William Vallenilla uses words like funky and artsy to describe his shop on the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and NW 69th Street. The eclectic 1600 square-foot space is filled with Gothic candelabras, 1920s Art Nouveau furniture and other used merchandise arranged according to theme.
From the occult section to the area that pays tribute to Martha Stewart, each item comes with a story. An Edward Gorey-esque portrait of a girl named Gabriel hangs in Vallenilla's Little Shop of Horrors wing; a friend donated the picture because guests couldn't sleep in the same room with it. Max Von Mayerling is one of several mannequins named for characters in murder mysteries and old movies. He was christened Max after the butler who attended to Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Max is occasionally rented out for bar mitzvahs, Vallenilla relates. Nearby is a 1930s, brown streamlined Eavestaff pianette that belonged to a now-deceased woman named Schwimmer from Belle Meade.
"My place looks like one of those trendy stores in South Beach when South Beach was just starting to take off," Vallenilla says. "But all those funky little shops have been squeezed out of existence."
Vallenilla opened Designer Thrift ten months ago on one of the seediest stretches in Miami. Among his neighbors are prostitutes, drug dealers, a strip club called Black Gold, and sleazy motels. He hopes to inspire other small retailers to break away from malls and multiplexes and settle in the area, where a few trendy restaurants and theaters have recently decided to locate. "How many Starbucks can you go to?" asks the 37-year-old, clad, ironically, in Gap gear from head to toe.
Now Vallenilla says the City of Miami is trying to cramp his style. In February code enforcement officer Emilio Pellicer spotted Vallenilla's Designer Thrift sign and sent out a notice of violation. The reason: Secondhand businesses aren't allowed between NW 37th and 87th streets on Biscayne. Before Vallenilla could protest that there are several antique sellers nearby, Pellicer gave him the lowdown: Antiques are okay. Used stuff is not. Vallenilla took down his sign. "He cannot sell used merchandise in this area," says Fred Fernandez, Upper Eastside Neighborhood Enhancement Team administrator. "We're going to be checking if he's selling antique or not."
And there's another problem. In May Pellicer discovered the building at 6907 Biscayne Blvd. had recently been sold and none of the four tenants, including Vallenilla, possessed city permits.
Vallenilla says he'll fight to stay put and keep his name. He's enlisted the services of two lawyers and plans to start a petition. "I don't sell antiques," Vallenilla admits. "I sell used furniture and collectibles; I'm not going to lie."
It would appear there is a fine line between jewel and junk. The U.S. Customs Service considers anything that's at least 100 years old antique. But according to nationally recognized antique expert Terry Kovel, the difference between antiques, collectibles, and secondhand materials is ill defined. "An antique is expensive and a collectible is a Mickey Mouse watch, but nobody knows where to draw the line," says Kovel, who has coauthored more than 80 books on the subject with her husband, Ralph M. Kovel. "Everything in an antique shop somebody threw away. It's all used. Even the major auction houses that used to be snooty about selling strictly antique are now selling designer clothes from the Fifties and Sixties."
What's the city's criteria? Who knows. Chief zoning inspector Juan Gonzalez says an antique is "basically certifiable as opposed to used, priorly owned merchandise. It must be bonifiable, anything that has some sort of value due to time." Fernandez has another, well, puzzling explanation. "In our interpretation, according to the training we have received for many years, antique is not a general, used merchandise," he asserts. "It's used merchandise that has a particular characteristic."
Miami's zoning code is unclear on the issue. Gonzalez says it's up to each individual code enforcer to determine whether a store is peddling antiques. "If [inspectors] go to a place and all they see is old clothing and used appliances, it's probably not an antique store," he says. "The inspectors have to use their common sense."
On a recent Tuesday afternoon Designer Thrift was closed and Vallenilla was hauling in a silver-color metal display case. Near the entrance a mannequin named Princess Dragomiroff, a character from Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, was sitting in an old wooden wheelchair. Chiffonlike burgundy-color curtains hung from the ceiling and cascaded down the forest-green walls. A miniature disco ball dangled in the air and two astrologically themed gold lamé tapestries were suspended from the ceiling. "It's the kind of place you can walk in with your dog," Vallenilla mused. "To me it's like a house. I always say you should treat your business like a home."
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Just then an elderly man entered through the back door. In broken English he asked for a cheap armchair. Vallenilla attended to him in Spanish. "You see I don't even need to be open. I don't even need a sign," Vallenilla said. "But if I must change the name, I think I'll call the place Medusa's Curiosity Shop and Oddities. If it's a play on words they want, fine, I'll give them a play on words."
Ruth Hamilton, a regular customer, says Vallenilla's store is definitely not thrift. A Shorecrest resident who tries to preserve the original flavor of her 1938 home, Hamilton has found several perfect fits at Designer Thrift. Recently she purchased an area rug from the 1930s and an Art Deco bookend. Currently she has her eye on a bookcase. "William is one of those people who are breathing life into Biscayne," she comments. "The city should have the foresight to work with creative urban pioneers such as himself."
Gregory Gay, an urban community planner for the city, states the obvious: Vallenilla's problem is rooted in semantics. "Even now as we approach the millennium, things from the 1950s and 1960s are considered antiques. It's the way people title their store and market their products that throws up the red flag. If he changed his name from Designer Thrift to Designer Antiques the situation would have probably never taken place. It seems to me it's all in the name."
Adds Kovel: "Every antique shop in Miami is probably selling something that isn't antique by [U.S. Customs'] definition. It's a really tricky thing and if zoning for that area is so puritan, then they're gonna have to throw out everyone who claims to be selling antique."