Local Vintage Clothing Store Owner Passes Along Her Legacy After 22 Years

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.

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An aerial view of Cheap Thrills. The store sells clothing, costumes and accessories, including shoes, jewelry, hats, and bags.

“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.

Audri Thomason, 26, stands in front of the clothes she has collected and plans to sell at Cheap Thrills once she is the owner. Wells is passing along the store’s ownership after 22 years.

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.

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Harriet Wells, 61, stands in front of a few fezzes for sale at Cheap Thrills. She opened the store in 1992 and owned it ever since. She will pass along its ownership to Audri Thomason on April 25.

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.

 

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More than 2,200 miles away from his home in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Alejandro Zeballos is thriving in a small university town in northwest Arkansas.

Fayetteville is home to 65 Bolivian university-goers like Zeballos. The University of Arkansas’ Bolivian populace makes up a considerable community compared with that of neighboring colleges, none of which have programs that match those at the UofA, especially for Bolivians.

“It had always kind of been a dream of mine to study in the United States,” Zeballos said.

Because of a decades-deep partnership with eastern Bolivia, Zeballos, 19, pays in-state tuition at the UofA, which saves him nearly $8,000 each year.

There are no Southeastern conference schools that offer Bolivians a scholarship or tuition discount comparable to that of the UofA’s, although some schools allow international students to apply for in-state tuition after one year of enrollment. Even the other two states partnered with Bolivia–North Carolina, partnered with Cochabamba and Utah, partnered with La Paz–don’t offer Bolivians in-state tuition, Partners of the Americas executives of those states said.

It was this tuition discount and the school’s business college that drew him in. This is a common theme among Bolivians looking to the U.S. for university opportunities, as others said they were impressed by the Walton College of Business’ national ratings. Zeballos, a marketing major, also took this into account when choosing a university.

“Consuming American media and seeing how this ‘world’ is completely different than mine has always appealed to me,” Zeballos said. “It was kind of a no-brainer,” he added, referring to the WCOB’s No. 27 ranking among the best public colleges according to U.S. News & World Report.

Zeballos stays busy in northwest Arkansas as the vice president of the International Bolivian Organization, the interim president of Occam’s Razors, as a photographer for New Student and Family Programs, and as the student coordinator for Friday Night Live, which provides students with alternative on-campus activities.

The UofA offers other tuition advantage programs in addition to the Bolivian Tuition Advantage. Caribbean, Panamanian and Rwandan students may also receive in-state tuition.

Bolivians make up the fourth largest international student group on the campus, preceded by China, India and Panama. Bolivia’s presence at the UofA is due largely in part to Partners of the Americas, which linked Arkansas with eastern Bolivia–Santa Cruz, in particular–in 1964.

“We are unique, from that standpoint,” said Robert Frans, former executive director of the Partners chapter in northwest Arkansas.

Frans, an expert in weed science, made several trips to Bolivia during his more than 30 years as a member of Partners of the Americas. He primarily worked with locals to make agricultural developments in Eastern Bolivia.

“It was exciting, getting to know another culture like that,” Frans said. “It was really fulfilling. I think it opened me up a good bit.”

While on a Partners-related trip to Bolivia in 1973, Frans met Maria Teresa Villanueva, a native Bolivian who was an English teacher in La Paz. Just six months later, the two married, and Maria Teresa Frans returned with her husband to Fayetteville to study languages at the university.

“In the early years of the program, she was looked upon as one of the ‘mothers,’ I suppose, of the students who were getting started up here,” Frans said of her involvement with Bolivian students at the UofA.

It was upon her death in 1994 that the Maria Teresa Frans scholarship was established for Bolivians. The scholarship offers $500 to one eligible student each year.

“We are happy to provide this support for Bolivian students,” Frans said. “We only wish it were larger.”

Ana Lucia Paz Soldan Andrade is the most recent recipient, as she was awarded the scholarship last fall.

The Bolivian community in Fayetteville tightens further as connections are made after those students begin their schooling. Sometimes, students will end up on the same airline headed back to Bolivia, said freshman Fernanda Suarez, who also met up with her cousin upon her arrival to Fayetteville.

Zeballos didn’t make connections with peers he knew from back home after his arrival, although he said he has known a couple of older students from his high school who attended the UofA, and he’s become close friends with several Bolivians since his arrival.

Perhaps because Zeballos is active within the Bolivian community here in northwest Arkansas, he makes it back to Santa Cruz about once a year. He’s able to keep in frequent contact with his parents back home, mostly via text message, and he receives emotional and financial support from his parents for his Arkansas adventures.

He determined, after doing extensive research, that Fayetteville was a good place to begin a career and, ultimately, a life.

