Metro Weekly

Perfect Vintage: Pixie Windsor has turned knickknacks into items people crave

For 19 years, Pixie Windsor has turned knickknacks into items people crave at Miss Pixie's Furnishings & Whatnot. Just like her store, she's a one-of-a-kind.

Pixie Windsor -- Photo: Todd Franson

Pixie Widnsor — Photo: Todd Franson

Pixie Windsor was eager to make her mark in Washington’s museum world. She was fresh out of college with a degree in art history. But reality hit her hard and the dream quickly evaporated.

“I was disappointed right away,” Windsor says, noting that the Smithsonian’s offer was less than generous. “‘We’ll put you on minimum wage for a couple of years, and you can be a docent or something.'”

Windsor instead opted for the higher wages of the restaurant industry. After years bouncing around several of the city’s fine dining establishments, she stumbled upon her true calling: owning a vintage retail shop.

The Smithsonian’s loss was the city’s gain. Since moving to its current location in 2008, Miss Pixie’s Furnishings & Whatnot, filled with eccentric antiques and accoutrements, has brought character to 14th Street, which, increasingly, seems to be a harbinger for corporate furniture stores (Lazyboy!?) that seem more suited to bland, boilerplate malls far outside the city walls.

A gregarious fixture, Windsor has become a leading booster for the Mid City neighborhood that has 14th Street as its main artery. She is currently working with other area business leaders to create a Mid City Business Improvement District that should “help make the neighborhood a little more cohesive,” as well as assist with the area’s increasing maintenance, security and marketing needs.

A Mid City BID would take the lead in promotions, including the neighborhood’s annual Dog Days Sidewalk Sale, held this Saturday and Sunday, August 6 and 7. “We always do 20 percent-off on everything,” says Windsor. “I don’t normally haggle at the store, so everybody sees it as, ‘Oh, I finally get a discount there!'”

This year, the store will host a first-ever Kickoff Party Friday night, Aug. 5, where other area merchants will give a sneak peek at their Dog Days offerings while food establishments from Cork to Rice to Ben’s Chili Bowl will donate food and drink. The band Laissez Foure will also play live throughout the evening.

Windsor increasingly sees Miss Pixie’s as more than just a store. She frequently refers to it as a de-facto “community center,” as a venue for arts-focused events — all part of her goal to help foster stronger bonds among patrons and neighbors.

“I guess it’s the Eastern Shore hostess side of me,” she says. “Seeing that people are comfortable in the space, they’re comfortable with the people around them.”

METRO WEEKLY: You grew up on the Eastern Shore.

PIXIE WINDSOR: I did. I grew up outside of a little town called Cambridge, Maryland. I grew up on a farm with dairy and cows and pigs and all that. Out in the middle of nowhere.

MW: Did you help out on the farm?

WINDSOR: I had my chores — I had to go collect the eggs. I had to bring the cows in. I grew up in a big family, brothers and sisters. About an hour ride into town to go to school — it was pretty remote. I couldn’t wait to get into the city.

MW: When did you move to D.C.?

WINDSOR: When I was 25 — and now I’m 56. I’ve been here for a while. When I left my hometown, I lived between Ocean City and Rehoboth a lot. That’s when the Renegade and the Boat House and all the fun little bars were down there. That kept me from going to college as much as I should have. I worked in restaurants and had a lot of fun.

MW: You continued working in restaurants after moving to D.C. What inspired the switch to opening a store?

WINDSOR: I was in the restaurant business until I opened the store here in ’97. I loved restaurants. It was fun. I liked the people I met. Back when the city was inexpensive to live, it was really great money. But it was too much partying, too much socializing, no stability at all.

I used to shop a lot at Madame Adam, a little shop around the corner from my co-op in Adams Morgan. I loved all of his vintage stuff. One day I walked in and he said, “I’m closing.” The universe kind of handed it to me. He’s like, “Here’s my landlord’s phone number. Here are the auctions you should go to. Here are the hours you should keep.” It all happened literally overnight. I stayed in the restaurant business for six months and ran the shop, and then decided, “I can actually make some money at this.” I had the shop, and I was the only one that ran it. I had friends help me do deliveries and help me work if I needed it, but it was a tiny shop. It was only 500 square feet, so I didn’t really need much help, as opposed to now where I have 14 employees and 4,000 square feet.

MW: Why did you decide to name the store Miss Pixie’s?

WINDSOR: A bunch of my friends from the restaurant business said, “Oh my God, you’ve got the weirdest name in the world. Just use your name. It sounds Southern, it sounds silly. People don’t ever forget that name. It’s an easy name to remember.” So that’s what we did.

Photo: Todd Franson

Photo: Todd Franson

MW: Is Pixie a family name?

