Omaha's best bargain shopper shows up five minutes early, dutifully taking her place in line behind a gaggle of sweatpants-wearing college girls who do not know the Legend of Veronika Leonard.
Veronika is not wearing sweatpants, even though she got off work at 3 a.m. and it's now 10:55 a.m. on a frigid Sunday morning. She is wearing black faux-leather pants, a green faux-leather jacket, pink gloves and a purple scarf wrapped tightly around her neck. She's rocking a pair of killer, four-inch gray booties on her feet.
She's dressed to rock. She's dressed to kill. She's dressed to dominate the Sunday Dollar Sale at Scout Dry Goods & Trade, a Dundee secondhand store, just like she's done pretty much every Sunday for the past four years.
There is only one problem: 11 a.m., the sale's opening time, comes and goes. It's 11:01, then 11:03, then 11:05 and still the store is dark and locked.
It is 19 degrees outside, and a frigid wind is whipping along Underwood Avenue, slicing right through this crowd of two dozen people waiting for the Dollar Sale to begin. By 11:07, a grim-faced Veronika is pacing in front of Scout to keep warm. The gaggle of sweatpants-wearing college girls are hopping up and down and huddling together for warmth.
By 11:12, the girls have stopped talking and laughing. The sweatpants-wearers appear to be losing the will to shop. They may be losing the will to live.
By 11:17, I'm losing the will to live. And I'm sitting inside my Volkswagen in front of the store, with my coat on and the car heater on full blast.
Finally, just before all hope is lost, a tall, sharply dressed man unlocks the front door. Veronika and the two-dozen Sunday sale shoppers rush inside.
“It's only started late twice in the past four years!” Veronika yells at me as she rushes toward one of the gray bins that hold the $1 clothing.
Veronika would know. She has missed exactly two Sunday sales here since moving to Omaha in December 2009. She has bought every article of outerwear she has on today — the black pants, the green jacket, the pink gloves, the purple scarf — for $1 at these sales. And those killer, four-inches gray booties? Those shoes were also $1.
Those shoes are one of 98 pairs that Veronika has bought at Scout's Sunday sale.
Veronika Leonard, the Dollar Legend, is going for 100 today. It's not going to be easy.
“My fingers are still frozen!” she yells at me as she reaches a gray bin and begins yanking out clothes.
The two dozen shoppers, ranging in age from 7 to maybe 50, crowd around the gray bins, jostling for position and hunting for deals. There is no talking, no noise at all save for a cough and the occasional sound of a shopper stuffing a prized item into a duffel bag.
Veronika stoops over and digs deep into the bin in front of her, pulling out clothes in her size and only once accidentally elbowing the woman beside her. (“I'm so sorry!” she yelps immediately.) When her arms are full, she runs the clothes to a corner of the store, dumps them in a pile and races back to the $1 bins.
After 15 frantic minutes of silent searching, the pace starts to slow and Veronika eyes the pile of potential buys she's thrown into “her corner.” There are dresses, blouses, a couple of sweaters her husband Daniel has picked out — he's one of two men here today — jackets, coats and one winter face mask that looks appropriate only for hostage-taking or grand larceny. There are 27 items of clothing in this pile, 27 items that Veronika must now decide if she wants to buy or throw back.
Twenty-seven items of clothing, including exactly two pairs of shoes.
“Decision time,” Veronika says.
Four years ago, Veronika made a decision. She took a one-way flight from the Czech Republic to Chicago and eventually to Omaha. She brought exactly one pair of heels, because she owned exactly one pair of heels. She moved to the United States because it had been her dream since she was a little girl. She moved to Omaha because a boyfriend lived there.
The boyfriend disappeared. She moved to Omaha anyway. She started dating Daniel, the sound guy at the Barley Street Tavern. She started working the door at the tavern.
“All your dreams can come true here,” the 29-year-old says in her Eastern European accent. She smiles. “They didn't, but I still like it a lot.”
Veronika had been a tomboy in the Czech Republic, but she wanted to remake her fashion sense in Omaha. Her one pair of basic black pumps, purchased in Prague, just wasn't going to cut it any longer. But Veronika also didn't have much money.
Enter Scout, the hip midtown resale store popular with 20-somethings.
One Sunday in December 2009, a new Omaha friend introduced her to the Scout Sunday sale. That first week, she bought a pair of Charlotte Russe heels for a dollar.
She came back the next Sunday, and the next, and the next. She bought another pair, and another, and another and another.
After she had bought 30 pairs, she thought: I need a shelf.
After she bought 60 pairs, she started taking a photo of each new pair and posting it on Instagram.
Pair 77: A pair of six-inch, spiked red heels from Shoedazzle. Pair 84: A shimmery pair of black ankle boots.
Pair 90: A chunky, five-inch platform with a leopard-print sole. Pair 97: Buttery yellow four-inch heel.
Veronika bought dozens of dresses and jackets and pants, too. So many that she started selling the excess under the name Indiefashiondoll on eBay and Etsy. Veronika doesn't have much room to spare: She and Daniel live in a small, two-room apartment with small closets.
But she has kept every pair of Scout shoes. The 98 pairs now line the walls of the smaller room.
“Very orderly,” she says of her shoe collection. “I'm not a hoarder.”
All this $1 shopping has taught Veronika two things. One: Style doesn't have to cost a fortune.
“I hate it when people say, 'I don't have enough money to be fashionable,' ” she tells me. “And in the meantime, I'm wearing exactly $5 worth of clothes!”
And two: Sometimes it's hard to explain why you do things.
Maybe Veronika has 98 pairs of Scout heels and boots because she used to be a sneaker-wearing tomboy. Maybe it's something about moving halfway around the world and finding a store and a goal to latch onto.
This much is certain: At around noon, after carefully going through every one of the items in her pile, Veronika pays $13.91 for 13 items.
None of those 13 items are shoes.
“They were too cheap looking, you know? Too '90s,” Veronika says when I ask her why she didn't buy the shoes she picked out. “I have almost 100 pairs. I can afford to be a little picky, right?”
She's stuck on 98 only for seven days. Because on the first Sunday of December, the Legend of Veronika Leonard is back in line, fashionably shivering outside of Scout.
This time, she is wearing faux leather pants, a pair of rose gold wedge sneakers, a black moto jacket and a printed pink-and-cream scarf.
This time, she digs through the bins and pulls out a paif of gray, studded Franco Sarto pumps.
And then she pulls out a pair of beaded silver sandals, designed by none other than Jessica Simpson.
But she won't stop there. She will be shivering outside Scout again next Sunday.
The Legend of Veronika Leonard will shop on, and why not? Two hundred pairs of $1 shoes seems like a great deal.