“It was a life changing decision,” Zeballos said.

It’s 7 a.m. Cynthia Benson has just woken up, and she is getting ready for her day. She will likely not be home again until 8 or 9 p.m., so she packs all of her meals ahead of time. After she drops her daughter off at her father’s house, she heads to her classes beginning at 9:30 a.m. at the University of Arkansas.

Benson’s days regularly push 17 hours. She works four jobs to support herself and her two-year-old daughter, in addition to paying for an education.

The problem that arises for college students like Benson is that a college degree is essential to attain a higher-paying job. High school graduates only earn approximately 62 percent of that of college graduates, according to a Pew Research Center survey. To make ends meet until graduation, students must rely on hourly jobs to cover bills and the cost of attending college.

Benson, 22, works 16 hours each week, on top of attending school full-time. She teaches two fitness classes, waits tables for $2.33 per hour, and writes for the school newspaper for about $20 each week. Stacking those jobs enables her to provide for herself and her daughter, and pay the difference after scholarships are applied to the cost of her education.

She is a part of a trend of an increasing number of students paying for college expenses on their own, except she has the added expense of caring for her child.

In Arkansas, 4.3 percent of all employees work more than one job, according to a 2010 survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“If I could quit working one of my jobs I could have more down time at home with my daughter,” Benson said. But she said she is making just enough to get by.

To balance working four jobs, Benson developed a system to help her meet all of her obligations. For example, she sets specific times for spending time with her daughter and for homework. To manage her time, she makes an hour-by-hour agenda for each day.

“The hardest thing for me is finding time to clean my house or put laundry away–little things like that,” Benson said.

When she isn’t at school or work, she is at ballet classes or rehearsals. Classes and rehearsal take up a large portion of the little free time she has, and push her nights back to 8:45 p.m. After she puts her daughter to bed, she is finally able to work on homework.

Benson said she looks forward to graduating college and getting a job that will allow her to focus on dance and her daughter.

“Because of my obligations and lack of money, I don’t really ever do anything with friends or spend money on ‘fun’ things,” Benson said.

She is on the right track, according to several studies conducted by Pew Research Center in 2013. College graduates say that college is worth the investment, and college-educated millenials are more likely to see themselves as having a career or being on board to attain one.

Often, in order to juggle school and work, sacrifices must be made. In Benson’s case, it’s her free time.

Lucy Harris, 20, is another Arkansan from Little Rock who had to make sacrifices in order to pay the bills. Between working two jobs at just above the minimum wage and going to school full time, it just wasn’t possible to do it all. Harris had to take time off from school – and give up her prestigious Donaghey scholarship at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock – to make time to work to pay bills.

“I ran out of money a lot, and the stress from not being able to make ends meet almost failed me out of school,” Harris said. “Now I’m working two jobs trying to get back into school.”

From an economic perspective, it’s vastly accepted that attending college is a worthwhile endeavor, said Salar Jahedi, a UA economics professor.

It isn’t as simple as comparing the salaries of college graduates and those who only completed high school, Jahedi said.

In theory, there are a few ways researchers have tried to measure the cost of attending college, Jahedi said. Computing the benefits using the above method, of course, reveals that college is a great investment. But this is method is incorrect, he said. Often, those students who attend college have skills that would increase their salaries even if they did not attend college.

“Thus far, it appears that college is still a good investment on average than not attending college,” Jahedi said.

This won’t be true for every graduate, however, as the price of attending college continues to rise and the benefits remain constant, Jahedi said.

Benson said that despite her hectic schedule, she is happy to have her daughter, and she remains optimistic.

“For now, I’m just working and doing the best I can in every area of my life,” Benson said.

FAYETTEVILLE–Betty Anderson views her life as orderly as that of the English alphabet: you must pass one letter before arriving at the next, and where you are now couldn’t have happened without what came before, good or bad.

“Alphabet soup. That’s what I like to call it,” she said.

Seventh grade was perhaps Anderson’s “A” in this chain of events, where she was among the first black students to be integrated into the formerly all-white West Side Junior High School in Little Rock.

Anderson, now 64, has spent the last 30 years revisiting people and places from her past, and sometimes that includes revisiting periods of racial oppression. When she isn’t volunteering at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville or spending time with her family, she’s likely on the University of Arkansas campus, where she is working on her master’s degree in theater and a three-part play called “Out of One Blood” that is based upon those experiences beginning in junior high.

“The scripture for Acts 17:26 had been with me and a part of my life since I was in seventh grade,” Anderson said of the Bible verse from which she drew the name for her trilogy.

