Magic surrounds a diner. Ms. Jeannie has always said this. Any diner. It doesn’t matter where it is located, who runs it, how its decorated, or what they serve. There is something about sliding into a leather booth, ordering breakfast at midnight and not being hurried along that does wonders for a soul.
When Ms. Jeannie lived in New York, Sundays were the designated diner days. First she started going with her parents, her brother, her sisters when she was small to the local diner just up the street from their house. Coloring books in hand, endless stacks of pancakes and hours later, a leisurely family breakfast was had. And nobody had to fight about whose turn it was to wash dishes at the end! Perfect, said Ms. Jeannie at 5!
As Ms. Jeannie grew, she carried on dinering with her friends, then her roommates, then boyfriends and then ultimately, the best diner date of all, her handsome husband.
Everything under the moon was discussed at the diner. Friendships were forged over steaming stacks of homestyle potatoes. Politics defended over pancakes. Boys dissected over burgers. Life marked important over pie.
Or not. Sometimes, nothing was said at the diner. Sometimes you just got lost for sleepy hours in the comfortable company of the New York Times, and a crossword puzzle or two or three. That’s where the magic comes in. Conversation, spoken or unspoken was always cathartic, always interesting.
Now that Ms. Jeannie lives far far away from any diners, she has had to be a tad more creative in order to get her diner fix. So when Ms. Jeannie stumbled upon Jana, the shop owner of Luncheonette Vintage, Ms. Jeannie knew she had found her next diner date.
As you’ll read, Jana’s roots are steeped in diner mentality. She’s fascinating and thoughtful and has interesting things to say about a range of topics. So grab a cup of coffee, take a seat and slip into the world of all things vintage…
Ms. Jeannie: Your shop personality is so fun and retro quirky, how did you land on the name Luncheonette Vintage?
Luncheonette Vintage: Thanks! There were a bunch of reasons. I wanted to combine all good stuff: food, deliciousness, vintage, and, well, friendly service in one term. Even the word, “luncheonette,” has such a vintage feel and really rolls off the tongue. But the name is also way to honor my grandparents: my grandmother worked at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Manhattan,
my grandfather was one of the legendary Hungarian waiters in the 1930s and 1940s (I bet you didn’t know there was a such a breed, but they were all smart, sophisticated, handsome, and very graceful with a tray). He worked at the original, famous Lindy’s.
My father was a hat check boy there and still remembers checking Rita Hayworth’s hat.
On the other side, my maternal grandmother was a legendary cook known for heaping plates of her phenomenal cooking in front of her guests, and then coming out with even more. Food is a big deal in my family.
I’ve had so many waitressing and cooking jobs over the years — it’s so common among writers (my other hat). That hustle bustle, serve-it-up with a smile and make people happy stays with me. Sometimes I dream of having a whole empire based on the theme: a men’s vintage shop called Grill Cook, a vintage bookshop called Cook’s Secret Life, but in the end I like the varied, endless menu of my Luncheonette.
MJ: You live in scenic upstate New York, how much do you do think location affects the items represented in your shop?
LV: That’s a great question. I live in the Catskills in a very rural area filled with woods and farms and tons of history. It’s a tangible history: old farmhouses, cabins and barns, old stone walls, old middens you’ll find while hiking that are filled with trash from 100 years ago.
People are thrifty here: they do not throw things away until there is absolutely no use for them, or until the house is changing hands after decades. So you can find amazing treasures at yard sales. I love old hunting and fishing gear and old cabin furnishings, old dishes, mason jars (you don’t even want to know how many I’ve got here — I’ve got to get them listed!). And old linens: in the old days women around here prided themselves on handiwork, and I’m always amazed by their embroidery and crocheting. The other day I can across a garbage bag filled with hand embroidered linens, including notes from a mother to her daughter, written in 1876, on how to work certain stitches. “Stay small,” the mother wrote. “It may be a temptation to stitch large but it is always a mistake.” I love that.
MJ: At what point in life did you realize you were destined to become a collector?
LV: I was born into it. It’s in my DNA. My father is a photographer and a writer who has collected cameras and books since he was a child, my mother (a really, really talented painter) collected art books and loved Danish modern. My first obsession was horses, and I accumulated a mythical horse farm in my room, populated by dozens of Breyer horses. Whenever I see a Breyer horse from those days my childhood comes flooding back.
MJ: Why do you think people are lured towards vintage items?
LV: So many reasons. I always say, Go green, eat vintage! But it’s true: buying, wearing and using vintage is a great antidote to our very disposable society, a small way to stop wreaking havoc on the earth. Imagine if instead of running to UO or H&M for yet another cheap T-shirt made by third-world kids with toxic dyes and textiles that will never break down, we all just reused and recycled?
And vintage is sometimes so much better made. Way before the concept of planned obsolescence (like, 10 years for a car), things were made to last. It drives me nuts to see cheap new stuff that is designed to look like great old stuff — until it winds up dumped in a landfill.
