A 1940s-era gangsta held a sign outside a Harden Street store announcing the end of an era on Thursday afternoon.
Inside, a woman in a dress from the Carter administration years checked out a customer while another worker wore clothes fit for a beat poetry happening.
The employees were modeling what Hip Wa Zee has become famous for during the last two decades — selling vintage clothing and costumes to Five Points shoppers. But these are sad days for the store’s employees and customers. Next month, Hip Wa Zee will close for good.
“It’s the last time you can shoplift at Hip Wa Zee,” the 1940s gangsta said outside the shop as he waved a “Store Closing” sign.
For owner Leslie Minerd, the closing shows the shift in a changing retail landscape. More to the heart, it feels like she is losing a part of herself, she said. Through Hip Wa Zee, she achieved what her father taught her — “make people happy.”
“I found that dressing people up in wild costumes or fulfilling their fantasy to be some celebrity made them really happy,” she said. “They’d come back and tell me they had the time of their life.”
The father who taught Minerd to make people happy started an office furniture store when he was in his 40s during the 1970s. John Minerd ran the Rock Hill business White Office Furniture until his passing in 2010. It was in her father’s store that Minerd also learned how to run a business.
“When I was a teenager when summer came around, I didn’t have a choice of going to work anywhere,” Minerd remembered. “It was you have to work for your dad.”
She helped with the books, ordering merchandise and other parts of the business.
After graduating from the University of South Carolina, she opened her first store in the 1990s, a shop known as OEO, “Old Eclectic and Odd,” a clothing store that laid the groundwork for Hip Wa Zee.
In February 1999, the store known as Hip for short was born. She built up a vintage clothing collection and also sold mid-century modern furniture.
“We were the only ones in town,” Minerd recalled. “It was a lot of fun back then. We didn’t have any packaged costumes then. It was strictly vintage.”
Through the decades, Minerd changed with the evolving costume biz and fashion trends, selling packages that contained everything needed to become a sexy cave woman, a superhero or the latest pop-culture character. Most recently, she moved toward selling more accessories that fill out costumes as those became more in demand.
Her shop was most in demand when Halloween approached. Mobs of USC students and other would-be-revelers descended on the store like a “giant attack,” Minerd said.
“You’d spend the whole year planning for it,” she said. “It’d come down to everybody mobbing the store the last two weeks. It was a lot of fun and pretty stressful.”
The one change that proved hardest to deal with was the growth of internet retail. When a developer who had bought up the rest of her block on Harden Street approached her about selling, she put him off for a year while she looked for a new location. But after an extensive search and seeing the changing retail landscape, Minerd came to the hard decision that it was time to sell and close up shop.
“It’s been a labor of love more than a six (figure) career or whatever you want to call it,” Minerd said. “I usually made it to five digits but they weren’t very good.”
A family in old clothes
The developer, California based Campus + Main, has said it plans to build a mixed use space with the possibility of retail, office and residential units. Most likely a complete rebuild of most of the 900 block is in store.
Even as the block changes Minerd hopes her shop is remembered. The clothing, wigs, and other appearance-changing merchandise she provided was unique to the Southeast, Minerd believes, not only because it provided people new looks but because it allowed them to change how they felt about themselves. The store also gave the sub-culture of vintage collectors a kind of southeastern “fashion mecca.”
“I have people if they’re traveling down (interstate) 95, they stop,” Minerd said. “They come out of their way to come to this place.”
If people decades from now find old photos or articles about her shop, she hopes they see how Hip Wa Zee was “the place for fashionistas and vintage seekers” and how the store added color to Columbia.
What she’ll remember is the people who worked with her.
People who have worked at Hip have gone on to be fashion models as well as costume and hair designers. They also have made aesthetic design their careers. One former employee has a book published by a major publisher titled “Inner Witch: A Modern Guide to the Ancient Craft,” which Publishers Weekly said “empowers women to connect with something larger than themselves.”
“One of the reasons I didn’t want to close was I felt like everyone that works for me was part of my family,” Minerd said. “I feel like I’m going to lose my children.”
One employee is her daughter. Sessy Minerd said Hip Wa Zee has been a unique place to have a job.
“She inspired me to pursue my own business,” she said.
Other former employees were influenced by Minerd to make careers out of giving old clothes new life by getting them to people who appreciate such garments.
Leslie Minerd isn’t exactly sure what she’ll do after the store closes. But whatever she does, she’s committed to following her father’s teaching.
Make people happy.