An artful jewelry display at the Night Owl boutique, in Miami.(Eddie Volchko & Gigi Guerra)
Whatever the hour, the party is always going strong at Miami's 55th Street Station, a complex of bars and boutiques carved from a strip of once-decaying warehouses. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Night Owl, a kitchen-sized vintage accessories shop, where customers swaying to the Station's resident DJ wander in from a courtyard bar to shop for leopard-print peep-toe pumps. "My busiest hours are around midnight," says the platinum-haired German proprietor, Paloma Soyka.
That comment might raise eyebrows elsewhere, but in South Florida, it's far from surprising. Historically, SoFlo's balmy climate has drawn second-homeowners looking to downsize. For that reason, thrift stores in the upscale communities have traditionally been havens for designer cast-offs. But lately, I'd heard that a new generation of international shopkeepers like Soyka have been livening up the otherwise stodgy scene, bringing new energy and inspiration into the mix. As a 15-year veteran of the fashion industry—I spent half that time as an editor for a shopping magazine—this retail renaissance sounded too good to be true.
The 70-mile stretch of I-95 between Palm Beach and Miami isn't your classic wind-in-the-hair drive; the asphalt is pancake flat, and it's billboards as far as the eye can see. But a road trip can be as much about how you get there as where you're going, so I plotted out a zigzaggy route that strung together some of the best vintage shopping in the U.S.
Before getting started, I fueled up at Hamburger Heaven, a 65-year-old Palm Beach institution. Stacks of hand-painted coffee mugs set aside for regulars greeted me upon arrival—as did a chatty patron, who, between bites of a slice of foot-high chocolate cake, advised me to start my journey on the Dixie Highway, also called U.S. Route 1, which parallels I-95 to the east. It was a hotbed of bargains, she promised, and she was right.
Just south of the Palm Beach city limits, I spied World Thrift. Inside its barn-like exterior was an acres-wide mother lode of secondhand goods, organized by color. I scored a 1970s silk peasant dress—a riot of paisley and plaid—for only $7.
Down the road, on a quiet residential block, Glam! Vintage Palm Beach promised quite a lot with its name. The racks were carefully arranged according to decade by owner Kathryn Jacobson, a Rhode Island School of Design grad. It all felt like an incredibly cool stylist's closet, which, in some ways, it is: Jacobson regularly throws fashion shows at local see-and-be-seen spots, and her pieces have appeared on screens both big (the Sex and the City movies) and small (Ugly Betty).
That night, I spread out my finds in a Creamsicle-colored room at West Palm Beach's Hotel Biba, a mid-century lodge turned tropical-mod motel co-owned by Barbara Hulanicki, the founder of the legendary 1960s British fashion label Biba.
Fort Lauderdale and Miami
I woke early to Cuban pastries and OJ squeezed from locally grown oranges, served in the Biba's lizard-populated courtyard. I could certainly have lingered, but I was determined to make the most of the day. Heading south on I-95, familiar place names whizzed by: fancy Delray Beach and even fancier Boca Raton. Occasionally I'd spot the ocean to my left, beckoning, but I didn't allow myself to pause; I was too focused on my next stop, Fort Lauderdale's PreviewMod. I'd heard from some interior designer friends that the store was a stellar source for mid-century decor, so after an hour's drive,
I pulled off I-95 at Exit 31A for a visit. The minimalist, white stucco space was lined with chrome ball lamps, teak dining tables, and Lucite desks so enticing that I was overcome with an instant, undeniable urge to redesign my living room.
Even a retail devotee like me needs a break from the racks eventually, so before I got back on the highway, I cut a path across town to experience the wilder side of SoFlo. At Everglades Holiday Park, I signed up for a guided airboat ride and spent an exhilarating hour zipping across the marshland. I had hoped to spot gators and was in luck, although it's surprising how docile they seem when they're only lounging in the sun.
Back on the road, I trained my GPS toward Hialeah's Flamingo Plaza, a sprawling, thrift strip mall on the outskirts of Miami. "Just go," urged a stylist friend in an earlier e-mail. "You. Will. Lose. Your. Mind." She knew me too well: My pulse quickened the minute I set eyes on the city-block-long chain of stores. I was drawn immediately to the fluorescent-lit Red White & Blue Thrift Store. With its sheer volume of goods (25,000 garments at any given time) and insanely low prices (starting at 95¢!), it was the clear standout. Two hours later, I filled my trunk with cork-soled sandals, a cotton-candy-pink mohair cardigan, and a pair of star-print denim hot pants. That kind of shopping takes a lot out of you, and luckily, lunch wasn't too far off. About 10 miles south, at La Camaronera, a Cuban seafood spot in the heart of Little Havana, the pan con minuta, a delicious fried-snapper sandwich, perked me right back up.
Over the next day or so in Miami, my luck continued. I scored hand-painted buoys and a model clipper ship at the maritime-themed Stoneage Antiques and browsed rack after overflowing rack of $5-$20 retro party dresses at Angel's Vintage Boutique. I pulled up to my final stop, The Rabbit Hole, at around 7 p.m. Bangkok native and owner Tya Tiempetch stocks quirky, old-fashioned finds, like pearlized cat-eye sunglasses, felted fedoras, and frothy organza dresses. Inspired by the nighttime street vendors of her home country, Tiempetch sometimes keeps the place open until after midnight. "I like the idea of browsing after late-night food runs," she told me. In this part of Florida, you wouldn't expect it any other way.