A tall 20-something steps from behind a turquoise curtain wearing a long, satin pink formal dress. The dress may have been–in another decade, perhaps–called ‘elegant’ or ‘classy,’ for the heavily sequined torso and loofah-sized, lace shoulder pads might not communicate sophistication and style by today’s standards.
“That’s really cute,” says Audri Thomason, looking back at the girl and smiling from behind a sales counter. The girl in the dated prom dress looks at herself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror facing the fitting room stalls, and her friends giggle and nod in approval. The garment shall be donned at a tacky prom later in the evening.
Thomason, 26, is new to the Fayetteville area compared with some of the other women working at Cheap Thrills, a vintage clothing and costume shop situated just off of the downtown square. She moved to Fayetteville from Pennsylvania about a year ago. Soon after, she and her husband decided to purchase the shop from its original owner, Harriet Wells, 61.
“We’re going to kind of ‘new’ it up,” Thomason said.
Cheap Thrills will remain at its 120 S. East Ave. location, and Wells is expected to continue to work at least part-time at the store. One of Thomason’s main goals is improving the store’s online marketing, which the two women agreed was necessary to lift the store’s sales out of its current slump.
“To be in this market at this day in age, you need to be on Instagram, you need to be on Facebook, and I’m not very much into all of that,” Wells said. True, as other local clothing shops like Belle Boutique and Riffraff take advantage of social media to appeal to the city’s population of university students.
Cheap Thrills does have Web pages on Pinterest and Instagram, but under new ownership its online presence is expected to boom. She also hopes to expand upon the store’s costume stock, which currently brings in about a fifth of the store’s customers. Wells and Thomason agreed that it is a huge undertaking.
Wells and Thomason agreed that it is a huge undertaking.
“It’s nerve-wracking and a little overwhelming because, you know, we’re taking on someone’s baby that they’ve created and of course we want to make them proud and make the community proud,” Thomason said.
Thomason and her husband have spent the last few weeks at Cheap Thrills getting to know the employees and the clientele. They’ve also begun cleaning out the upper level, which originally stored extra stock and supplies, and planning for some remodeling of the walls. Thomason said that, eventually, the upper level will serve as a workplace of sorts.
“I want to be able to fix clothes that come in, alter dresses, spruce up cutoffs and work on costumes,” Thomason said. “I want to get to where I can do pretty much everything.”
Wells said that her 22-year-old business was worth the time and effort she poured into the store, but that she is ready to pass along its ownership. She opened the store not long after she’d gone back to school to study health education at the University of Arkansas. Wells never attained her degree, as Cheap Thrills demanded her time, and she ultimately decided she didn’t want to pursue a career in the medical field. By then, though, the store had grown enough to be a primary source of income for Wells. Most of all, she said, she will miss “her people.”
“People are so attached to this store. That’s one thing that I’ve found out since I’ve started telling them,” Wells said of breaking the news to her regulars. “I’ve had some people just stand there and cry. It means a lot to me that people are so attached to this store.”
Wells opened the store in May of 1992 with the intention of selling name-brand clothes for cheap, as well as furniture, housewares and knickknacks–“kind of like an awesome yard sale,” she said. She scouted out most of these items herself, at first, at thrift stores and yard sales.
Now, most of the clothing, shoes, hats, bags, jewelry and costumes come from customers who either donate or sell their old apparel to the store. Most of it is sold in the storefront, but Wells has sold clothing in bulk to various projects over the years.
In 1994, not long after Wells opened the store, she received a phone call. It was mostly an ordinary transaction; a buyer wanted to purchase about three dozen blue jeans for a film. Just before hanging up the phone, she asked the man what the film was called.
“He said, ‘Forrest Gump.’ And after I hung up, I said, ‘That’s not going to be a hit,” Wells said, laughing.
The store was originally located on Block Street and took up all of approximately 900 square feet. Wells spent five years there before relocating to accommodate for her growing business. She also sought to provide a haven of sorts for shoppers that would enable them to open up and have fun upon entering the shop. That particular goal of Cheap Thrills has held over the years, Wells said, and Thomason said she will continue to promote that kind of environment.
“They can come in here and feel like they can be themselves,” Thomason said. “A lot of stores you go into and you feel like their employees are judging you or are snarky or snotty. I don’t want that. I want it to feel like home.”
Usually, Wells manages just three other employees at one time, although she hires temporary workers for the weeks leading up to Halloween. Dolores Miller, an employee of five and a half years, said that working at Cheap Thrills is one of the most fun jobs she’s ever had. She said she likes interacting with the shoppers.
“Well, like all the girls who were just in here doing their tacky prom. I told them, ‘You can definitely look gorgeous and have fun at a tacky prom. And they did–they all looked wonderful,” Miller said. “I like people. And this is a wonderful ‘people’ job.”
Miller said that the transition of store ownership from Wells to Thomason will be bittersweet.
“It’s an ending, but it’s a new beginning at the same time,” Miller said. “They’re going to be fantastic. I think that they’re naturals, they’re excited about what they’re going to do. I think this is a dream of theirs, and that it’s going to be really, really great for them, and for all of us.”
People of all ages come into the shop, including some who shopped at Cheap Thrills in its early years.
“I came here while in college, and we would buy stuff for our parties–like, for ’70s parties and all that kind of stuff,” said Laura Hilliard, a University of Arkansas alumni who now lives in Little Rock.
The store attracts shoppers looking for outfits for formal occasions, too. One such shopper, Krystiana Crites, 23, said that last May she bought a floral short dress at Cheap Thrills for a wedding. But the store doesn’t just rely upon women for business.
“I had this guy in here one day–he’s a doctor here in town–and he said, ‘I just want to tell you, that Cheap Thrills is the jewel of Fayetteville,’” Wells said. “It makes me happy that people love it that much.”
The official transition occurred April 25. Thomason said she is determined to improve upon Wells’ legacy.
“I want to make her proud,” Thomason said.