The Circle of Robyn Reeder

Broughton Street’s original queen of cool looks back

The Circle of Robyn Reeder
Geoff L. Johnson
Robyn Reeder, center, flanked by LaShawn Floyd, left, and Danielle Hughes Rose, right, in Civvies

ON THE SECOND FLOOR of 14 E. Broughton Street, there's a towering circle centered against the street-side window.

White, and studded in orange stars, light pours over the handmade wooden frame, illuminating years of use. Bare wood peers through in small sections; white painter’s tape bandages two cuts.

It was originally handmade by Sebastian Edwards for Robyn Reeder and Igor Fiksman’s wedding in 2010, a cool alternative to a trellis or altar—a circle of love.

Since then, the circle has found its way into Robyn’s vintage shop, Civvies, and her former business, Primary Art Supply; it’s even framed her as she steadfastly keeps the beat in her band, The Silver Machine.

While Robyn never tries to force iconography in her life and work, the circle keeps making appearances: there’s one cut into the beautiful headboard that Jonathan Athon hand-built for her, anchored by two vintage lamps with spherical elements.

With Igor and sister Jenny at her side, Robyn explains how her life and work have come full-circle, too: Civvies has moved back into 14 E. Broughton, the old Primary.

Her contract with Blick Art Materials, where she’s worked as a consultant for three years, just ended.

Up until a month ago, she was working two jobs with stage four cancer.

“It’s been so confusing,” says Robyn, “because I hide it so well. People are like, ‘you look great,’ and...I am not.”

“My goal was to turn 40, which happened a month ago,” she continues.

“I had this series of goals that really helped me keep going.”

A week after she was dancing with friends at her birthday bash, Robyn was hospitalized by a grand mal seizure.

“It’s definitely strong progressing,” Igor says.

Robyn’s been working, performing, and living with cancer for 11 years. For almost 20 years, she’s been a radiant influence on Broughton Street, a cherished and inspirational local icon.

Through changes in health, the Great Recession, and downtown development, she’s held fast: basically, she’s an insanely hard worker, a brilliant problem-solver, a creative with big ideas, an eye for the future, and a community-minded approach to life and business.

With a team of loyal friends (many of whom happen to be really good with their hands), Robyn can take a “so-crazy-it-just-might-work” notion and break it down into practical steps—all while having an absolute blast.

Here in their home, Igor has compiled a timeline of Robyn’s achievements.

“You do it,” she says to him. “I don’t like talking about myself. Who does?”

Igor smiles at her.

“I like talking about you.”

click to enlarge The Circle of Robyn Reeder
Geoff L. Johnson
Robyn and husband Igor

ROBYN GOT her first taste of vintage retail while working Buffalo Exchange in her home of Tucson, Arizona.

The vintage buy/sell/trade shop—now a franchise—was a novel concept at the time, and the experience was hugely influential on the budding businesswoman.

“They almost didn’t want to hire me, I was so young!” Robyn remembers. “I was, like, 17!”

Transitioning from her teenage Goth phase, she developed a “kinda hippie and trendy” personal style in her time at the flagship. In the early days, the shop was chock-full of incredible finds—a silver Anasazi tribal necklace, studded in coral, was a memorable treasure (before going off to college, Robyn gave it to Jenny in exchange for her older sister’s ID).

It was a dream job for Robyn—with offers for a position in management, she debated going to college at all, until a SCAD representative showed up at her school.

Robyn had never been to Savannah, much less the South, but she was enchanted by SCAD’s marketing and the opportunity for creative exploration.

“It was the only presentation any college in the art department had made,” Robyn says. “They just painted the most beautiful picture of it.”

While the Reeders grew up “fairly poor,” Robyn’s aunt had been very successful; she offered to cover tuition at whatever college Robyn wanted to attend.

Robyn chose SCAD.

“I actually came sight unseen,” she says with a wry smile. “Because I’m just like that.”

click to enlarge The Circle of Robyn Reeder
Geoff L. Johnson
A dream team of friends and supporters: Igor Fiksman, Jenny Reeder, Robyn Reeder, Danielle Hughes Rose, Sebastian Edwards, LaShawn Floyd.

