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How a Punk Rocker Found Herself Owning a Secret Vintage Store

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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a monthly feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.

With grates running up and down the windows and the number 40 as the store's only sign, 40 South Street falls under the radar. For over 25 years, 40 South Street (previously known as the men's-only vintage shop, Gumshoe) has been stuffed to the brim with vintage gems and affordable price tags. More of a warehouse than a retail store, the cash-only Gumshoe would be open sporadically. But then punk rocker Hilken Mancini began selling her rack of women's clothes in the corner and in 2008, Gumshoe became 40 South Street.

Today this longtime Jamaica Plain staple is owned by Mancini and offers a wide variety of vintage items for men and women, like baby doll sundresses, eclectic button downs and graphic pullovers. Mancini's vintage store may seem like it's for locals-only, but all non-locals need not worry. 40 South Street recently opened an online shop. We spoke with Mancini about her rock and roll past, present and future and how she became the owner of this hidden gem.

So first off, what is your background?
I would say I have a rock and roll base. I got into vintage when I was on the road a lot in my early twenties. I was in a band and we had a record deal so we were fortunate enough to tour records. In between sound check and your show, there's a lot of down time. So we'd be somewhere like Charlemagne, Illinois and find stuff to kill time. We only had like five dollars per diem for dinner back then. We didn't have a lot of money, so we would thrift. That's how I found most of my instruments, records and clothing. And I would say that's when I first got "bitten by the bug." I would find really cool things. I had a large collection of fun vintage clothing and bathing suits. And also you'd tour, play a show? Kat from Babes in Toyland would be wearing vintage babydoll dresses, it was the fashion of the time. So I would find really cool stuff to wear on stage that night.

What city would you find the best thrifting?
It's hard to say because this was the early 90s but I remember that Texas was really good. And I got my guitar in Birmingham, Alabama. I still play it to this day.

Would you say that that's where your interest in clothing comes from?
I'm not that into fashion, I'm more into a way of life, which I would say is the ethos of punk rock. I think that when I see a woman or a man wearing a piece of clothing and I can tell that they're not afraid to be who they are, that's why I love fashion. People like my store because they maybe can sense that they shouldn't be afraid to take a risk. That's as well a philosophy of punk rock. Thinking for yourself, away from the status quo and not being interested.

This place used to be owned by Otto Johnson and it was called Gumshoe back then. When did you start here?
What's funny is that going back to the story of the early 1990s is that Otto was my next door neighbor. He comes from a rock and roll background as well. He was a bartender at The Rat. The Rathskeller is where The Ramones first played and the New York Dolls. Stiv Bators had his first show there. The Rathskeller was this legendary rock club in Boston. Otto was good friends with the owner of The Rat, convinced him to have shows in the basement and then the owner let Otto's wife or girlfriend at the time rent out the top space as a vintage clothing store. I think he knew I was in a rock band and he saw I had a sense of fashion, so we started making small talk. And then flash forward ten years, I'm still in Jamaica Plain and I had a rack of vintage at a different store. Otto saw that I sold it pretty well every weekend so he asked me to move in here and help him because he only had men's.

So you brought the women's?
Yeah, and we were a really great match because he showed me how to do it. I unfortunately like most women thought that I wasn't good at this and didn't know what I was doing. I didn't feel like I had a strong sense of fashion. I came from a music background. But he believed in me and showed me how to do this. He showed me how to thrift, how to price things, how to clean things and process. By working with him for years as a mentor, it became more and more my store as he phased more and more into a designer path, that's what he does now. He has a warehouse with Bobby's.

I guess I moved in here in 2005. When I first moved in I just had a tiny rack in the corner of women's and I would make my money off what I sold and I would give him the money. And later I kind of made it more into a store. I built a counter and got a credit card machine.

