Featured in Nylon and the Boston Globe, Jamaica Plain’s 40 South is a hidden vintage gem that offers a hand picked selection of fashions from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. It also serves as headquarters for Girls Rock Campaign Boston—a nonprofit program for girls that fosters self-expression, confidence, and collaboration through musical education and performance. Invest in Girls’ New England Program Director, Erin White, stopped in with owner and GRCB founder, Hilken Mancini, to hash out the realities and rewards of running a small business alongside a girls’ empowerment organization. GRCB’s Executive Director, Nora Allen-Wiles, joined in for the end of the chat.
I’d love to hear the origin story of 40 South. What made you want to open a vintage store? What was the process like? When did it all come together?
Hilken: I had a record deal in the 90’s, and my next-door neighbor owned this warehouse. He sold denim and stuff to designers, and would see me coming in and out with records. I was trying to find other ways to make money, so he said, “You can move in here and open a women’s rack.” I moved in and sort of took over. I got dressing rooms built, a credit card carrier, a sign for out front, et cetera. Rent was cheap. I found a cheap place and just made it work. By 2010, I bought him out and it was all mine. Because I started GRCB, I also figured if I had both entities in the same space it would really help me. So I could work on the nonprofit while I was steaming clothes.
You have amazing clothing. Could you share some of your curatorial secrets? Instincts?
Hilken: Owning a vintage store you never share your sources, because it’s a competitive business. But in a way that’s kind of over. It was different when I started. Now you can look up the label on a dress and find the price online. I grew up before Ebay. And that was an awesome time. You’d find the best stuff in thrift stores or church sales. I bought a lot at the beginning. It’s at my house. It’s in Tupperware everywhere. But I used to buy just what I liked, and now I have to think about what’s going to sell. For example, I love tacky quilted jackets, and I have a collection but they don’t really sell. I buy the sundresses that girls are going to want because they’re going to a wedding. I know that the dresses sell. I like to keep prices in the store low, and put the more expensive stuff online. I’m not going to sell an Hermès scarf with chickens on it in the store, because we could put it online for more. People also love vintage rock and roll t-shirts. So I’ll put those online, which also brings people into the store. I try to be savvy. Also, you’ve got to watch out [with your own collection] so you don’t become a crazy hoarder. It’s not a Prince t-shirt. Get rid of it. Sell it.
Can you talk a little about the ways in which your business has evolved over time? For example, practical changes you’ve made to your original concept?
Hilken: I’m very much old school. People walk in the door and I connect them with the clothing. As a business owner, if I get enough of what I paid for it, I’m happy. I don’t love selling online. But I use Etsy now, and Instagram to post photos. I might do more of the online part when I’m older, more tired, and less busy with GRCB.
What are your favorite and least favorite things about owning 40 South?
Hilken: There’s something OCD about me that loves sorting the clothes and folding, being able to look and say, “These are all sweaters.” Doing my taxes, keeping my receipts—I don’t love that. I also hate that it’s just a fact that your rent goes up, because you have to raise your prices, and figure out ways to make more money. If you’re not on your toes, looking at your credit card statements, switching carriers, saving $80 a month—you get behind. But I know all of that detail-oriented work is good for me and makes me a better business person. It’s like going to the gym. If you’re stressed, you don’t want to go to the gym, but once you do you feel better, less stressed. You have to do the work to get ahead. If you enjoy that, then great. But what I really love is the organizing, the colors, the people coming and saying, “This is a beautiful store.”
What advice would you offer to somebody who wants to do what you do?
Hilken: It’s not for someone who wants to eat bonbons and sit in bed. It’s hard work. Face the thing, and do it because you’ll be awesome. The goal is to not go into debt, save for your retirement, and pick and choose when you can go on vacation. Paying off debt becomes just as important as going on vacation itself because it puts you in control. For example, I know that getting out of debt will take me to Provincetown to eat oysters. It becomes fun to pay it off.
Something our girls often ask—“Do you have to be good at math to do X?” Could you talk about your relationship to math and how it pertains to your daily life as a small business owner?
Hilken: As a girl I had a fear of math, but when I took it on, it was fun. It’s like solving a mystery. I think that actually doing something makes you realize it’s not that hard. Thinking about doing the thing is often harder than actually doing it. When I put something into a spreadsheet and create a formula, I can say, I just figured that out and feel really good about myself. Once you face it and do it, then you have control. It empowers you.
Nora, what about you? Could you speak to your relationship to math as it relates to your job as Executive Director for Girls Rock?
Nora: Oof. I don’t have to do much math.
Hilken: Yes you do.
Nora: Ok. I have taken on the accounting side. But we use Excel. So it’s more about technology. Remember you can Google it. Search online for how to make things easier for yourself when it comes to spreadsheets or budgets. You don’t need to know how to do everything! You do things as they come up. You can ask for help.
Sometimes girls in our program tell me they one day want to start or run a nonprofit organization. Any tips for them?
Nora: Get ready for a wild ride. Absolutely do it. An amazing thing about being a woman in the nonprofit sector is that lots of people will help you. It’s a lot of work, there’s no guidebook for how to do it, but there is a lot of support in the nonprofit community. Remember you can reach out to other people. If you have an amazing mission, then people will rally behind you.
What do you love about your role as Executive Director for GRCB?
Nora: Everything. I love working with people and being involved in a volunteer organization. We have the amazing opportunity to be exposed to women in a huge array of careers, and have them lend us their skill sets. I love the programming, the kids, and seeing the organization grow. I didn’t go to school for this, I majored in Sociology and Anthropology. But if you have a passion for something and you want to make it happen, you can do that. I’m blown away all the time—by what’s possible having confidence in yourself and allowing other people to help you.
One question I get working for Invest in Girls is, “Why is your program just for girls?” Or, “Why not Invest in Boys?” Does anyone ever ask you that about Girls Rock? What do you say?
Nora: The world is a rock camp for boys. Or I say, “If there were a feminist empowerment program for boys, that would be great.”
Hilken: The world already invests in boys.
Nora: There’s the expectation for boys that they’re going to succeed. Boys see examples of themselves. Girls need to be shown by other women there are possibilities they have in their lives, and they can demand more. Girls Rock Campaign Boston isn’t about making music necessarily, it’s about being loud and taking up space. It’s about girls watching other girls doing that, so they know they can try new things. That’s going to change the world.
Hilken: For boys, there’s nothing you can’t be. Girls don’t have it the same way. We need women leaders. If girls see that it exists in reality, then they can walk into that framework.