WINDSOR: No. My grandparents didn’t always get along, because my mother was from New York City, and my father’s people were from the Eastern Shore. When I was born they named me after my father’s mother and after my mother’s mother. They named me Irene Emily, but then they gave me the neutral first name Pixie so that they weren’t showing favoritism to either side. I was apparently a really adorable, cute little baby. I wasn’t very much of an Irene or an Emily.

MW: Did you grow up surrounded by tchotchkes and knickknacks?

WINDSOR: The house I grew up in was a very simple farmhouse. My mom was not all about decorating or anything. She was about getting all of us kids to school and back safely, and helping my father on the farm.

MW: So where did you get your eccentric sense of style?

WINDSOR: My great aunt, who lived just down the road. She was a very eccentric woman. She bought everything at auctions, and she had really amazing taste. She was very Auntie Mame. She always had really wild furniture. If we wanted a doll house, she’d buy an antique one with antique furniture. She drove an old woodie wagon and used only Fiestaware. That’s really where I got it from. I was completely fascinated by all of that. I thought it was just amazing. My mom was very Marlo Furniture — if you could go somewhere and get furniture cheap, that’s where my mother would get it. My aunt was completely the opposite.

MW: When did you start to realize you were bisexual?

WINDSOR: The first time I ever had a crush on anybody, it was on a girl in fifth grade, and when she moved away I was devastated. I had no idea. I just remember it being far worse than when my dog died. I was like, “This is the most horrible thing. I’ll never see her again.” I didn’t really put two and two together, that it wasn’t just a best friend thing. I had boy crushes and girl crushes. I thought everyone else did, too. The last years of high school, I realized, “Oh, not everyone is like this.” When I went away to college, I had my first real serious girlfriend. I went to Salisbury University — it used to be a phys ed teacher’s college, so there were a million lesbians there. It was a lot of fun, it was close to the beach. That’s where I had my first serious, serious girlfriend. I was like, “Maybe I should tell my family about this.” My father had passed away already, and he would not have understood it at all. My mother and I were always very, very close, but I found it really difficult to talk to her about it.

One day, she was taking me to the bus in town, so I could go and spend the weekend with my girlfriend. I said, “There’s something I need to tell you.” She said, “If it’s about this girl you’re going to visit, I already know. It’s fine, I just don’t really want to talk about it.” I remember my stepfather was very unhappy about it. He was Marine Corps, very Republican, very uptight, and he thought it was awful and was very mad with me. My siblings were all confused because they thought I was boy-crazy in high school. They said, “You have to make up your mind: Are you going to like boys or are you going to like girls?” I replied, “I don’t think I have to make up my mind.” To this day, they say, “We don’t know what’s going on with her.” That’s fine.

MW: Are you in a relationship now?

WINDSOR: No, I haven’t been in a relationship for a couple of years. Since I’ve had the store, that’s kind of been my relationship, and it’s my social outlet. That’s where I’ve met all my friends. I had a couple serious girlfriends and one not-at-all-serious boyfriend — I was such a guy about it. I was like, “No, not love, not that serious. Let’s just go out a lot.” I was never in any very serious relationships with men at all — all the very strong, emotional ones were always with women. I’m just a pain in the ass, and I like my alone time, and so that usually doesn’t work.

MW: Does work tend to consume your life?

WINDSOR: Yes, I’m always doing something that’s related to work. In the summertime, though, that’s my favorite time of the year. Mostly I’m at the beach, in Rehoboth. Even though I go to the lesbian beach and go to the lesbian bars, I kind of just want to be alone. It’s time to clear my head. It’s fun to go out with my friends and family, we have a good time, but my life is so hectic the rest of the year that summer is a really important time for me. I don’t care that it’s 98 degrees out, I love summertime, and that’s when I take time off. In the summertime at the store I probably only work three days. I would say the rest of the year I work seven.

MW: How long have you had Miss Pixie’s By the Sea in Rehoboth?

WINDSOR: This is our third year on Baltimore Avenue, right across from the Blue Moon. It’s a lot of fun. Not busy like the D.C. store at all. People are down there to eat, drink and go to the beach. But we do okay.

I hardly work there — I work Sundays and Mondays, 10 to 2. That’s a pretty easy schedule. Then I have two full-time people that work down there, that live there. They’re wonderful.

MW: Walk me through a typical working week for you.

WINDSOR: My super-busy time and the most exciting part of my week are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which are my auction days. I get up early. On Tuesday I go to Weschler’s Auction downtown. I’m usually done by about noon, then we take everything back to the store, unload it, we price it, try to get it on the website right away, and then I’m answering messages and taking care of other details. I’m usually there until seven or eight at night. Then the very next day I go to another auction that’s on the Eastern Shore, so I have to get up at five in the morning. I drive there in a big truck, and then do that auction, which is often outside, so it’s either really hot or really cold.