How do you like being in Jamaica Plain?
I must like it a lot because I've been here for twenty years. I moved here in 1992. I think the store being in this location is good because it's what I'm about. It's very DIY and thinking-for-yourself punk rock. I think some customers if I was in the South End or Newbury Street, would be way more high maintenance. I can play the kind of music I wanna play and be the kind of person I am and so can they. When I go to other stores, I feel intimidated some times by the prices or the vibe. I can't explain it. I feel a little bit like a dirtbag. In a sense because I am! I come from really rock and roll background or finding things in weird places and sleeping on people's floors.

I'm lucky to own a store in Boston. But that's why I like JP. JP is the most West Coast you can get over here. You can walk into a bar and see a Spanish-speaking couple, two lesbians, a male with a Red Sox baseball hat and they're all sitting at the bar, drinking a beer watching a game. And it's awesome, that's why I like JP. People accept each other.

How do you find clothes?
It's really a mish mash of a million different ways. I'll have a house call and buy a bunch of clothes out of a house after someone passed away. I can go thrifting. I was going to my friend's wedding in Vermont and I saw a yard sale. It's a very erratic way of finding your inventory. The sourcing of this business is what makes it such a strange and difficult business because you don't know where you're getting your next batch of inventory. And if you're having a great week, you're psyched, but you're screwed. Because where are you going to find those vintage sundresses that you just sold? So you get in the car, or hope someone calls you, you have a space to store. I don't know, I couldn't tell you but in a way it makes sense for someone like me. I live my life mainly as an artist. Whether it was having a record deal in my rock band or when I created Punk Rock Aerobics and I did crazy anti-exercise fitness thing in rock clubs around the country, so I've done a lot of weird things to make money, so I can handle it. Sometimes you get dropped from your label, you don't get another deal, but you figure it out.

So tell me about Punk Rock Aerobics.
It's just a really fun concept that I created. I was in rock bands forever and I got dropped from my label when I was 30 and I was really depressed. I didn't see any of my other peers getting signed again. I wanted to do something different but still based in rock and roll. I went to the Boston Conservatory as a dance major actually so I took the concept of rock and fitness and body image with a visual artist, Laura Jasper. She has a really punk rock background. So we melded together and created this concept that was initially a joke. But then it took off. We were in Rolling Stone, People magazine, The New York Times. There was this crazy buzz about it.

The idea of Punk Rock Aerobics was similar to everything in my life: F the status quo. Typical images of beauty and body image, we don't care what you think. So we wanted to have a fitness class that was for the misfits. It was in rock clubs, there were no mirrors. It was dark. We spray painted bricks with our PRA logo and we used bricks as weights and we cut foam as mats. It was a concept. We had a DJ by Mike Watt from The Minutemen. And we didn't really make any money. We had a book deal and we toured it. We did some festivals in LA and London but basically similar to rock and roll, it was a ride that I could make work. But in the end, we didn't want to sell out. We didn't want to franchise or sell the concept to gyms. So it's intellectual property and I still own it. And then Rock and Roll Camp for Girls [in Oregon] asked me to come do Punk Rock Aerobics there so I did. But then I wanted to bring it back to Boston.

Rock and Roll Camp for Girls is absolutely based on self-esteem. A girl when she's 12, you ask her what her best asset is, she'll say, "I'm smart, I'm funny, I can run fast, I can skateboard". Two years later, you ask her what her strongest asset is, she'll say, "I have blue eyes, I'm tall, my hair's curly." It's always a physical attribute. So we try to get them at that age where they realize that it doesn't matter what you look like and you can become anything. Similar to Punk Rock Aerobics, it's not about society; it's not about people telling you what you should be, but rather about what you want to be. It's really important for girls. In my lifetime, I've seen a lot of sad situations come out of girls feeling like they weren't pretty enough or not accepted. Whether it was a drug addiction, it became an addiction itself to be beautiful. It's terrible. I wanted to bring Rock and Roll Camp for Girls here. Now it's huge. We have girls on waiting lists. There are 60 girls. They form bands. Just imagine one giant room of girls with twelve drum kits and they're all practicing. It's so rewarding but it's so exhausting.
Laura Childs
· 40 South Street