Flower Child Vintage, and it’s owner Joe Valenti, are the beating heart of the Short North Arts District. In an area that is becoming increasingly commercialized by the day, Valenti stands strong on the principals of small business, tradition, and relationships. When you walk into Flower Child Vintage you can feel the life and hear the untold stories echoing from the items and clothing that fill the rooms. In a world of mass production and fast fashion, this is the place to go if you are looking for something real. Valenti tells us that his busiest day of work was the day after 9/11, he said “we had people walking around like zombies and they came in here, and they would say, "I want to remember something good.” Who else feels like they can relate after this turbulent year? With the COVID-19 pandemic and the social and financial problems that accompanied it, and the frustration compounded from years of racial injustice and oppression birthing the largest worldwide revolution in history, it can be hard to unplug and find ways to feel good again. In this day and age, the typical shopping experience consists of a few clicks or a quick dash in and out of a store if we absolutely have to, but one thing that Valenti emphasizes in his offering of the shopping experience is human connection. Although every item in his store has a story, he believes that the most important story of all lies within the customer. Valenti believes that his customers’ innate human need for connection and vulnerability and validation is what brings people back to his store again and again. So if you’re looking for an escape from the manufactured, picture-perfect reality we slip into developing, unplug and head over to Flower Child Vintage for a breath of fresh air. You’re guaranteed to find a little piece of yourself there.
J: My name is Joe Valenti, I'm the owner of Flower Child Vintage Cleveland and Columbus, and I'm originally from San Francisco, California. "I used to promote other people in their jobs and be a cheerleader, and I decided I was gonna be my own client"
J: I started off in art school in Cleveland, Ohio. I studied under Victor Schreckengost. I was supposed to be an architect. But meanwhile, down at the radio ranch, I started collecting vintage. I collected the good stuff and didn't realize I was collecting the good stuff. After a while, I had an apartment, I filled it all up, and I decided to change my life so I started selling off my stuff. I made a lot of money in two weeks selling it, and I went oh my God, this is something I love, something I know, and I just changed myself. I used to promote other people in their jobs and be a cheerleader, and I decided I was gonna be my own client. Being your own client sometimes is the hardest thing in the world because you second guess yourself. You don't have a boss, but you go, oh my God, did I really say that today?
J: I've been in this business now for twenty-four years.
J: Gosh, you know, I think I've found some really great relationships along the way. I don't know about the objects. I believe that I become a caretaker for the objects because I find people who are selling things or don't like them - like your parents pass away and you don't want to be the caretaker of it - well I'm the bridge to the next person that is going to find it and love it. Just like you are interviewing me, I interview them and I ask them, how are you going to use it? What are you going to do with it? I think that's really important that the next person loves it just as much as the first person did. My favorite thing, I'd have to say is two pieces of Blenko glass that I own personally. They sit on my coffee table in my Cleveland home. I've had the president of that company come to my house and he's just like "I want them back for our company, these are really special." If anything ever happened to those, my cleaning lady would be out of a job. [laughter]
J: Obstacles. You know, I don't look at it as an obstacle, I look at it as learning. What can I do better the next time? One obstacle I'd have to say is finding the right person to work with who understands what we do. Real estate and location can be hard, dealing with changing markets, finding out what is the next hot thing or the old thing that is going to come around and become hot again - the internet, the inner webs, as I say, are always confusing and moving the line.
