The Story of Hello Vintage
It’s a modern romance-retail tale in which the proprietor, Carolyn Liu, shares some business and relationship advice for Millennials.
Photo by Clayton Mitchell
Forget everything you have read or assume about Millennials. The media portrays them as overachievers who are carrying huge college debts and are obsessed with big incomes, new technology, and career advancement. Common lore says the youngest millennials are avoidant, highly resistant to long-term commitments like marriage, mortgages, raising children, or owning a small business.
Enter Carolyn and Nira Liu. The Oakland couple embraced modernity by meeting online, but almost everything else about their romance is retro. Further tilting against trends, Carolyn, 24, is sole owner of the vintage clothing shop, Hello Vintage, a bracing, homey College Avenue establishment.
Her husband, Nira, 25, is a story artist at Pixar. Choosing relationships and personal fulfillment over income, they said in separate interviews, directs their lifestyle as a couple.
“We had both assumed we wouldn’t marry until we’re in our 30s,” Carolyn said. “If someone says they’re looking for long-term relationships, people freak out.”
The two first met on Tinder while at the San Francisco airport. She was headed to Canada, and he was traveling to China to see family in his homeland.
“I couldn’t talk until I landed, so when we finally talked, we were 6,000 miles apart,” she recalled. But weeks later, during their first date in January 2017, she knew within minutes that their personalities, values, and lifestyles were closely aligned, she said. Carolyn was getting her communications degree at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, and Nira was studying animation in San Francisco. They met in between — at the Dublin BART — got sushi, and hit it off. They went to a thrift store, took in a movie, had dinner, did some walking around, and then headed to the California Academy of Sciences — and talked until midnight.
“It was pretty magical,” Nira said. “We had this instant connection. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. After the first couple of dates, I knew she was the one.”
Qualities they appreciated about each other overlapped: smart, thoughtful, charming, funny, genuine, incredibly dorky, witty. He said he is never bored and always free of the feeling he needs to “fix himself” to be accepted and loved. She said she finds it refreshing to discover a soul mate with life goals similar to her own.
All of which fed into the marriage proposal. Carolyn said Nira took “all kinds of public transportation” to purchase the perfect rubies-diamonds-white gold ring, red carnations, and boba milk tea — “my favorite Taiwanese drink,” she exclaimed — before traveling to Stockton. He got down on one knee on her doorstep, having practiced his proposal on the train. “I guess it went well, because she ended up saying yes,” he said.
Opening Hello Vintage required more deliberation. She opened a brick-and-mortar store in Berkeley in 2018 and as sales boomed there and online, the physical shop needed room to grow. Rising rents and knowledge that “Oakland businesswomen support each other,” led Carolyn to look for retail space in her hometown.
She found her current space and kept up efforts to make Hello Vintage stand out, pairing her best business skills — a strong work ethic, honesty, superior taste, and a willingness to listen to advice, according to her husband — with retail features and customers’ desires.
“Relationships with people will drive your business long-term. Loyal customers will make you profitable. Those customers who have never bought something — I treat them the same as those that do. They come in, like the space. They’re people, too. They play dress up and enjoy the experience. Everyone is welcome.”
The high-end garments at Hello Vintage include tags with information about the designer and the specific time period from which it was produced. Carolyn posts vivid photos of the apparel on her website, providing definitions of different designer labels and fashion eras that are written with brevity and clarity. Carolyn is active on Yelp, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media.
The most popular items, she said, are dresses, tops, jewelry, and handbags for women. Unique items abound: among them, a dress once worn to JFK’s inauguration and Chinese dresses from the 1940s brought in by a customer. “She wanted them to go to good homes,” Carolyn remembered of their donor. “I felt like the caretaker of her memories of her grandmother.”
Meanwhile, disco- or Hawaiian-themed shirts and jackets sell quickly on the men’s side.
Hello Vintage does more than sell clothes, hosting dress-up parties and special events — like an upcoming antique clothing open house with museum-worthy clothes, wine, cheese, and docents — to add pizzazz to the experience.
“Some people are intimidated by vintage clothing. I want people to be comfortable. Being friendly, staying one beat of energy above them, almost like a golden retriever, that’s the spirit,” she said.
Asked for advice for young women entrepreneurs — or for those seeking life partners — she said, “Know that it will get better. Don’t lie to yourself when you don’t have the skills, take pride, and keep going until you make it. Modern romance is the same. Stay true to yourself. Don’t let society dictate to you that you want fast hookups, flings, or not being committed. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with being loyal.”