Talks with Tim is a weekly Q&A by Tim Grobaty, who has been a columnist in Long Beach for nearly 50 years. If you’d like to suggest an interesting or influential person in Long Beach for this (unconventional) interview, reach him at [email protected].
Kathleen Schaaf opened her vintage clothing store Meow at 2210 E. Fourth St. in 1986, pioneering the opening of other similar shops on Fourth Street that would become Long Beach’s Retro Row. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.
Tim Grobaty: What question would you like to ask yourself?
Kathleen Schaaf: Kathleen, when are you going to take a vacation?
Q: Well, you do travel a lot. Are you still taking road trips to buy clothing?
A: Yes. More than ever. I’m almost a million-miler on Delta. I used to go out every six weeks or every other month, but now I’m going just about every month.
Q: Those are business trips, though. Not a relaxing vacation.
A: I used to have the rare opportunity to go all over the world. Before he retired, my husband was a stagehand for Bruce Springsteen and he went all over the world, so I would check his itinerary and look for places he was playing and use my Delta miles and go. And so I was flying for free and staying for free with my husband in hotels and seeing the concert. I went to Europe, South America, Australia, New Zealand. Those were great times.
Q: What does your husband do now?
A: He stays at home with the dog—we have a new puppy, a German shepherd mixed with, I think, some Belgian malinois—to try to keep her from destroying the house. She’s going for her first swim lesson today and also having some play dates with a sibling. She’s very lovable and will just lick your face to death. I thought I was biting my lip while I was asleep, then it turned out it was Smidge nibbling on me. She’s named Smidge because she was just a smidge smaller than her littermates.
Q: Are you still finding a lot of vintage clothes on your road trips?
A: Yeah, there’s still a lot out there, but you’ve gotta dig. Now there are so many people retiring and getting rid of their old clothes, and you have to get out there to other states to find them. There are always pop-ups and small stores that you would never know about unless you get out there on the road and hear things about, like, someone doing a pop-up behind a liquor store on the third Wednesday of every month. There are a lot of people selling now after the pandemic. It’s the same sort of surge that we saw after the Recession.
Q: How old does clothing have to be to be vintage?
A: I’d say 20 years. We’re selling things from the early 2000s. It’s all new to the people who didn’t wear it back in 2000. My customers have always worn true vintage, from the 1940s through the ’70s. Now I have to do research for what the later trends are. That’s been challenging. Luckily I have a younger staff to help me out with that. I do a lot of selling to movies and TV shows and they’re looking for 2000 clothes now. Next, we’ll be that 2010 store. Costume designers are knocking on my door already for clothes from 10 and 15 years ago.
Q: You’ve been in business since 1986. How’s business overall now?
A: It’s not a bad time to be in vintage. The community in Long Beach especially has always embraced the store and the street. Right now I’m waiting for the writers’ strike to be over. I have things out for fitting and some people tell me their show might not be coming back. They’ve already canceled two shows we’ve been working with, HBO’s “Winning Time” and ABC’s “The Wonder Years.” But we should be starting up again when the strike’s over with “Stranger Things” and a new Bob Dylan biopic. When the strike’s over it’s gonna be crazy, just like after the pandemic, with everyone going back to work. After the pandemic, we were so busy I wanted to split myself in two.
Q: You’re famous for outfitting “Seinfeld.” I’m guessing a lot of that was for the Kramer character.
A: Yeah, a lot of Kramer. With comedies there’s always that one kookie character.
Q: Do you wear vintage clothes all the time?
A: I’ve worn vintage ever since I was in grade school, but that was mostly hand-me-downs from my aunt. I thought I was the shit because I was 12 and wearing all this cool stuff. And I bought a lot when I’d go thrifting. It was fun. It still is. But these days I’m behind the scenes so much that now I dress like Dennis the Menace or a sea hag down at the docks.
Q: Are there places you buy from regularly?
A: The last couple of years I’ve been traveling back to my sources from the ’90s. I was dealing with grandmas and grandpas, then dads and moms, now I’m dealing with their daughters. Coming out of COVID I was in the deep South and there was a guy selling a bunch of stuff from the ’60s. Now I’m dealing with his niece.
Q: What’s the current trend in old clothes?
A: Customers coming out of the pandemic want something cozy and comfortable. I’m not seeing a lot of glitzy evening wear. It’s a scary world out there, you want to feel safe and comfortable.
Q: When you started Meow did you think it would last this long?
A: I just kind of jumped into it and I don’t think I thought it through with the bills, the taxes, the staffing, but looking back I think I was supposed to do this. All the adventures I’ve had and that I’m still having. I’m doing a trade show in Tokyo this year. I have girl groupies in Japan. I do podcasts, put together playlists. These are just some of the things that have happened that I’ve said yes to and I’ll just keep saying yes to any opportunity that comes up.