The store is very busy those two days as well. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are just action packed. The rest of the days I can kind of hide. When it’s not summertime, I usually work all weekend. Monday and Friday are kind of my days off.

MW: Do you get tired of the Bay Bridge, the travel back and forth?

WINDSOR: Not really. I do go over the Bay Bridge at least two days a week. I time it so I’m not really stuck in traffic. When we were little, if we were going over the Bay Bridge, it either meant we were going to the circus or a play or something big. The bridge still represents escape. It’s always been a symbol of, “Okay, now I’m here, now things are going to be different.”

Miss Pixies -- Photo: Todd Franson

Miss Pixies — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: How has being online changed your business?

WINDSOR: We don’t sell online per se. People don’t say, “Oh, I saw the green chair. Ring me up.” It’s not Amazon or anything at all. I’ve had people tell me they call it “furniture porn.” We used to update the site on Thursday mornings, and everybody at their office, wherever they would be, would say, “Oh my god, look at this chair, look at this table, blah, blah, blah,” and they would all get in trouble at work for being online looking at my stuff, instead of doing whatever they were supposed to do.

If somebody sees something online, we’ll hold it until the end of the business day for them to come in and check it out. Otherwise, we’re pretty strict in the store: we hold things for two hours. Things move really fast, some are in there sometimes for 10 minutes. We bring them in, we put a price tag on it, and it’s gone. Sometimes things are in there for six months and then we have to mark it down. But the website has really changed it. To be honest, I don’t do Facebook or Instagram or all that stuff. My young, smart assistants do it. I have a big rule: you’re not allowed to have your phone at work, which apparently is a terrifying thing to tell anyone these days. But they can have their phone if they’re Instagramming pictures from the store. So all my employees Instagram pictures or tweet out different stuff and post stuff all the time. That’s been really big. I know very little about all that. I shake my head and say “yes” when somebody comments about it.

MW: Is everything that you sell your decision?

WINDSOR: I do most of the buying at both of the auctions. I have an assistant. Recently, I hired Glynn Romero, who used to own Millennium Decorative Arts on U Street, to be my manager. He’s amazing, amazing, amazing. Very rarely do I miss any auctions, but if I’m out sick or something like that, he goes and does a great job. I like to feel like I know every single thing in the store and where I bought it, but it’s not possible, there’s too much stuff. Richard Windborn goes to the Eastern Shore auction with me every week, and he buys outdoor furniture and old signs or mason jars and things like that.

MW: Anything stick out as a “most incredible find” among all the things you’ve bought for your business?

WINDSOR: I have filled my house literally floor to ceiling with artwork that I love that I bought. And I do have the luxury of rotating it out when I get a little bored with it, or find something I like better. I have a big collection of oil paintings by a Greek painter. A number of people have told me, “Oh my God, his stuff is so valuable! But only in Greece.” I’m like, “There’s no economy in Greece, so that doesn’t mean anything to me.” I also got a print that I took to get framed, and the framer said, “This isn’t just a van Gogh lithograph. This was actually printed through Theo van Gogh’s gallery,” because there was a little seal mark on it. I haven’t moved that. That’s in my closet. I have some artwork that I’ve paid literally $5 for, and then sold for like $2,000. I’ve had a few of those. No big million dollar sales — nothing that’s going to make me quit my job anytime soon.

MW: Have you had the opposite experience, where you’ve paid way too much for something?

WINDSOR:[Laughs.] Oh God, yes I have. Not too often, because I really do buy on the lower-end of the scale. I love tiki and bamboo stuff, and I used to spend a lot of money on it, and nobody buys it. I sell a little bit of it at the beach. I bought this great leather couch, and it was so amazing, and I knew the designer — and nobody cared. Sometimes they do, but those customers are few and far between. I try to at least get out of it what I put into it, and sometimes I’m like, “Okay, I paid 700 dollars for this. I’m just going to sell it for 200 dollars and try not to do this again.” So that happens. As I’ve been in it longer, it happens much, much less.

MW: How do you know if something is a good thing to buy?

WINDSOR: The big thing I have to do is remember that tastes change. When I first started, I think it was when Friends was on, and everybody loved the art deco stuff that was on that show. I’ve never liked art deco, but I would buy it and it would sell. Mid-century modern stuff — I’d say 10 years ago it had to be absolutely pristine without a scratch, and now the more beat-up it is the better. I have to keep ahead of the design shows and design magazines and other people that do what I do, and just see what works. I’m not always right. We’ve certainly had some duds, but not very many.

