Bobby Garnett could walk down the aisle of a thrift store with his hands outstretched, testing the texture of shirts, dresses, and suit jackets he brushed past, and stop to pull precisely the right one from a rack.
Often just by feel he could tell if he would bring the item back to Bobby From Boston, his famous South End vintage clothing shop. From there his latest find might end up on a Hollywood star in a film whose costume designer knew there was no better place than Mr. Garnett’s store to outfit actors in period films.
Mr. Garnett, who was 66 when he died Thursday of end stage renal disease, spent more than 40 years turning shops from Provincetown to Boston into veritable museums of yesteryear. For the past two decades he ran Bobby From Boston, where even the furniture and fixtures harken back to a childhood that provided much of his inspiration as a merchant.
“I attribute the madness to my mother. She dragged my brother and I around every department store – Filene’s Basement, Gilchrist, R.H. White,” he told the Globe in 2002, adding: “She knew good stuff.”
Moviegoers who never visited Bobby From Boston or stepped inside the Strutters stores he formerly ran in locations including Provincetown and Newbury Street, still benefited from Mr. Garnett’s careful clothier’s eye. Items he sold appear in dozens of films including “Mermaids” (1990), “Casino” (1995), “Ali” (2001), “Seabiscuit” (2003), and “The Aviator” (2004).
“It’s amazing to find somebody with a sense of style themselves, somebody who understands the period and knows what you’re looking for,” Marit Allen, a costume designer for big-budget movies, told the Globe in 2006, a year before she died.
Because of his work in the film industry, “even if people never met him, they felt his essence,” said his sister-in-law, Karen of Brookline.
Those who went to Mr. Garnett’s store usually left with more than a shirt from another era. Music rang out and as often as not he might be dancing to his favorite tunes when a customer entered – at least in the years before declining health made a wheelchair necessary.
“I would go there as much as I could,” said Steve Finch, proprietor of William Carlton, a custom caps and tailor shop in the North End. “I would go there looking for stories and to be inspired by him. He was just a stylish guy who knew just exactly what looked right – everything from colors to how the fabrics felt.”
“The most remarkable thing was his ability to charm, smile, and never be at a loss for words,” said Mr. Garnett’s brother, Wayne of Brookline, who also sells vintage clothing and collectibles. “He was never at a loss for words.”
That talent for talking traced back to Mr. Garnett’s Dorchester childhood, where he was the older of two sons born to Robert Charles Garnett and the former Sylvia Francis. His father was a naval architect. His mother taught nursery school while her sons were growing up and had an interior design business.
“My mother taught us to shop,” Wayne said. “She taught us what good stuff looked like and quality and design. For Bobby, especially, that was a lifelong love.”
So was running his own business. “He took note of all the money that was being spent downtown,” Wayne recalled. “In no time at all, especially in the summertime, he’d have our toy soldiers for sale out on the stoop. Neighborhood kids passing through could always buy a solider for a dime or a nickel. I don’t think that ever left him after he made that first batch of money.”
By adolescence Mr. Garnett was taking sartorial cues from musicians and movie stars. “I loved the continental James Bond look,” he told the Globe in 2002, and he also looked to the Beatles and Motown. “At the time I was probably 14, 15, but I was wearing the same stuff that 35-year-old guys were wearing,” he said in a 2013 interview with WGBH news.
Mr. Garnett graduated from boarding school at Higgins Classical Institute in Charleston, Maine, and spent a couple of years at Gordon College, in part to avoid the Vietnam War draft.
He left college to open Muddy River Trading, a leather goods shop in Brookline Village, and in the mid-1970s, he launched Uptown Strutters Ball, a vintage clothing store in Provincetown. The store, whose name he eventually shortened to Strutters, later had locations in Allston and on Newbury Street. “It was mostly Victorian through the ’40s. You could still find things in thrift stores, flea markets, and secret sources. There are always secret sources,” he told the Globe with a smile in 2002.
Mr. