Ninth life

Buying that first pair of grown-up stockings is a rite of passage for a normal young girl. But for that other type of girl — the kind who rims her eyes with black and uses safety pins as accoutrements, the selection at JCPenny just won’t do. This is the girl who prefers her cotton hosiery a bit … naughtier.

Countercultural accessories, like fishnets (yes, they used to be difficult to find), are what Keith and Nancy Hay know best. As owners of the kitsch and punk rock clothing store the Cat’s Meow in Royal Oak, they’ve witnessed thousands of fidgety tarts-in-the-making in pursuit of rebelliously sexy wares and squirrelly young punks seeking their very first leather cuff. It’s been a fun and strange ride — selling these weird little articles for an astonishing 22 years — but at the end of the month, it’s all over.

But don’t feel too bad for them; it was a damn good run.

The Cat’s Meow wasn’t always the punk-meets-goth-meets-glam clothing store that most people know it as today. When the Hays first opened their doors in 1983 in Ann Arbor, the store was a small, quaint vintage clothing shop. Naturally, their clientele consisted of University of Michigan undergrads and art-rock folk of the day. The store’s very existence mocked the pedestrianism and yuppie mentality of the early ’80s and, much like the other local rarity shops of the day (Patti Smith, Cinderella’s Attic and Secondhand Rose), the Cat’s Meow catered to the kind of people who coveted one-of-a-kind vintage Merc suits and rabbit fur-collared jackets. It wasn’t shopping. It was hunting.

“All those kids were so cool and unique,” Nancy says. “It’s hard to believe, but clothes have gotten more conservative over the years.”

Despite the changing times, the Cat’s Meow has done a fine job of staying ahead of the game. In fact, after four years of business in Ann Arbor, the couple opened up a second store in Madison, Wis. “We found this ideal location. I would go back and forth, spend three weeks there and then come home for one week,” Keith says.

But after ten long years in the Dairy State, weary of the long drives, the couple decided to open up a location closer to home: the trendier-by-the-minute city of Royal Oak.

The move happened in 1996, right around the time Royal Oak’s downtown area began to turn from a tame stretch of shops into a metropolitan thoroughfare, spurred in part by iconoclastic stores like Noir Leather and Dave’s Comics. These boutiques helped pave the way for Main Street’s eventual explosion.

“Not as many kids come to Royal Oak to shop anymore,” Nancy says. “It’s mostly restaurants and bars. Parking can be a big problem.”

In the ’90s Cinderella’s Attic, Faith Couture and Vintage Noir all closed.

That was the beginning of the end.

If there’s a subtext to the closing of the Cat’s Meow, it’d be this: Eff the mall, buy from mom-and-pop.

Sadly, that ethos has been eclipsed by the mass availability and privacy that Internet shopping provides (not to mention the “alternative” chain store Hot Topic). But to the Hays’ credit, they made it through the trickle-down days of the Reagan administration, the insurgence of the anti-style style, grunge and a bevy of other faddy eras. Now that it’s all over, they say they have no regrets. There’s no resentment, no mawkish laments,

“That’s just the way it goes,” Nancy says. “I use the Internet as much as anyone.”

“Styles began to change,” Keith says. “We tried to keep up with it. We were exclusively 1940s to ’60s vintage clothing at first, and then we went towards the alternative punk fashions, then towards military-type of fashions. Eventually we got the gothic-type clothing.”

The couple even began carrying gift items like retro-Tiki-themed tchotchkes. In June, Nancy helped organize Return to Paradise: The Motor City Tiki Art Show at Chin’s restaurant in Livonia, to celebrate the trend and help generate interest in the long-abandoned Chin Tiki in downtown Detroit. The event was so popular, a Christmas Tiki party was held at Chin’s in December; the Hays plan to continue these events even after the close of the store.

Laura Rockwood, a local designer and teacher at International Academy of Design and Technology, worked at the Cat’s Meow for years. Rockwood, who now sells her own fashions at Detroit-based clothier Pure Detroit, says, “You know, you take for granted that places like the Cat’s Meow will always be there. I was definitely inspired by working there.”

But, as with most things in life, there’s a price to pay for going against the grain. And as the cash register and motionless bell on the front door suggest, the Cat’s Meow’s heyday is over.

“Kids are into the hip-hop and techno clothing now,” Keith says “We are just not comfortable selling that stuff and our customers wouldn’t have been comfortable with it either.”

To hear them talk about it, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Keith, a history buff, recently passed his written test to become a Civil War battlefield guide down South and is looking forward to spending some time out of the retail biz.

Nancy, who has spent the last couple of decades living and breathing this store, finds herself vacillating somewhere in between happy and sad.

“We met some of our very best friends through this store. Honestly, some of our closest friends in the world were our customers,” she says.

But, she’s also excited to have some time to herself. “I’d love to sit down and read a book.”

If you were one of those folks who used to frequent the shop or you’d just like to pay your last respects, the Cat’s Meow will be having a closing party, or “wake” as Keith refers to it, on January 30th in the store. Stop by and share a story.

Farewell, guys — and thanks for the fishnets.


The Cat’s Meow is located at 110 E. Fifth St., Royal Oak; 248-542-1161.

Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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