Kathleen Schaaf remembers scouring antique shops scattered throughout the length of Fourth Street in search of vintage clothing at 16 years old. “True” vintage, she says—”’30s, ‘40s, ‘50s.” It was 1974.
“Can you imagine what they were stocking in the ‘70s? It was crazy, and it was all 10 cents,” Schaaf told the Long Beach Post.
In 1986, Schaaf would light the neon sign above her very own vintage shop, Meow. Gradually, over 37 years, a prismatic and like-fashioned smattering of shops opened up around Schaaf’s pink neon beacon at 2210 E. Fourth St.
Schaaf’s shop became a Long Beach destination years before the block was crowned “Retro Row”—given that there was no “row” back then. When Schaaf first arrived on the street, there was an antique mall and there was the movie theater, which was a revival house, but today’s Row, spanning from Cherry to Junipero, had yet to materialize.
“The people who lived around here—they went to the bank, they went to the insurance agency, they went to the dry cleaners. But other than that, it was pretty bleak,” said Schaaf, who is also a board member of the Fourth Street Business Improvement Association.
Schaaf pivoted from waitressing while studying costume design at Cal State Long Beach and University of California, Los Angeles to open her shop.
Quickly, Schaaf started to garner attention for her legendary feats in acquiring “dead stock” from various eras—essentially never worn garments that have remained on a shelf somewhere like a warehouse for any number of years.
So much so that by the late ‘80s, Schaaf was working with the sitcom “Roseanne,” supplying the show’s designers with vintage and dead stock. This, she said, led to work with “Seinfeld” in the ‘90s.
On March 1, Schaaf said she has been busier than ever lately with a post-pandemic content boom. These days, Netflix, HBO and other production companies are always on the horn. The Post even had to play a little phone tag.
“It was a hectic morning,” she told the Post that day. “When Hollywood calls, I have to drop everything.”
Schaaf has worked on a few productions you may recognize: “Mad Men,” “Stranger Things,” “Welcome to Chippendales,” “Licorice Pizza”—the list goes on. In fact, it’s so long, Schaaf can’t pull them all from the top of her head.
“I have my cheat sheet somewhere,” she says, prompting her employee Valerie Ramerez. “Valerie, what have we worked on lately? Oh yeah, ‘That ’90s Show’, which is really funny because we worked on the original ‘That ’70s Show’”
Of course, Schaaf couldn’t reveal which film she was working on when we spoke to her in early March.
“Because I know actresses’ sizes. I know plot twists, you know, that kind of stuff,” she said.
Today, there are around nine vintage shops on the street, with a handful of other shops that also offer some retro and vintage garb. Schaaf said it’s not out of the ordinary for her to run to one of those neighboring shops when Hollywood calls and she doesn’t have what the designer needs.
“It took 20 years to build up the street with like-minded people. And now I think we’re kind of like a modern main street.”
Meow stood out like a sore thumb in its inaugural years. Then, in 1990, Kerstin Kansteiner opened Portfolio Coffeehouse. The space was beloved by locals for more than three decades and, in conjunction with Meow, it was responsible for attracting the subculture that still characterizes Retro Row.
“We had a nice back-and-forth traffic,” Kansteiner said.
In the ‘90s, cafe culture was different. For starters, there were no laptops.
Kansteiner didn’t offer early morning hours at Portfolio until much later in the cafe’s 32-year run. In the afternoon, people hung around. They played board games, they participated in chess competitions, they read books and they made friendships. After dark, the space would turn into an indie venue.
“We had a live band almost every other night,” she said.
In those days, Kansteiner and Schaaf remember most of the surrounding businesses being boarded. Many artists and even college professors lived in those buildings.
“Now, the unhoused … they can’t afford a place,” Schaaf said. “But back then, there was lots of interesting street life. Eccentric people could afford to have an apartment … it was a little dicey, but I always felt safe.”
Years before the neighborhood had a business improvement district, the two business owners would meet every Saturday morning with a trash barrel and brooms to clean up the block.
“We would just clean up. You know, kind of sweep other storefronts … to give folks the impression that it was cleaner and safer,” Kansteiner said.
Shortly after, a boutique called Siren would open and run for 18 years. Now, Songbird, a novelty gift and artist shop, operates in its place. But for several years it was just Meow, Portfolio and Siren.
Last year, Portfolio, a pillar of the neighborhood’s defining years, closed permanently after a lengthy dispute with her landlord and four-year legal battle. The iconic corner location remains empty, but Kansteiner has moved on, just up the street within her new venture, Alder & Sage.
Kansteiner said it’s sad to drive past her old cafe, which remains empty, but she’s grateful to be back working in Retro Row.
“It feels like home,” she said.
In 2002, Chris Reece, former drummer of Social Distortion, bought the old Googie-style Chippers Corner where many residents remember sipping 75 cent beers. And long before Chippers, it was Topsy Bobs, which opened in the ‘50s.
When the nautical Pike Restaurant and Bar opened, it was the first Retro Row style eatery. Now, the restaurant to retro shop ratio is much closer than it used to be. Lola’s, The Social List, Vine, Art du Vin, Wide Eyes Open Palms have all been Retro Row staples for years now. And twice as many bakeries and bars have opened up nearby, pushing Retro Row’s borders farther.
Before the Pike opened, Reece started publishing a quarterly shoppers map detailing the locations of all the Long Beach antique, vintage and thrift stores. When a cluster of these shops gradually appeared around Schaaf’s shop, he marked the area “Retro Row” on his map.
Once the Press-Telegram started printing that name, Reece said, it just stuck.