SHE STARTED classes in 1995, working toward a degree in Metals and Jewelry. That year, she met fellow student Amy Spurlock, who would go on to become Robyn’s business partner and dear friend.

At the time, Amy was running a little underground art supply business out of her living room. Stocking supplies via mail order, she carved out a niche in the pre-Internet-shopping era.

“I can attest to the fact that there was a very big lack of art supply shops in Savannah,” says Igor.

“This is before SCAD even had Ex Libris,” Robyn adds.

It was the ‘90s: downtown rent was dirt cheap. Leading the way of entrepreneurial students (many of whom opened up businesses just to shutter them after graduation), Amy moved her renegade art supply biz into 202 E. Broughton, christening it Cabaret Voltaire.

“She basically opened it so that she could buy her own products wholesale—and that she could also order wholesale American Spirit cigarettes,” Robyn laughs. “So it was art supplies, and cigarettes. And just that brand. I remember the first time I went in there, I was like, ‘what the hell is this?’”

As demand increased, the space became far too small.

“You could just feel the energy of SCAD just getting bigger by the minute,” Robyn remembers.

In 1996, Robyn and Amy teamed up to create Primary Art Supply, renting 14 E. Broughton Street for less than a thousand dollars a month.

It seems outlandish today, but at the time, downtown was truly no man’s land: for a while, Primary and a longstanding cigar shop were the only storefronts in the now-central location.

“It was scary,” Igor remembers with a chuckle. “You had to be packin’ to go down Broughton.”

For years, they rented from an old-school Savannahian (we’re talking full matching suit, Cadillac-with-a-personal-driver old-school); when it was time for him to sell, Amy bought the building at a bargain, and she and Robyn set to making the space truly their own.

Primary wasn’t just known for its framing, large selection of supplies, and excellent customer service: the shop hosted some of the wildest parties Savannah’s seen. With Valentine’s Day being Primary’s official anniversary, the team threw open the doors, stocked up on kegs, booked any band that wanted to play, and celebrated on February 14.

The three “most epic” parties each coincided with renovations on the first, second, and third floors of the building.

Sometimes, folks would form bands just for the party—punk, experimental, or, as Robyn puts it, “real, true art school” bands.

Longtime Savannah favorite Superhorse even played its first official show at a Primary bash. Attendees danced, drank, and adorned the bare walls with spray paint.

“Wasn’t there a party where you busted a heart-shaped hole in the drywall?” Jenny laughs.

“We got away with a lot!” says Robyn. “We’d just go nuts, because we were about to put a fortune into renovating it.”

“There was a definite pinnacle in like, 2006,” she says. “We were ballin’, and it was so much fun. We were healthy, there were no to do what we want, we were winning Saint Patrick’s Day parades...”

“Yeah, instead of paying yourselves more, you were making extravagant floats for parades,” Jenny snickers.

“It was a serious business, but like, a kid business,” Igor says.

“That’s the thing I admire so much about it,” adds Jenny. “It was really motivated by this desire for fun and camaraderie among friends, and that makes for a really joyful place.”

It was right around that time that Robyn and Igor fell in love.

Remember that ID that Robyn brought to Savannah?

“[Igor] was the original door guy at The Velvet Elvis,” Robyn recounts. “He had just moved here from Kiev in ‘91, ‘92. So he was barely fluent, and just kind of scary: his name was Igor, he didn’t speak English, he didn’t smile very much, he was the door guy, I had an illegal ID...I just remember all this anxiety going in there all the time!”

“We were meant to be all those years,” she says. “We were easy friends, both local musicians. We’d see each other at every party, every show.”

Sometimes after the downtown bars had closed, folks would head across the bridge, where the drinks were served into the wee hours of the morning; one night, on a platonic whim, the two drove over together.

“We had our first kiss in the strip club and never looked back,” Robyn laughs. “All of the sudden, it’s like, duh! This is it!”

That was 2007. They were married in 2010.

click to enlarge The Circle of Robyn Reeder
Geoff L. Johnson

PRIMARY WAS acquired by chain Blick Art Materials in 2012. While there was resentment from the community, Robyn ensures it was for the best: since the arrival of Blick rival Utrecht, Primary had been struggling.

