Mandy Baca, Author of Discovering Vintage Miami, Talks About the Past

Vintage postcard of Biscayne Boulevard.
Vintage postcard of Biscayne Boulevard.
Courtesy of State Archives of Florida

Kendall native Mandy Baca is an unlikely historian. Her first loves aren't the dusty archives and musty-smelling books that normally keep historians company, rather they're the aromatic spices of the kitchen.

Baca is a trained gastronome, she earned a master's degree in Italian gastronomy and tourism from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. While that might sound almost scientific, Baca described her degree as a crash-course in "traveling, eating, [and] pretending to study." With that background, it's no surprise that Baca's first book, The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs and Empanadas, delved into the rich background of Miami's food culture.

Baca's second book, Discovering Vintage Miami, is a bit of a divergence from her foodie-focused background. The heavily-illustrated volume is a jaunty history tour through some of the Magic City's best vintage establishments. There are some familiar places in Discovering Vintage Miami, places that have endured through Miami's makeovers: Arbetter's Hot Dogs, Joe's Stone Crabs, and S & S Diner. But there are other lesser-known places that might be a discovery even for the most native of Miamians.

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Striking that perfect blend of famous landmarks with under-the-radar delis and grocery stores was Baca's intention. "This is not a tourist book," Baca said, rather she wanted to "go deeper into the daily lifestyle in Miami." To produce a "Anthony Bourdain inspired" history that was more of a "guide book for locals" rather than for the numerous tourists Miami plays host to every year.

So Baca chose 50 establishments to feature in Discovering Vintage Miami, purposefully omitting "places that everyone knows about." And even the famous places get the local treatment, major attractions are "so local," and Baca's focuses on the meaning of their history within the context of Miami's own culture. Of iconic locations like the Venetian Pool, Baca says "there's such a history...right? But you grow up going to birthday parties there." And it's that sense of place -- a local's love of Miami's past -- that infuses Baca's histories.

Discovering Vintage Miami was researched using old newspaper stories, archives, and most importantly the stories of those who can remember Miami's past. The book is a "history of history," Baca said, "a very communal book... as much about community as it is about owners and operators." "I wanted to tell the day to day story of the people that go to these places," she added.

Choosing just fifty was hard for Baca, "at first I thought it would be difficult, but I couldn't stop once I started," she laughed. In addition to full chapters, Discovering Vintage Miami, features small information boxes on places that didn't get whole chapters but that Baca wanted to sneak in to the book. One of Baca's favorite places is hidden in one of those boxes: Fifi's Record store, a tiny hodgepodge store in Little Haiti that still sells cassette tapes and VHS.

 

Vintage postcard of downtown Miami.
Vintage postcard of downtown Miami.
Courtesy of State Archives of Florida

Even among the 50, Baca admitted that she has other favorites too. When pressed for some, she thinks for awhile and eventually picks Maya Hacha, a lovely store in the Grove, because the "owner is a great business woman and a hippie at the same time. She has good taste, she's passionate but subdued. She'll definitely tell you her life story, I seek that out when I go places."

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Baca also picks Pinecrest Wayside Market, betraying her love of food. The market, Baca says, is "very cool, still a local place. The owner likes to take chances on local people. You're going to find food products there that you're not going to find anywhere else." Baca recommends everyone try Roc Kat, locally made ice cream that only Pinecrest carries.

Compiling and research a history of Miami is, undoubtedly, a difficult project. Not simply because of the often tedious research, but also because Miami itself is, as the book notes, "a city known for killing its past." Pinning down places--histories--that are constantly being destroyed was one of Baca's most challenging aspects of finishing the book.

In the short time that Baca took compiling Discovering Vintage Miami a number of establishments shuttered forever: Van Dyke's Cafe, Jimbo's, Tobacco Road, and Libreria Universal. Jumbo's Restaurant also closed -- a particularly heavy blow since the restaurant, known for its delicious fried shrimp, served to an integrated clientele long before other Miami restaurants. In a stroke of stereotypical Miami irony, Van Dyke's is now the site of the chain yoga store, Lululemon. The closure of Van Dyke's "hit people hard," Baca said, reminding locals "not to take stuff for granted anymore."

But if anything, the disappearance of vintage icons make Baca's book even more timely as the need to preserve the histories of Miami's past becomes even more pressing. "We've see these places die," Baca reflected. "We take them for granted. No one ever expected to see Tobacco Road taken down."

Discovering Vintage Miami is available locally at Books & Books and nationally at Amazon.

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