J: You know what? I feel that we are an emporium of mid-century with everything from bras to toasters. I believe we are the best first date. I don't sell a steak. I sell the sizzle. I sell the idea of wanting to live this way or live simpler because everything's going so fast and here we look at things a little more simpler. There are life lessons that go along with mid-century, and it's just the fundamental things like closing the refrigerator door. We teach those things every single day here. We have people who bring their children in here and ask, what's a Rolodex? It’s fun. We work with people who run Alzheimer centers and they come in and they buy rollers and kitchen gadgets and phones and things like that, because those are things that bring back good memories. I think that's what we do here. I think that's what I've tried to achieve. People don't come here to buy something. I think they come here to feel good because there are things in here that make people remember something good. The busiest day of my career in this business was the day after 9/11. We had people walking around like zombies and they came in here, and they would say, "I want to remember something good," and that was the biggest compliment to me. I invite people in. This is my house, and when people come to my house, I want them to feel safe and secure. I don't care what you are. Everybody has a story to tell, and I will listen to their story. If they're building a home or they're looking for a wedding dress or they're looking for their prom dress, I listen to the story and I think that's what I'm here for. I didn't think I'd end up doing this. I have a degree in art. My mother would flip out because she passed away before I started doing this and she'd be like, what are you doing with your life? But I'm happy. For a lot of people, their cup is half empty, mine is way more than full. I get to say that every single day. I get up with a challenge. If I didn't learn anything today, I didn't do my job.
J: I am the creative team. When we moved from High Street, I reset the store to the way I wanted it. I touched every single thing from the move - everything that went through that door, I touched it. I rehung every piece of clothing in the store, looked at each piece of it, photographed it mentally, and put it together. Marketing - it just comes down to color cues for me. I'm all about color. I think that when people are buying, I like to put things together that tell a story so that when somebody is walking in who doesn't have an idea of what they want, they can look at the whole room and go "oh, I like that piece and that piece because they go together." I try to tell a story and it's worked out with my marketing because even IKEA's design group comes in and goes "I can get an idea from that." I think that's a pretty nice compliment. Then there are other inspirations that kind of come out of nowhere. We had a group of eighty-five seniors book two busses from the senior home. They came in and they sat on the furniture and took pictures and they told me stories about when they got married, or “we had a toaster like that.” That is where I get my inspiration. Those are what I like to call happy accidents, where things fall on the ground and you pick them all up and you would have never put them together. When we do design as a group here, I say, “I would like you to go to the other corner of the room and I want you to look at it differently,” and they'll go, “what do you mean by that?” and I'm like, sit in a chair because you come into the room the same way every day. I want you to go to the other corner, and you're going to find an extension cord or a crack, and you're going to be like wow, I really didn't realize it was that dirty. Sometimes marketing is just about looking at things in a different way. I don't think any idea is a bad idea, as long as you're talking about the idea. People throw out a lot of ideas and one will spark something totally 360 in the opposite direction. The group I work with, they're bananas. I love the fact that each one of them gets on the bus - we have a big family bus. They all get on it. We all stink, we all laugh, we all drink together. But we have one common love. This.
J: I think that brick and mortar is going to have a resurgence because eventually we have to become human beings again and we have to get out and we have to participate. We've got to get up and do the job of brushing our teeth and getting off the couch. Brick and mortar and malls back in the day, that's where people went. There were mall walkers and there were tweens that got their makeup, and that's where they learned. For me, I think, the way our business is surviving is because we're different. You have to be unique. You can’t be like McDonald's where you walk in and you know how the hamburger is going to taste. The thing about brick and mortar, when it's a small business like ours, is it's different every single day. There's not 25 widgets. There's one couch. There's one dress. We have women that come in here and want that one dress because they don't want to go to the party and be seen in the same thing that everybody else is wearing. Some people call me prior to coming in and they say, I'm looking for this. I'll pull it together for them. That's what I think is the difference between the Internet and brick and mortar. You're going to listen to their story.I want to hear a person's excitement when they're talking about what they're looking for or sometimes it's sadness, when they're selling something. I want to be part of their story, and that's really part of brick and mortar. You can sit there and you can sell a cup of coffee, but if you walk into a place and the coffee smells really great and you're greeted with a smile, you're gonna go back there. You can't be an order taker. The thing about the Internet is it's an order taker. They just take orders. They ship you a box and you never get the "that looks good on you" or "you made a really good decision on that" or "have you looked at this?" I think that's the difference between the Internet and brick and mortar sites.