The verse is a source of inspiration for her trilogy, along with notes gathered for another original piece that she developed in the 1980s called “Sitting on the Flat Side of a Dime­–Learning Spiritual Principles From Life’s Experiences.”

In 1961, just four years after the racial integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Anderson and eight other black students stepped bravely into the halls of the junior high. At the time, Anderson didn’t feel like she was making any waves, but she did find importance in clearing a path upon which her younger sisters would one day walk.

“I still remember my daddy saying, ‘better books at West Side,’” Anderson said, “which is true, but I didn’t want to go.”

Anderson wanted to attend an all-black school with her childhood classmates and neighborhood friends. But, she passed the personality test administered to black student and teacher candidates for integration into white schools, and was pushed into a successful but difficult academic career.

The group of black students was split up among several classes at West Side. Though some of her teachers were encouraging, others did what they could to make sure she didn’t excel beyond the white students in her classes. In one instance, a math teacher curved test grades so that her 98 percent grade on a test fell to a B.

Another one of the nine integrated students who went on to high school with Anderson, Kenneth Jones, said he remembered one teacher consistently gave him bad grades, but gave Anderson good grades. One day, Anderson came up with the idea to switch their papers, and she was given a good grade for Jones’ paper, and he received a poor grade for Anderson’s paper.

“We supported each other emotionally, psychologically, and academically. We did everything we could to build each other up,” Jones said.

Anderson reminded him that he was not to blame for the problem, and that it was the teacher to blame because she could not overcome her personal prejudices against the boy.

After lunch one day, Anderson and a white boy got into a fight on the school’s tennis court. While standing in a long line of antsy seventh graders waiting to go back inside, she mumbled, “I just hope somebody kicks me.” As soon as she had, she felt a sharp pain in her back. Though both students were injured after the fight, and the boy initiated the violence, she was sent home and the boy was taken to the doctor.

“They set us up to fail,” Anderson said.

Nevertheless, Anderson graduated from Little Rock Central High School in the top 10 percent of her class.

In 1967, Walter Cronkite of CBS News interviewed her on national television for her achievements, which also included being the first black student to work in the school’s bookstore and being the first black student to direct the senior class play.

As a member of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Anderson competed in oratorical contests statewide and won awards for her speeches. Her love for the stage, she said, took root at this time.

Also while at LRCHS, Anderson and two of her close friends formed a musical group called “The Pearls,” for which they wrote musical numbers and sewed their own costumes. The girls were the first black students to perform in the school’s talent show.

After graduation, Anderson took her all-white cap and gown and drug the attire down and up the steep front steps of the school, then folded them neatly and put them back into the box for return.

“Choice Made, Price Paid” is what Anderson calls the third part of her trilogy, which alludes to her and her classmates’ experiences out of grade school. Though they’ve all become relatively successful, she said, it was not without a price.

“I had deep, conflicted feelings about my time at both West Side and LRCHS,” she said. “I harbored a lot of rage for a long time.”

She was drawn to Augsberg College in Minneapolis, Minn., because of the Guthrie Theater located just a little over a mile away. Anderson studied communication and speech, which reflected her favorite subjects throughout grade school and college: English and drama.

Just out of college, she worked for the Minneapolis Spokesman, a small black newspaper. From 1972 to 1981, she worked as the head librarian for the Arkansas Gazette, a job which she jokingly tells people was what caused her first marriage to break apart.

“I married the Gazette,” she said.

From then on, Anderson worked several odd jobs in communications, marketing and sales to support her daughter, Maliaka, whom she had in 1972 with her first husband.

In 2005, Anderson faced the challenge of helping Maliaka recover from a serious illness that left her unable to remember any events that had happened to her over the past three years, including the birth of her daughter.

“She is a spiritual-minded woman, but she’s also independent,” said long-time friend Magdalene Taylor. “She’s always thinking and planning and moving forward.”

Anderson finally caught a breath of fresh air during this tragic time when she met her second husband through an online dating site. Lawrence Anderson was a part of the family immediately upon moving to Fayetteville in 2006, as he took Maliaka to rehab every day after her recovery.

Betty and Lawrence married in 2007.

She officially enrolled in the graduate program at the UofA in 2013. Since being a part of the theater program, she has directed and acted in plays and musicals at the school. She plans to graduate in 2016 with two graduate degrees, in theater and in African-American studies.

“Black theater has a different message, or raison d’etre,” she said. “We have to shine a light on the things that the world would not necessarily think about in its normal, day-to-day goings-on.”

Anderson’s ultimate goal is for “Out of One Blood” to be taught to students. She continues to impart the knowledge she’s gained from her experiences to the people she meets.