Blick bought Primary’s stock, employed its staff, and even gave Robyn a chance to continue making an impact on the local arts scene as a contracted consultant.

“They put Robyn on as a local liaison for the arts,” Igor explains. “She spent a lot of time putting on art shows, supporting local events, museums...she massaged Blick into doing all these things that they don’t normally do.”

“And that contract just finished this month,” Robyn concludes. “So I’m out of it. So that’s just part of this whole...everything’s kind of converging at this same time. I’m out of the art supply business, but never thought I’d look back at the Primary building, and here we are!”

While it was common to find Robyn hustling on Broughton by day, there was one spot to find her by night.

“All the shows! Every show, you saw Robyn in the front row!” Igor grins.

A devoted fan of punk and rock ‘n’ roll, she loved local bands like GAM and Pinball Sex Machine, the latter of which Igor was a member (“the first time I saw him onstage, he had a blond mohawk, a fur white coat, and boxers on,” Robyn bemusedly remembers).

“So she’s like, ‘I’m not just gonna be a bystander,” Igor continues. “‘I wanna be a participant! I’m gonna learn to play drums!’ She always had it in the back of her mind—”

“I think every girl does,” Robyn interjects.

“But you were denied the right to play drums in school!” Igor reminds her. “You were like, ‘I wanna play drums,’ and they were like, ‘girls don’t play drums.’ And nobody’s gonna tell Robyn what she’s going to do and not do, so sure enough, she learned drums.”

In 2003 with a few lessons under her belt, she met guitarist Amy Bess-Ochoa by chance at the American Legion. Shortly after, Hot Pink Interior was formed; Sebastian and Craig Johansen joined over time, on bass and guitar respectively.

Influenced by ‘70s metal, rock and punk, the band performed for eight years, with Robyn styling the ladies in hot pink, polyester, and spandex thrifting finds.

“There weren’t a lot of other girl bands,” she recalls. “It was more of a man’s world.”

Robyn loves drums for their power, preferring to keeping her style straightforward and steady instead of complex. She also played in Cuddlebear (alongside longtime beau and Superhorse/GAM frontman Keith Kozel), and When Hipsters Attack (with Scott Stanton a.k.a. Panhandle Slim, Tracey Cox-Stanton, Sebastian, and Danielle Hughes Rose).

Her crowning achievement, however, may be her most recent project.

The Silver Machine’s record landed in the hands of Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, and will soon be released on his iconic label, Alternative Tentacles.

He reached out after receiving a package from the band containing a 3-D printed spiritual box, altar, crown, CD, and instructions for listening.

“How cool is that? That’s fricking winning!” Igor grins.

In the gyno-futurist ohm-rock band , Robyn is the pulse: that steady, powerful, and meditative type of drumming she enjoys is the center around which the shamanistic group builds their sound.

Robyn’s cancer returned in 2008, spreading to her bones, lungs, and spine. Struggling under treatment by “harsh, regimented Western medicine,” her longtime business partner Amy, now a yogi, reached out.

“There’s different South American shamanic ceremonies that she was involved with that she brought me into,” Robyn says.

The ceremonies changed Robyn’s life.

“Letting go of fear, letting go of dealing with this disease—it helped me immensely,” she says.

“But it also brought out a lot of amazing people who have taught me so much about the death process. It’s infinite. It’s almost overwhelming to talk about, because it’s just been very fulfilling and life-changing for me to get through. It inspired a lot of the band from things that I’d experienced.”

“I did the whole girl punk rock thing for many years, which I love,” she explains. “But there was a time to change. And I felt like I went in a little bit deeper with the music. Physically it was easier, emotionally it felt good...because before—you know what it’s like—you wanna be, ‘rar, rar, rar, kick ass!’

“And you do! But you can only do it for so I really love where the music went, where it is right now. It’s perfect for what I’m going through and how I kind of want to leave my musical history.”

Though a release date hasn’t been set, Robyn says CDs should arrive in the fall.

click to enlarge The Circle of Robyn Reeder
Geoff L. Johnson

IN 2004, ROBYN was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. Going through treatment was a push to pursue a longtime goal: opening up a shop in the style of Buffalo Exchange.

