Tip Top Atomic Shop turned 10 in September, and owner Jim Dutcher can't believe it. Not only did the time fly, but it's also amazing that the small shop featuring vintage and replica items from the '40s and '50s survived the challenging economy.
The last few years, according to Dutcher, have been tough, but he says business seems to be on the up swing and his prediction for 2012 sales are "so far OK." Plus, the resilient shop faced adversity since day one so it's accustomed to finding creative ways to stay afloat.
"We opened two weeks after 9 / 11. Talk about scary. We invested our life into this and then the world feels like it's falling apart," says Dutcher, who owns the business with his wife of 16 years, Lisa.
Dutcher says the biggest change that happened to his business in the past decade has been where he gets his stock. In years past, he would find most of his vintage items at estate sales, but now, he buys directly from fewer and fewer original owners. Instead, most of the retro goods come from second generation owners, who bought the clothing or jewelry or furnishings from an estate years ago and have decided they're no longer into it.
"We're not getting stuff from grandma and grandpa anymore," he says.
Plus, Dutcher says he buys more reproduction stuff now, especially new clothing from lines like Steady, Lucky 13 and Sourpuss that manufacture sweaters, dresses and men's shirts that look like they're from eras passed. These days, Tip Top's stock is about 70 percent vintage items and 30 percent new.
"I can just open a catalog and order," says Dutcher.
Dutcher doesn't say this because he's lazy or because he doesn't like shopping anymore. He loves thrifting and going to rummage sales, but the cost of gas has prevented him from heading out as often or to farther-away places like when the shop first opened. These days, when he goes out, he makes a map to ensure he's taking the most efficient route and using the least amount of gas possible.
Also, more and more people are getting into buying antiques for cheap and reselling them on eBay for a good profit, so finding the gems, even though he knows what he's looking for, has become more difficult over the years.
Tip-Top Atomic Shop is small but makes good use of the space; although there's fun stuff to look at everywhere, it doesn't feel too cramped. The kitchy-cool items include lamps, clocks, glassware, bowling memorabilia, jewelry, games, books, cookware and clothing that ranges from Betty Page-inspired to rockabilly to Hawaiian shirts.
"How can you get angry at a guy in bright, flowery shirt?" asks Dutcher.
Dutcher first got into the retro rockabilly scene at age 14 after watching his parents' old movies and listening to their record albums. Today, he and Lisa's South Side home is filled with predominantly mid-century modern furnishings and has a full tiki bar in the basement.
"It has bamboo walls, the whole nine yards," he says.
Dutcher collects Chicago World's Fair items from the 1933-34 fair. Originally, his stepfather gave him a few pieces and, after he passed away, Dutcher continued the collection himself.
Dutcher says Tip-Top appeals to people anywhere from 12 to 85-years-old.
"A high schooler might come in here to find a prom dress that she won't see five other girls wearing at the dance or an elderly woman might come in for a knick knack," he says. "You just never know what you'll find here."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.