I visited Heirloom Antique Center & Furniture Hospital on Route 5 in White River Junction a few times before I noticed a pair of French doors almost hidden behind hutches and bric-a-brac. At the time, one door was closed and the other half open, partially blocked by chest-high bolts of fabric on the other side. This was my alluring introduction to Mainly Vintage.
When I crossed the store’s threshold, I was greeted by a yesteryear fairyland: The fluorescent-lit room held a jumble of hats, purses, evening dresses, lace, quilts and boots, all spilling from racks and boxes in labyrinthine arrangements. One plastic bin fairly exploded with sparkly belts. Handbags seemed to cover every horizontal surface. Cowboy and riding boots lined up on each stair step seemed intended to entice visitors to the lower level. There hung a pair of lederhosen; hundreds more dresses, coats and sweaters beckoned.
Of course, thousands had found Mainly Vintage before me, but as the store’s sole customer at that moment, I was struck by the stories these clothes could tell.
And the objects that fill Mainly Vintage do have stories behind them — not just the unknowable tales of their original owners, but those of proprietor Ann Hayden, who began collecting clothing in the 1970s. Her particular passion is for the accessories on the top floor — the “more fragile things,” she calls them, such as clutches, beaded belts and satin gloves.
Then there are the hats. Nearly 250 fill the store, from bowlers and fascinators to safari-style fedoras and newsboy caps. Hayden keeps hundreds more in storage — perhaps 1000 in all, she guesses.
“I have hats I haven’t seen in 15 years,” says Hayden, a petite woman with cropped hair and deep-set blue eyes, who looks at least a decade younger than her 72 years. “I also like leather. I like luggage. I love hand-loomed things.”
Hayden, who grew up in central California, began collecting nearly four decades ago when she was bouncing around the globe as the wife of a diplomatic service officer. The couple lived in the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Denmark and Belgium, among other countries. “We moved a lot,” Hayden understates. She began picking up light objects in flea markets and bazaars that could be carted easily from place to place — particularly textiles and lace.
Over the years, Hayden’s collection reached critical mass, though it happened so gradually that she didn’t register the accumulation until 1981, when she was living in Washington, D.C., and considering her next move. “All that I had gathered would be the nucleus for starting a business, though I didn’t know it at the time,” she says.
Hayden’s sister, Susan Hillis, also married to a man in the foreign service, had amassed her own linens and eclectic selection of objects. Together, the women began setting up tables at flea markets, both in D.C. and in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley, where Hillis had a home. At first, the sisters primarily sold textile goods. “And people liked it,” Hayden recalls. “We didn’t really make any money, but it was an opportunity to do something together.”
Eventually, the pair bought a “monstrous” Victorian house on Main Street in sleepy Haverhill, N.H., and filled the rooms with bedspreads, tablecloths, fabric, clothing and Hayden’s growing assortment of hats. Almost everything they sold was made between the 1880s and the 1940s — and the theatrical house, with its high ceilings, stained glass and carved-wood details, “was a good stage,” Hayden recalls.
At first, the sisters opened their shop, called Victorian on Main, only during the summers. But gradually their season expanded — through Columbus Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Merchandise eventually filled the first floor, with more clothing and accessories in storage upstairs. “It sort of spread out,” Hayden says, and the shop garnered local and national press. The sisters “grudgingly” brought in clothing from more modern eras, while Hillis continued to travel and bring back foreign wares.
Within a few years, Hayden was living full time with her daughter in the Upper Valley and running Victorian on Main all year. In 2003, however, Hayden’s family decided to sell the house, and she and her sister parted ways. Hayden rented space inside Heirloom Furniture Hospital in White River Junction and carted her collection 35 miles south to this busy stretch of Route 5.
Despite the tighter space, she kept searching and adding to her medley — especially accessories. “You can have this really cool dress. But put on some gloves and a hat and grab a cool purse, and the whole thing comes alive,” Hayden says.
When I point out that she herself is dressed almost entirely in black, without a single accoutrement, she says with a shrug, “I’ve become a minimalist.”
So, perhaps, has everyone else. Though her business is still steady, Hayden seems dismayed that the art of accessorizing has faded with the years. In the past, she notes, “Women were shoppers. That’s what they were born for.” Their passion, she suggests, gave rise to well-crafted, exquisite accessories that largely don’t exist anymore. Or at least aren’t considered necessary.
Until recently, Hayden says, she would see customers whose attire reflected a single era or aesthetic. For instance, “Gals would come in dressed totally in ’50s,” she notes, or “totally dressed to the nines. They wouldn’t even consider going out otherwise.”
Asked where she finds some of her treasures, Hayden is politely cryptic. “Anywhere I can,” she says. “Attics, basements. I used to get a lot of stuff at auction, but it’s just not there anymore.”
As if on cue, the phone rings, and Hayden fields a call asking if she’s interested in purchasing some vintage fur coats and hats. She gently demurs, because fur “moves slowly,” and Mainly Vintage already has a healthy stock — such as the gorgeous, cream-colored rabbit swing coat hanging above the stairway.
During my visit, a customer wanders in — a woman who appears to be in her fifties — and Hayden interrupts our conversation to ask if she’d like help.
“No. I’m just overwhelmed,” the woman says with a laugh, looking slightly dazed. A sharp observer, Hayden tries to steer her toward the basement. There, customers patient enough to rummage through racks can find anything from a German military coat to a 1950s cashmere cardigan to a smoking jacket, wedding dress or jumpsuit — and many, if not most, pieces are under $50.
“Finding, for me, is the fun part. I get a real high,” says Hayden, who works fastidiously on some of the pieces she buys — repairing tears, replacing buttons or reconditioning leather. She holds up one example for inspection: a gossamer blouse made in 1915 from a fabric called lawn. “It’s an incredibly cool, earthy cotton,” Hayden says almost reverently. “It’s very fine. You can put this on with a suit, and it feminizes it, softens it.”
As we look at a high shelf filled with hats — some perched on mannequin heads — she pulls down an elegant, striped-velvet one from the 1940s. “The old milliners really were craftspeople,” Hayden comments.
Before I leave, I try on a pair of cognac-colored, knee-high leather boots that Hayden brought in a few days earlier. As I slide one foot in and feel a perfect fit, I, too, experience a tiny rush of the find. “Those look good on you,” Hayden says earnestly.
I leave with them on my feet, one more Mainly Vintage score.
Mainly Vintage, 672 North Main Street (Route 5), White River Junction, 295-9949. Open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and by appointment on Sundays.
The print version of this article was headlined "Heat Head".