TUESDAY, March 14, 2006
Vintage treasures open her eyes
By PAUL MORTON
In this era, when companies are finding it necessary to have a web page, it is unusual for an e-retailer to establish a “brick and mortar” presence. But Ratsy Kemp came to Oberlin and did just that as part of her unusual life.
Ratsy – she only uses the last name when she absolutely has to – came to Oberlin by way of Jackson, Mich. (pointing to the base of her right palm), Boston, California, and eBay. And her activities in those places, from performing in the subway station, to making hats, to dancing on a network television show, all seemed to work together to bring her to Oberlin to open her vintage clothing shop.
Ironically she had considered coming to Oberlin upon graduating from high school to attend the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and study the flute. When she figured out about the only way to become a concert flautist for an orchestra was to wait for the incumbent flautist to die, she went to Michigan State University and the IBA State College of Beauty.
After graduating with a cosmetology degree, she moved to the Boston area.
“I didn’t really like Boston, even though I stayed there 13 years,” Ratsy said. “The only reason I went there was a friend in college told me you could make money singing in the subway.”
She did perform in the Boston subway, as well as some clubs and coffee houses. After a couple years, she tired of performing, so she began designing hats, which she sold at fairs and boutiques along the East Coast.
“When I grew up, my parents were both artists, and my dad was a professional potter,” Ratsy said. “He would sell his pottery at art fairs every summer, so I used to do that with him. And when I started making hats, part of the fun was doing the art fairs with my hats.”
After several years making and selling hats, a friend convinced her to enter the Acoustic Underground Folk Music Competition, a national songwriter/performer competition conducted annually in Boston. She won, and the resulting notoriety restarted her singing career.
“It was a little easier, because I had won a major award,” she said. “So I put out my first CD and started promoting that and touring on the East Coast.”
She actually put out three CDs in the following five years. But she wanted a change of scenery.
“I had been living in Boston for 13 years, but I had been in the same apartment for like 10,” she said. “And it was a basement apartment, great big basement apartment. And I was thinking, I might grow old and die in this basement apartment.”
A friend invited her to visit in California. She said she was so impressed, she decided to stay.
“Growing up in Michigan, everything you heard about California was earthquakes, wildfires, and mudslides,” Ratsy said. “When I got out there, all those things were probably there, but there was so much more. It was such a creative place, with everyone going for their dreams. Most of them were losing, not getting what they want, but they were all trying.”
She moved to Southern California, intent on becoming a television commercial star. She did get some work, including a national commercial that appeared on CNN, and parts of music videos for Mick Jagger as a Japanese music star.
She had also taken up swing dancing for recreation. That led to an appearance on the WB Network’s “Gilmore Girls” show.
“I heard that ‘Gilmore Girls’ was looking for swing dancers to be on the show for an episode,” she said. “And because I was part of the Lindy hop/swing dance community, and I was already a member of the Screen Actors Guild, they said, oh you can do that. So I ended up doing that and I ended up being a featured dancer on the episode.”
But she said the life of an actor is not as fast-paced as one might think. In her copious free time between auditions, she enjoyed going to thrift stores and second hand shops.
“I would always see things that were super cute but weren’t my size, or weren’t exactly the kind of things that I would wear,” she said. “All of a sudden it kind of clicked in my head that I could do eBay.”
She began purchasing vintage clothing and other “fine quality vintage items,” and selling them on eBay, the online auction site. She found she did very well, and could run her online vintage clothing store from anywhere.
About that same time, she felt she needed to settle down and buy a home. But she did not feel California was necessarily the place.
“I’d go for these walks through the Hollywood hills, and go to the open houses,” Ratsy said. “I remember standing outside of them, thinking I thought I would never buy a house in California, even if I was on some big show, because there’s no security in that. You really don’t know if it’s going to be around tomorrow, and I could never afford to buy a house there.”
She decided she needed to move back east, where the family and friends were. She chose Ohio because it was roughly central to Jackson, where she grew up, North Carolina, where her parents had moved, and Boston, where she had lived for so long.
She came out to Akron, where she almost purchased a home, sight unseen. But she decided she did not like Akron.
“My dad apparently had almost taught at Wooster College, and he said it was a cute little town,” she said. “So I just picked up and moved to Wooster.”
After getting an apartment in Wooster she started shopping for a house. Then she realized Wooster was not for her, either.
“I realized Wooster is probably a little too conservative for me,” Ratsy said. “Then there was a jazz dance weekend up here, and I drove up for that. And as I was coming up for that I was thinking, I remember Oberlin from when I was thinking about maybe coming here.”
“She drove around town and fell in love with it, especially the people. She purchased a house and moved here in June 2005.
“It just sort of happened,” she said. “But it seemed like something was pulling me here most of my life.”
She quickly made friends with Alan Campbell, whom she met at an estate sale, purchasing antiques for his shop, while she was there purchasing vintage clothing for her online business. She said the Campbell family practically adopted her, and Alan offered her an opportunity to expand on her eBay retailing.
“He had come over to my house and saw how I lived, and the stuff I was selling on eBay, and was impressed that I could make a living doing that,” she said. “And he said, how would you like to try having a little store upstairs in our store. And I had been thinking about having a store in Oberlin, so it was like he was reading my mind, and I wasn’t actually at the place where I was ready to ask somebody.”
She opened her shop, Ratsy’s Store, in December, and it has been well-received by those who have heard about it.
“(Some students) got some things from my store and they said, oh my gosh, it’s like a hidden treasure up there,” she said. “So I said, good, tell your friends. And they’re like, oh no. The kind of liked that they had found it and nobody else knew about it, which I thought was kind of neat.”
Not to ruin their secret, but Ratsy’s Store is located in the second level of Campbell House Antiques, 95 S. Main St.