People always need glassware in this town. Everybody always needs cheap artwork that’s good. I buy pretty much what I like, but I’m influenced by what’s going on. My clients like fun, functional stuff. Nobody has time to repair or fix up anything. I don’t have anybody coming in saying, “I really want to work on a dresser, so sell me something cheap.” They want it ready to go. So that I do. We make it easy for them. We have a big crazy glittery van, painted pink with like 30,000 rhinestones on it. We have really cute delivery boys. I shouldn’t call them delivery boys, they’re delivery men. They all know each other from CrossFit classes, so they’re these big hunky guys. I’ve had people say, “Oh my god, will they deliver my shopping bags?” “Yeah, for 35 dollars they will.”

MW: Do you miss the old 14th Street?

WINDSOR: [Laughs.] No. There are things that I miss about the old 14th Street — I miss Pulp and all the really cute tiny little stores. It was a real sense of community. But we had people try to break into the store. I actually put up a sign that said, “No kids under 18.” We had little kids coming in trying to steal the cookies. We just had so many weird things when we first opened. We had shoplifting, we had a lot of crime issues. Now we have a lot of annoying wealthy kids.

It’s changed a lot. It’s good for me and good for business. When I first opened on 14th Street, my rent was $6,000 a month, which I thought was astronomical, but it was a huge space. Now it’s much, much more than that, which is crazy. I’m not sitting around making money hand-over-fist at all. I’m happy that the economy has bumped up and people spend more money, because I need to make a lot more money to make ends meet. I’m happy about 14th Street being cleaned up. I’m sad to see it’s filling up with some corporate stuff. There’s a J Crew for Men going in where the old Men’s Parties sex club used to be. When I first opened there, that place was very active.

It’s nice to have a lot of restaurants. We used to have to order carry-out pizza. There wasn’t any place to eat. That’s changed. It’s very vibrant, it’s exciting, it’s very young — people and their dogs and their kids in strollers. The neighborhood, 14th Street, has always been so supportive — they stand behind me whenever there’s an issue or something. Everyone has been super-nice and helpful. It’s a great neighborhood. It’s just pretty dense and very expensive.

MW: So the cost of doing business has skyrocketed, but your business is doing okay?

WINDSOR: The numbers have gone up as well, so that’s good. My landlord on 14th Street, he and his family own the property. They’ve been super-wonderful to me. They could have kicked me out and brought in a restaurant and got so much more money. They gave me a tiny, little three-percent rent increase for my new lease, which I’m signing in six months. They started out as a small business, so they’ve been really helpful to me. I plan to be around for at least another five years. Then after that, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m definitely not going anywhere, knock on wood, barring any unforeseen events.

MW: Have you thought about opening another store?

WINDSOR: No, no, no, no. I just feel very strongly about focusing on the D.C. store. We’ll probably do more events. We’re trying to find out about even doing private parties, I don’t know, do Ladies Night and things like that, maybe once a month, to fill the coffers in a whole different way. I have a big movie projector, a big screen in this place, and so doing movie nights, or a gay and lesbian film festival, stuff like that. It’s a fun, comfortable space. People really enjoy it. I don’t care sometimes if people don’t buy anything. I think it’s really wonderful. I’d like it to be everyone’s little happy place. That’s really what I think the future holds. I’m also involved in the Fringe Festival — they let me do a little movie series this spring, and we’ve done a couple pop-up stores for them — we just furnish the Fringe events when they have them.

If I could ever bring back a T-dance — I think it’s kind of a generational thing. When I was growing up, for years I never missed a T-dance. To drink and dance in the middle of the day was the craziest idea to me, and I thought it was fantastic. But I think people do that now all the time.

So my focus for the next five years, will be just really squeezing all I can out of the space, so I hopefully have some money left at the end of it to sit around and do nothing for a while.

MW: Do you ever wish you’d had kids?

WINDSOR: No! I come from a really big family. I like kids. I love my nieces and my nephew, but after a day I’m completely exhausted and I have no idea how people parent, because it’s just too overwhelming for me.

MW: Is your staff a surrogate family for you?

WINDSOR: We have a great staff. I try to take good care of my staff. I try to pay them as well as I possibly can. I used to say it’s my second family, but it’s kind of my first family. I have a lot of good loyal people that have stayed there for a long time, who love retail and who love our customers. I think it’s important to have a good staff that is responsive. If I promise you something, if anything goes wrong, I try to go above and beyond to make sure that you are happy. That makes me happy, that keeps everybody happy. We just try to keep it all working all the way around.

Miss Pixie’s, located at 1626 14th St. NW, will hold the Dog Days Kickoff on Friday, Aug. 5, from 6 to 8 p.m. Call 202-232-8171 or visit misspixies.com.

Miss Pixie’s By The Sea is at 40 Baltimore Ave. in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Call 302-226-8171 or visit bythesea.misspixies.com.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.