J: You know, the thing about with the Internet is people will go, "oh, I can look that up and find out its value" or I'll have somebody say to me, "I saw it on eBay and it's thirty dollars," and they'll walk in here and go "I want thirty dollars for it." That's great, but they don't understand that I have rent, gas, lighting, and employees to pay, so there's a percentage I have to sell it at to make it profitable for us. That has changed a lot. The other thing is reproductions of retro and things like that have come into play. You used to be able to sell this couch and the couple would love it, but now they go "oh, I can find that at Value City or something similar to it." I'm like, but you're not getting the American quality. It was built here. When you're buying things today, you're renting furniture. You're basically going to sit on it for three years and it's going to fall apart. Now, that's the difference between something that was made by hand by a craftsman to somebody who's sitting there on a big widget machine, and then it's all put together and there’s somebody called Marge who stamps it and says “oh, it went through - it looks good.” There's a big difference.
J: If I could go back and give myself a piece of advice, I would have to say, listen more. Do your homework. Just do your homework, be it location or the people that you work with. Understand your demographic. I deal with the demographic between the ages of twelve to eighty-five years old. It took me a long time to understand that everybody has different needs and wants. I sell more stickers to a 15-year-old and an eighty-five-year-old wants to walk in and buy the iron that they bought the first time with no steam. I think the word was just listening more.
J: I think eventually we'll probably going to go to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have contacted me, both of their arts districts, and asked me some questions about that. It's just, you know, I'm fifty-five this year. I've got to figure out that I'm not 20, but I've got a staff around me that's very excited about doing things. The youngest person I have on staff is 18 and the oldest person I have on my staff is seventy-two. So between all of that, you should see the age gaps. It's kind of funny to bring them all together. One person was talking about Rick and Morty and she says, oh, is that a comedy group? And I'm like, oh God, no, Jan, it's not a comedy group. No, it's not a comedy group. And then I had another person one time say to me oh, my kids really love South Park. I said, I can't believe you let your kids watch South Park, and they were like, what's wrong with South Park? I'm like, I need you to go home right now and start watching South Park. They came in here like oh my God! In five years I see myself as doing this. I love what I do. I've become part of my community. Five years from now I'll definitely be here without a doubt, hopefully getting a day off every once in a while would be nice.
J: I really like Fox in the Snow. I think they're great. I think they do a really good job. Royal factory, I give them a lot of kudos because they're under the same growing pains and stress as I am. Their rent is going up and I can totally understand what they're going through right now. I like the Grandview Mercantile, another small business within small businesses. They employ other vendors and I think that's really important. Hot Chicken Takeover - I think they're great. Jeni’s Ice Cream. There's a place called the Dog Stop that just opened up - smart business. It's about boarding dogs but they do things where they take animals and they pull them out of the cage for the day and they'll run around with one dog all day, and they do things like hug therapy - I think that’s important. They put a dog in a chair and just hug the dog. I think that's really great. I've helped design some businesses in the area. I do the interior design for a lot of them and I understand they're all for-profit, but then I look at what some of them do and actually they are giving back. It’s important to give back. And if you don't give, you don't get and you have to give a little to get a little. For those people who sit there and say it's all about the dollar or it's all about the profit, they don't understand that there are kids that are coming up that are hungrier than you and who are going to take that wheel in and make it spin a lot faster or a lot slower, and they're going to take your idea and sometimes outdo you. You have to be kind to those who are around you because you don't know who's going to be your boss. I worked for a company for six months. A year later, I owned half the company because the people around me were lazy and they were looking for the easy dollar. You know what? That's great. Everybody wants to be king, but nobody wants to scrub the toilet. I still scrub the toilets here. I wouldn't ask anybody to do something that I wouldn't do. And I think that a lot of people have to understand is if you want to be king of the mountain, you gotta eat a lot of shit. You really do.