For style, vintage is so amazing. There’s a decade that will work for any body type, and the clothes just give you that slightly other sensibility.
You can rock a 1940s suit and take on a whole different persona. That goes for men as well as women. Think of Mad Men.
I also think that vintage items can be a very personal way of reconnecting with your own past. It’s different for everyone, but certain items can cause a rush of nostalgia and memory. My mother kept her paintbrushes in antique Dundee marmalade jars (she probably found them in a barn sale around here), and I’m always reminded of her when I see one.
I’ve had buyers tell me how happy they were to find that one old cookbook, for example, that they remember from childhood. This past Christmastime, a member of the Larkin family came to the shop and bought a Larkin family cookbook to give to her daughter. To have a physical, touchable way to connect to memories is lovely.
MJ: What is your most favorite item in your shop right now and why?
LV: I love it all. And I don’t just stock my shop with a chockablock mess of whatever is old. If I don’t like it, I don’t sell it. I’m not super big on chintz and I can’t stand sexist or racist kitsch. It may be kitschy and retro but it’s still and always offensive.
But my total favorite right this second is an 1850s ambrotype — a type of old, Civil Ware era photograph — of a very serious looking young woman, and I am fascinated by it.
Who was she? Was she a soldier’s wife? A widow? Was she pregnant? She looks it. Was she happy? Where did she live?
There’s a story there, an enigmatic sense of history. I find irresistible. It makes me kind of thirsty.
MJ: Is there one vintage item that you are striving to attain for your own collection?
LV: Since I collect vintage and antique everything, the easiest answer is everything. But I do gravitate towards very functional things that happen to look amazing. I have this thing for mason jars that I am going to have to get over, because I have about 200 of them, in all sizes, some going so far back they’re warped and warbled.
I am always looking for very old black and grey pearls, too. I love 1930s dresses and it’s a lifelong quest for that perfect one. And I have a thing for old stationery, old notebooks.
That might be genetic too, since my grandfather Charlie (the one who wasn’t a Lindy’s waiter) had an office furniture and stationery shop, Acme Paper. The family jokingly called him the Paperclip King.
MJ: What era do you most identify with or seem naturally drawn towards?
LV: That’s a funny question for me, because I am drawn to all of them. One of my college majors was history, and I was fascinated by American from about the industrial revolution to after World War II. You can see the nature of the time in objects.
I love the proportions of the 1950s, both the outsized, tailfin, atomic era craziness and that very clear form and function kind of modernism. When I was writing about World War 2 era industrial design (I cowrote a book called Great Inventions/Good Intentions for Chronicle Books), I realized that there was so much that went into the style of that time, so much hope, so much faith, this idea that design by itself can improve our lives. I am still moved by the sight of a Raymond Loewy pencil sharpener.
MJ: You also mention in your profile that you are sourced by production companies like Mad Men and Boardwalk empire. How exciting! Have you ever seen one of your items on either show?
LV: I wish! They buy tons of stuff and copy so much of it. But there was a gym scene on a Mad Men episode where I think I caught a glimpse of a bag I’d sold them. It was in the background, sitting on a bench. But it looked perfect and I was very proud.
MJ: If you could be the prop master for any tv or movie set, past or present, which would you choose?
LV: I think it would be super fun to be the prop master for Bonanza, the old TV series. I love those old Western saddles and clothes.
Or a Depression era movie. Those 1930s dresses, wow. Those men’s shoes. I could go on. But if I could just be a prop assistant on Downton Abbey for a season, oh my, that would be marvelous.
MJ: What one type of item is a consistent seller in your shop? What seems to be the slowest to sell?
LV: Anything military, like a WW2 jacket, flies out the store.
Cookbooks, especially old and illustrated, often fly off the shelves.
Some pieces of dinerware.
Clothing from the 1950s is gone in a fingersnap.
I just got in an amazing 50s daydress by a designer who was kind of the queen of the 50s daydress: Caroline Schnurer. It’s got an amazing neckline with a wraparound, attached scarf, that strapless bodice, a huge billowy skirt. I can’t wait to list it.
On the other hand I have this 1970s pantsuit that looks like a skinny dowager on acid that I can’t seem to get rid of. Sometimes things don’t sell because the photos just aren’t that appealing, too. I’ll reshoot something so freshen it up, and 9 times out of 10 it looks much better and someone finds it.
MJ: What are some of the challenges of being a vintage seller?
LV: If you are not an obsessive personality, who can sink into research for hours and drive all over the county and farther looking for vintage, then forget it. You need to be driven. And I am. So the biggest challenge for me is time management, because I can lose myself in a search, a sale, a library or online looking up information.
I recently had someone ask me if I could find her some old, white diner platters for her wedding, and I went at it like it was a search and rescue mission. Then realized I had an article due to a magazine in a week that I hadn’t even started. And last weekend I walked into a storage space filled with vintage clothing and the hours turned to minutes. But that is one of the joys of what I do. I get to immerse myself in days gone by.
