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Mimi’s great sorority

Photograph of Mimi Lawrence by M. Christine Torrington

By Marjorie Leet Ford

MIMI LAWRENCE ALWAYS wanted to have her own store.

“I started in retail when I was six,” she says, recalling her childhood in New Jersey. “I loaded an ice chest of soda pop into a little rowboat with a one-and-a-half horsepower motor, like an eggbeater, and rode around the harbor selling pop to people in sailboats.”

Years later, she worked for Lord & Taylor in New York, then for Joseph Magnin in San Francisco. She especially loved J. Magnin because it bravely broke the rules.

“At that time the only lingerie you could get was black, white or cream,” Lawrence says. “Suddenly a runway show had shortie nightgowns in orange, green, and purple. People were shocked!”

Twenty-six years ago, she opened her dream store — Mimi’s, on Union Street near Fillmore. To stock it, she says, she searched far and wide to find fashions that were comfortable and practical, great for travel — and “a little adventurous.”

Realizing the dream has brought with it some unexpected satisfaction.

“You’re in business, doing your thing, and you don’t realize how much it means to people,” Lawrence says. “After the earthquake in 1989, people came in here just to tell their stories — and to find out if others were okay. When Anita Hill’s testimony came up, this place became a clearinghouse. People just opened up. It was like a great sorority.”

Most stores are places you go just to buy something. In this brave new world, a lot of towns and neighborhoods have only those: Walmart, Safeway, Home Depot. But in San Francisco we still have shops you can step into just for the fun of it — like Mimi’s. It’s a feminine version of an English pub. There’s no beer, only clothes that are “wearable art”; no men, only women who may not know each other when they walk in, but get locked in talk about everything from kids and jobs to jewelry and jeans.

One day recently a woman walked in to the shop. “I’m here so often, people will think I work here,” she says.

“Well you do!” responds Lawrence. “You’re my model. The other day you walked down Union Street wearing that black jacket and a pencil skirt, and you were such a knockout that three people stopped you to ask where you got it. I know, because all three came in and bought it.”

Another customer, who lives in Boston, comes in and says, “I don’t buy anything in Boston. I shop here.” Another, going through hand-painted silk tops by an artist shown at the Smithsonian, says, “Every time you come in here, you’re coming home.”

During the many years she’s owned the store, Lawrence has added just three employees, careful to choose personalities that “people feel comfortable with,” she says. All three are still there. In 1992, Joan Diamond joined the staff; five years later, Elaine Aguilar came on the scene. And a year and a half ago, Trish Blaire left Macy’s, where she was a buyer, to join the crew at Mimi’s. All three know the customers and remember what they bought, so they have a sense of each woman’s style.

But change is brewing. As of August 1, Mimi Lawrence left the store. She is off to a new adventure: retirement. But her name will remain on the store, and shoppers will still see a familiar face: Trish Blaire is the new proprietor.

Lawrence says she doesn’t intend to slow down much in her retirement. For one thing, she’ll continue to play the ukulele — not the usual twangs, but Bach and Beethoven. Every Saturday afternoon for years, she’s been playing classical music on ukulele with a group of ambitious ukeleleists.

She also has a bunch of nieces she’s already taken to Spain and the South of France. She’ll keep on being Auntie Mame, showing them the rest of the world. She plans a trip to China and another to India. She’ll keep up her Saturday morning walks at Crissy Field, going to Berkeley Rep, ACT, Word for Word and the Freight and Salvage.

And as ever, she’ll go to the opera. “I haven’t missed an opening night in 40 years,” she says, which allows her to combine her two great passions: operatic music and dressing up in fabulous clothes.

You’ll probably see her shopping at Mimi’s.