade, Stout has remained optimistic. Through her 40 years in the business, she’s seen all the shifts in the market. For her, the satisfaction rests on the journey, the fabric in every piece. Not the material itself but the stories attributed to each item.

These valuables, in the eyes of most explorers, are overvalued. But with each piece, Stout says, there’s a historical or chronological value that transcends beyond the numbers on the paper-made tag. These items are representative of her vision, one that’s centered on the importance of yesteryear. Just like the clothes she collects, the experiences she’s gone through have made her who she is. She wears them on her sleeve, stylishly.

When Stout’s going through the former belongings of the recently deceased, she is exploring a home filled with other’s experiences. Of course, she insists that the family collects the valuables they want first before she enters through the vacancy to find a few of her own. These moments are the most peaceful for her, as it brings back memories from her childhood.

Yes, Stout may find a few items she thinks are worth obtaining. But even the ones she doesn’t think are fit for her store, she takes too. She places them in trash bags, carries them to her pickup truck and donates them to various thrift stores and shops she knows will value them. As a self-described “high-end recycler,” she doesn’t want these memories to be lost.

– Backdrop Magazine

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