Service: it’s a challenge, and an important one, to describe and measure things right, especially clothing and shoes. I’ve been buying and wearing vintage since I was about 10, and sometimes you don’t know how something is going to fit until you try it on. The idea of not being able to return something bought online — I just find that preposterous. I make it a point to not only take returns, but make it easy for the seller. Actually that’s probably one of the challenges of being a vintage buyer too. For shops that don’t take returns, you have to make sure and ask all the right questions.
MJ: On the organizational side, how do you inventory and/or store all of your items? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your supply? Do you have any helpers that work behind the scenes in your shop?
LV: I have an encyclopedic and somewhat photographic memory, which helps. And I’m a Virgo, so I’m an obsessive list maker. I have a warehouse with labeled bins, a Z-rack (professional garment rack) with garment bags, and all sorts of boxes with categories. And I have an annex, which is right next to my studio, where a lot of the delicate stuff goes. Storing things carefully and safely is so important.
That ironstone platter that somehow survived for 100 years without a chip is an accident waiting to happen. And never jam vintage clothes on a rack: sometimes old dyes are unstable and will actually leach into another fabric. So each piece, ideally, needs space to breathe and hang. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but I think of luncheonette’s inventory (and inventory that isn’t part of luncheonette) as a vast and everchanging, growing archive, and that helps. As do excel spreadsheets.
Helpers are great! I’ve had and have some wonderful helpers. I am really particular about how things are folded, packed, photographed, etc. — I’m a very demanding head cook. It has to be done right, but I’ve had a few people who really got it and I love working with them.
And I have some great sources for knowledge and wisdom: My Dad is a font of knowledge about mid century stuff, knows everything about old cameras, and has a great eye. I work with a few people who know antiques a lot better than I do, and I’m always asking questions of wiser folk.
I think I’ve pestered Chris, of the lovely etsy shop MissFarfalla, dozens of times.
She’s a genius when it comes to vintage clothing. She knows so much. Finally, my chickens help by supplying those pretty brown eggs I used in cookbook photos.
MJ: In a previous blog post, Ms. Jeannie mentioned that she would like to sit down to lunch with 20th century novelist, Kathleen Norris and contemporary writing phenom Stephenie Meyer. If you could luncheon with anybody, living or dead, Who would you choose?
LV: I live in an area that is so rich with writers that I have a great time at such lunches, and I’m lucky to be a part of that community already. But I’ve been feeling very nostalgic lately for my grandmothers, and I think if I could have lunch with anyone, it would be them.
Then, of course, my Mom, who I miss every second and is probably my biggest inspiration. We’d go to Serendipity 3 on East 60th street in Manhattan and have iced hot chocolate and Ftatateeta’s Toast.
But I would not turn down an invitation to lunch with Gertrude Stein.
We’d talk dog. I love dogs. Dogs and vintage and writing seem to work together quite well.
MJ: What is the name of your most favorite real-life diner, where is it located and what do you normally order?
LV: You can’t just have one favorite diner, can you? Here are four: Mom’s Open Kitchen in Lorain, Ohio; the luncheonette (I don’t know its name) on 83rd and Lexington in Manhattan; Dietz Stadium Diner here in Kingston; and the old, old Friendly’s in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, home of the best chocolate frappe ever.
MJ: You mentioned that you have written some short stories and are currently working on a novel. Can you share a little bit about the storyline? What authors inspire your writing? What book are you currently reading?
LV: That story collection, Russian Lover and Other Stories, came out in 2007.
I’m now working on a novel that takes place in the northern Catskills. It involves wolves and people who really care about animals, and interestingly there’s a character who works with vintage.
She stumbles into a community that is kind of wild and crazy and on the fringe, half wilderness and half internet, and some of them have really out there ideas about e-commerce that are slightly inspired by people I know.
I’m hoping to be done by September. I’m endlessly inspired by authors. It’s a really, really long list. But Flannery O Connor was an early influence, for sure. TC Boyle. Margaret Atwood. I’m currently reading a book about the photographer Disfarmer, by Julia Scully.
MJ: If you weren’t a writer or a vintage shop owner/collector, what would you be?
LV: Wow. I think I don’t know the answer to that. I am so much what I am. I might be have loved to work with horses, or if I had the talent, I would have loved to be a photographer. But I am really in a Popeye phase of life now, after doing so many things in my life, including assisting photographers, playing bass in bands, and lots and lots of cooking and waitressing: I yam what I yam.
This interview is part of an ongoing interview series, that Ms. Jeannie is orchestrating about artists, writers and musicians and their inspirations. The interview was with Georgia based rustic home decor designer, Frick & Frack Scraps, in March. Read that interview here.
This month, Ms. Jeannie conversed with Jana, writer and shop owner of Luncheonette Vintage, based in New York’s scenic Catskill Mountains. Visit her shop here.