“Come on in here. Nobody’s got what I’ve got. Nobody’s got nothing like this.”
So begins a dive into a box of goodies at Alma’s Variety Shop at Deweese and Short streets.
It’s the kind of place you could pass a hundred times and never realize it is there. It’s also the kind of place a mother might drag her reluctant daughter into, only to have that daughter fall in love with fabric after fabric.
Alma Parrish, 91, has seen it happen. For 60 years, her shop has sold lace for wedding dresses, silks for stunning gowns, upholstery for sofas and drapes for fine homes, and much more.
“Every piece you pull out is just gorgeous,” Parrish said. “They don’t sell this in the stores. This is from designers. This is their overruns, so nobody’s got it.”
She got into the business through her father, William N. Parrish, who was in salvage. Known for having an eye for beautiful fabric, Alma Parrish also inherited her father’s eye for the deal.
“He always said you gotta buy stuff cheap, so you can sell it cheap. I never buy nothing wholesale. Never,” Parrish said. “I went to New York about 20 years ago and I went to where they made lace. And they said, ‘We can’t sell you this lace, this belongs to people. Bob Mackie and all of them.’”
How did she convince them?
She just happened to have thousands of dollars with her, “all $100 bills. And they accidentally fell on the floor! ... They said, ‘Are you going to spend that?’ and I said, ‘Why, hell yeah, what do you think it’s for?’”
She established contacts who would sell her overruns, leftovers, and bits and pieces for less than wholesales prices, and soon word of mouth began spreading that Parrish had the kind of fabrics, trims and laces used for high-end gowns and furniture. But for much, much less.
Draping an embroidered white lacy fabric across her arm, Parrish said it was available only two places: in her shop for $20 a yard and in $3,000 dresses.
Much of her fabrics end up in wedding dresses; she sold material to three generations of one family. Another woman who wore a dress made of lace from Parrish’s shop has purchased yards and yards more — to one day make wedding dresses for her daughters, one of whom has not been born yet.
Alma’s quite a remarkable woman. Always an encouragement. An absolute hellcat. She’ll tell you like it is.
Betty Spain, owner of Bella Rose
People don’t sew like they used to, Parrish said.
“But when people come in here, they decide they’re gonna make something special,” she said.
Parrish made matching lace-covered beds for her dogs. She also collects dolls (she has 2,000 Barbies and Madame Alexander dolls) and sells loads of silk at doll shows.
“I buy anything,” she said, from Thoroughbred racehorses to Turkish rugs. She sells, too, but not on the Internet.
“I don’t want to fool with it,” she said.
And Parrish has made a name for herself among those looking for quality furnishings.
Besnic Gojani, a native of Kosovo who has lived in Lexington for 16 years, doesn’t remember exactly how he found Alma’s, but he’s gone there several times to get fabric for chairs and couches that he reupholsters.
“She has a store that nobody has in the United States. The varieties and the things she has, for upholstery and for decorators, is the best,” he said.
While Parrish has a feel for what will sell, sometimes there are surprises. She held up a length of delicate lace that she’s been selling a lot of recently. Turns out people were buying it for simple curtains.
Many of her customers have been coming for decades, so Parrish often knows what they will like. She pointed to a bolt of embroidered silk, saying, “That’s for Miss Kincaid.”
June Kincaid, who majored in fashion design at the University of Kentucky, has been coming to Alma’s for years.
“I remember when Alma had her first shop on Broadway. She has wonderful fabric,” Kincaid said. “I’ve bought drapes for three different houses from her.”
When Kincaid would get an idea for something she needed, “I would go to Alma’s because I knew she would have it.”
Betty Spain, owner of Bella Rose dress shop in Lexington, has been an Alma’s customer for 30 years.
“I’ve been shopping there for as long as I’ve been in business,” Spain said. “I still have fabric on a sofa that I bought from her 20 years ago.”
In addition to upholstery fabric, Spain said she has bought lace and trimmings for Kentucky Derby hats and draperies.
“Alma’s quite a remarkable woman. Always an encouragement,” Spain said. “An absolute hellcat. She’ll tell you like it is.”
Parrish freely admitted that’s the case, remembering one customer she scolded for buying too many rugs.
“She stopped coming,” Parrish said. “I should have kept my mouth shut.”
But nobody can deny that Alma’s is a treasure trove.
Denise DiSantis has been shopping there for the goods to make award-winning dance costumes, first for her daughter and then other girls.
“It is the perfect thing for me — if I have to do a group of people, she has drawers of the same kind of appliqués that I can dye, but she also has one-of-a-kind things that are old, vintage,” DiSantis said.
DiSantis is moving to Florida, but “I’ll probably be coming back here to buy stuff at Alma’s. Nobody knows what a gold mine it is.”