Betty Ziegler Mims isn’t one to philosophize on love and marriage.
But in the 50 years she has spent helping brides find the perfect dress, invitations and accessories at her Plaza Midwood consignment shop, she’s seen more than tafetta, silk, lace and card stock.
She’s seen young high school sweethearts tie the knot. She’s seen older couples, still in love, renew their vows. And, though it’s not as glamorous, she’s even sewn a grandmother of the bride into her gown on the big day.
Now she’s closing Bride’s House of Originals, the city’s oldest bridal shop.
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At 79, she says she’s weary of the six-day week, the competition with online retailers and the pressure to learn social media. She hopes to sell the building and inventory in the next few months to someone who’ll keep it as a bridal shop.
Mims opened Bride’s House of Originals in 1964 in the heart of Plaza Midwood – then a “streetcar suburb” and everybody-knows-everybody neighborhood.
Her goal was to open a small consignment shop that catered to women looking for an alternative to the “fancy and plush bridal salons” of big department stores such as Belk and the now-defunct Ivey’s, Mims says.
Brides need personal service, she says. “I hate when you go to a store and (customers) are given a number like ‘No. 180438454,’ ” and have to wait. “It’s awful to me.”
At Mims’ store, the dresses are rarely more than $350 and most are about $200. In Charlotte, it’s not uncommon to find a dress priced at $3,000 to $4,000 at high-end retailers.
But in this high-dollar wedding market, there’s still demand for consignment dresses, Mims says. Some of those in her shop have been worn and dry-cleaned, but about 90 percent are new, she says. That’s because of a modern phenomenon: Women find the dress, buy it, have second thoughts and buy another dress.
Then they’ll take the first one to Mims in hopes of getting a few bucks back. Mims splits the profits with the seller, 50/50.
She hopes to sell the business and the 1,700-square-foot building, across Commonwealth Avenue from the famed Penguin Drive-In, for at least $400,000.
To her successor she offers this advice: Be prepared for anything.
There’s the comical: One woman found and bought the dress – a little pink number, Mims recalls – before she had a man to marry in it.
The head-scratchers: One couple were married under a gazebo in Freedom Park, dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus. (Mims, who did the invitations, insisted they warn guests about the unconventional plans.)
The oh-my’s: One bride and groom, dealing with a busybody mom, ditched the wedding and eloped. Another bride ran off with the best man at the rehearsal dinner.
And then there are the poignant:
Mims says she’ll never forget one widower who walked through her door a few years ago. He’d lost his wife and was getting remarried. He needed to rent two tuxedos for the ceremony.
“He had a son, 6 or 7 years old,” Mims says. “He was going to be the best man.”
Mims opened Bride’s House of Originals with $300 and a prayer.
Ten years earlier, she’d graduated from Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. – then a “finishing school” – with a knack for fashion illustration. She then got a job with Belk, training new hires in how to dress and present themselves to customers. At the time, Mims says, employees could wear only black, gray, brown and wine. No exceptions.
She then went on to open and manage the city’s first Tall Girls clothing shop. She says the company founder recruited her because of her stylish instincts and work with Belk. It helped that she was tall – 5-feet-10-and-a-half, not including the beehive hairdo.
After a few years she was working in bridal shops – and itching to start something of her own.
But running a consignment shop required inventory, and she didn’t have any. So Mims looked at the wedding announcements in the Observer, cross-referenced them with the phone book, and starting calling.
Mims, who had grown up on Commonwealth, rented a shop a few doors down from where her store stands now.
She was 29, married with a 1-year-old, Marc. The shop was small and the young family’s budget was tight. For a while, they lived at the back of the shop before moving to an apartment. A second son, Marty, came four years later.
“A bridal shop isn’t exactly exciting for two boys,” says Marc Mims, now 51. “So we’d hide up under the dresses and play spy.”
The rent was about $120 a month, and Mims helped pay it by renting out two of the front rooms to her aunt, a clothing re-weaver, and a seamstress who did alterations.
All the while, Mims was teaching herself about business. When she couldn’t afford the standard monthly accountant fee, she paid for the minimum and learned from her friends how to keep the books. Mims, who would later separate from her husband, worked hard into the night raising her kids on the income from the shop.
“I always enjoyed what I did, but I regretted that I couldn’t be at home when the children came home,” Mims says. “I think it would be wonderful for (a mother) to have a little (snack) when the kids came in the door.”
Mims’ friends and neighbors, many of whom she attended elementary school with and still sees weekly, helped out with her boys.
After 18 years at the shop at 2113 Commonwealth Ave., Mims decided she wanted to be her own landlord, so she bought the modest frame structure for $38,000 where her shop still stands. On moving day she piled the dresses in her convertible and took her mannequins for a ride.
Cat-eye glasses and bouffant hair
Mims’ brides-to-be have always had one thing in common: an appreciation for economy. And that’s never been more important than it is today, Mims says, when weddings cost more than ever.
In 2012, the average wedding cost nearly $28,500, according to wedding website The Knot.
But weddings and marriage look a bit different from those of the 1960s, when she opened.
In 1964, customers of Bride’s House of Originals had cat-eye glasses and bouffant hair. They married their high school sweethearts in their family churches, and most stayed home to raise the kids.
Nowadays, she says, many of her customers are older and career-focused, financing their own nuptials. Some will be the breadwinners. Others have boyfriends who turned to roommates long before the pair were engaged.
She served her first interracial couple in the 1980s. In the past decade she has prepared invitations to commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples.
‘It’s me! I’m coming back’
As the U.S. divorce rate increased by more than 63 percent from 1960 to 2011, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Mims started seeing more repeat brides. By 2009, 15 percent of adults had married more than once, census data shows.
“Some,” she says, “have been down the aisle more times than a Winn-Dixie cart.”
Mims says she helped one customer find a dress for all three of her marriages.
“All she said was, ‘It’s me! I’m coming back.’ ”
That’s one reason why she’s mum when people bring in a dress to sell.
“ ‘Why didn’t you wear it?’ That’s a question I’ve never asked,” Mims says.
A few of her brides have looked unsure – perhaps wondering whether they were doing the right thing. She could tell by the way they looked in the mirror while wearing the dress. Something in the way they slouched.
“I thought, ‘They’re not happy,’ ” Mims says. “And I ... didn’t know what to say.”
‘When they lift that veil ...’
Mims has never had an appetite for reality TV shows such as “Bridezillas” and “Say Yes to the Dress,” – mostly because she hates hearing the brides whine about absurd situations, such as having “only $4,000 to spend on the dress.”
But she’s always had a soft spot for weddings – in person or in the movies.
“I don’t care if I know the people at all, when they lift that veil and kiss the bride ... I cry,” Mims says. “Always, always.”
The fate of her own wedding gown was not so sentimental.
About 10 years after she opened the shop, Mims tried to sell her dress – satin, with a bateau neckline and full skirt, which was featured on the cover of Modern Bride magazine the year Mims bought it.
It sat on the rack for months with no takers.
So one winter afternoon, when a heavy snow made for slow foot traffic, Mims built two snowmen in front of the shop.
She dressed one in her father’s old tuxedo and the other in her wedding gown – thinking it might bring out some customers.
“And sure enough,” she says, “a girl came by that day and bought a dress.”
Staff researcher Maria David and staff writer Gavin Off contributed.