“I’m retail, all the way, from day one,” she asserts. “When I came here to do art, it was fun, but I realized very quickly that I’m a business person.”

When Robyn arrived in Savannah, shopping options were very limited—most people wore clothes from Oglethorpe Mall or Tanger Outlets.

In 2006, Civvies was born in a tiny storefront on Montgomery Street where Ghost Town Tattoo currently resides. Immediately, Robyn selected the shop’s colors—blue, orange, white, and black, opting for graphic, military-inspired branding to complement the name (military slang for civilian clothes).

“It all started with a big bang, as usual with Robyn,” Igor says proudly. “A big fashion show was the first thing that happened.”

Using the current Marc Jacobs space (then empty), Robyn styled Primary employees of all shapes and sizes and sent them down the runway. Each model also got to style a look, going over-the-top with props and performance elements.

After a hell of a kickoff, customers began to get into the buy/sell/trade groove. A new kind of creativity and edge took over Savannah street style as college kids dug through the racks, creatively clashing patterns, styling their looks around deadstock vintage finds, mixing and matching.

In turn, the little space quickly became crowded. When the old Hallmark building two doors down from Primary went on the market, Robyn and Amy jumped on it. They rented the first floor out, and Igor, Athon, and Sebastian completely rebuilt the second story into the perfect home for Civvies.

“You were freshly in remission,” Igor says to Robyn. “Everyone was strong and healthy—it was really all Robyn.”

“I’m a good delegator,” she smiles.

Robyn took to the road to stock the shop with finds from across the country.

“That was my passion,” she says. “I was able to travel, get out of town, spend money that’s not really mine, and see places that I wanted to see just by choosing—‘okay, there’s thrift stores everywhere; I wanna go to Aspen.’”

She’s even formed relationships with collectors. The socialites, stewardesses, and models of the midcentury open their homes and storage units for Robyn and Jenny to loot through. Hearing the stories behind garments has become one of Robyn’s favorite aspects of the business.

2015 marks Civvies’ 10-year anniversary. Robyn has sold the old Hallmark building, and recently sold the Civvies business to the man who originally bought the Primary building. As of last week, Civvies has moved to the second floor of 14 E. Broughton—Robyn’s first retail space. The shop will celebrate with a grand opening party on July 23. Robyn couldn’t be happier with the arrangement, as she gets to maintain creative control; as Igor puts it: “It’s Robyn’s vision with someone else’s money!”

The Primary marquee sign—the biggest sign on Broughton Street since the ‘50s when it was first installed—will light up again with a new name.

“A lot of what I’m doing now is just trying to...” Robyn pauses carefully. “I want people to have my passion when I can’t work anymore. I mean, ideally. You can’t control what happens after you die. You can’t say, ‘You! You’re gonna be me! And this is what you’re gonna do!’”

The self-deemed delegator laughs.

“’Cause that’s kind of what I want; what I wish I could do. But I can’t. So I have to set it up the best I can.”

She’s had great help in Jenny and her Civvies team—and though health prevents her from being at the shop, that isn’t stopping Robyn from planning the big Civvies grand re-opening bash, styling costumes for her employees from home and envisioning her grand Pan-Am-meets-space-travel theme.

“We’re talking about the community: working, volunteering, helping, having fun,” she says. “Everybody’s playing music. I just want so much to see that continue. It’s not because I’m arrogant about it. It’s because I truly believe that Savannah needs it.”

“I’m proud,” she affirms. “And I feel very fulfilled and love this town, and love that it got me into so many cool things with music and businesses. And I feel like I was able to be here at a special time...that’s awesome that I got that, and helped made it happen.”

“Because when you’re facing death, where do you go? Who do you want to see? Where do you want to travel? What’s the last thing you can do? And I do stuff, I travel—but I always want to come back. I want to be here. It’s important. It’s such roots. I’m grateful for Savannah. So much.”


About The Author

Anna Chandler

Connect Savannah Former Arts & Entertainment Editor Anna Chandler started writing about music after growing hoarse from talking about it nonstop. Born in Tennessee and raised in South Carolina, she has been a proud Savannahian for 8 years. She sings & plays guitar & accordion in COEDS and Lovely Locks.
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