› What: Bettieville Swap Night
› Where: 804 Chickamauga Ave, Rossville, Ga.
› When: 6-8 p.m. on the last Thursday of the month
› Information: 706-419-8343 or https://www.facebook.com/bettieville
› What: Children’s Orchard
› Where: 291 Paul Huff Parkway NW, Cleveland, Tenn.
› Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m Monday-Friday; 10 a.m-5 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday.
› Information: 423-472-3595 or www.childrensorchard.com/stores/cleveland-tn
The stretch of Chickamauga Avenue in Rossville, Ga., seems an unlikely draw for fashionistas — bail bondsmen, muffler repair shops, used car lots, thrift stores, tattoo parlors and wig shops — then the eye drifts across a vintage stove colored the deep pink of cherry blossoms; it's sitting curbside next to an antique school desks — all are for sale.
And behind them sits an explosion of color named Bettieville that's located, as it says on the front window, in "RossVegas, Georgia."
One window is painted over with a Roy Lichtenstein-style mural of a bosomy ponytailed blonde kissing a handsome Romeo wearing a black shirt and scarlet blazer. The Bride of Frankenstein is painted on the opposite window. Silky curtains in violet, chartreuse, tangerine and jade flutter in between and a cow skull covered in fake jewels glitters on the window sill. Next to the door, a sky blue toilet has the word "Butts" painted on the open lid with an arrow pointing to the sand-filled bowl that serves as an ashtray for cigarettes.
But the women who stream in the door at 6 p.m. head directly toward Bettieville owner Andie Sellars, who is rolling empty clothes racks toward them. It's the last Thursday of the month and that means it's Clothing Swap Night, a retail adventure in which shoppers bring clothes and— hopefully — leave with new ones.
A swapper may walk away with a Vera Wang handbag, a gorgeous 1940s necklace by pioneering black jewelry designer Art Smith or a 1970s vest crocheted with silvery thread and decorated with tiny mirrors and glass beads. And the lucky woman who snags one of those treasures gets it absolutely free — but a shopper who brings in 10 items might leave with nothing. It's all luck.
"The rules are simple; bring in at least three items that are seasonal and in good condition," explains Lisa Pepper, a swapper who scores a cute pair of black espadrilles for herself and a blouse covered with lavender cats for her kitty-crazed niece. "It's on the honor system. I've never seen Andie check anyone's donations. And everyone seems to obey the rules."
Sellars, 38, is as colorful as her vibrant store. Her frosted brunette hair tumbles past her shoulders. Tattoos of roses and stars entwine her arms and throat and a spider's web floats over one eyebrow. And yes, the name of her store is an homage to 1950s pin-up star Bettie Page.
"I was amazed by how many people hoard clothing from the '60s and '70s that is in mint condition; they would come in and dump it onto a table in front of me and sometimes not ask to be paid at all," Sellars says. "They just want to clean out the closets."
On swap nights, if there is something really unique, a woman might bring it directly to me first so I can sell it. That's their nice way of supporting the store. Like this one a regular gave me tonight" — she turns to grab a dress hanging from the window of her office — "I would keep for myself to wear if I could fit into it.
The dress is fabulous and unusual. It is a crisply tailored, pale blue with a pleated skirt imprinted with Norman Rockwell paintings. The inside label says it is made in the U.S., which would probably date it before the 1980s, Sellars decides. She will research its origins later and price it accordingly. But she does not screen the swap donations prior to the actual swapping because part of the draw is the similarity to a treasure hunt.
Swap 'n' Shop
The May Swap Night attracts dozens of women of all ages, shapes and sizes from zero to 22. Some carry a toddler with one arm and a bag of clothes and jewelry in the other. The women begin filling the racks with clothes they brought and don't want. There's a basket for shoes. A woman drops coral, plum and azure bras into a different basket.
The entire store is packed with swap attendees by 7 p.m., but this is not a big-box Christmas freak show. No one throws a punch over a dress; no one wrestles shoes or purses out of another woman's hands. The women are polite, friendly and even collaborative. One middle-aged woman examines a skirt she loves at first glance but decides it would look better on a nearby stranger and hands it to the delighted woman.
Danae Sweeton, a delicate blonde, dips into the loaded racks and comes away with a stunning pea coat make of a satiny material with a tailored flounce at the hem and fluted sleeves. Female shoppers who love vintage often despair because most stores only have sizes that fit women as young and slender as Sweeton and Pepper. But the Bettieville swap has gained local Facebook fame for having stylish finds in very big plus sizes and for middle-aged women and older women. Most of them first heard of the swaps by word of mouth.
"We all keep track of the swaps on the Facebook events page for the store. A lot of the women who attend the swap stay to shop," Sellars says cheerfully.
Make room for baby
But Bettieville isn't the only local shop that trades in gently worn clothes — some focus on baby clothes and items.
Up in Cleveland, Tenn., on Paul Huff Parkway, Children's Orchard owner Dan Black has offered customers, often women, a similar chance to save money and score a fashionable find. He buys baby clothing and accessories such motorized rocking cradles, strollers and toys. The sellers can choose cash or a store credit.
"We offer 25 percent more in credit than we would in cash, and moms can find cute outfits in style because we ask that the clothing be no more than five years old," says Black, who has run the store — part of a nationwide chain with another location in Murfreesboro — for 12 years and can tell how old a baby outfit is simply by its color palette.
Black does not sell vintage clothes, so you won't find clothes to create a grunge-rock baby in red-and-black plaid and Doc Marten boots or a Greed Decade baby in a neon onesie with 1980s shoulder pads
"I have three children of my own plus grandbabies, so I have seen infant clothes through several decades," he says, chuckling. "In the 1990s there were parachute pants that the rapper MC Hammer wore and made popular with kids for awhile."
He and his wife opened the store with her mother and father and, since the older couple retired, now run it themselves. As scary as the 2007 recession was, Black was pleasantly surprised that 2008 was one of Children's Orchard's best sales years.
"We do sell some new items like baby bottles, but customers can save so much on clothes and also strollers and cradles and bouncing chairs that are in excellent condition after another mother has used them," Black explains.
"We have about 200 regulars who have sold us clothing more than once. As their baby grows older and too big for one size, they sell it and swap it for another larger size in the store or just buy it here."
While Black's tiny clients hurtle forward into the future, back in Bettieville, dancer Dorothy Demure has found a time tunnel into the past via a pair of 1970s sky-high heels. She is too young to remember the decade, so she is puzzled by the clear plastic chamber beneath the shoes' large rounded toe. Another customer, who lived through the 1970s, explains that the shoes were known as Disco Goldfish Heels and each chamber was filled with water so tiny, live goldfish could swim in them.
Jodie Simon is older than Demure but fit and trim. She gravitates toward a sheath dress whose narrow bands of crimson and magenta give it a luxurious couture sheen; it would have looked great in Studio 54 in the late '70s and early '80s. But she tosses it to a friend.
"I'm just not sure my personality is bold enough for those colors — yet," Simon says. "The good thing is, there will be another swap next month and another chance to get something great."
Contact Lynda Edwards at 423-757-6391 or email@example.com.
This story was updated June 7 at 6:25 p.m. with minor edits.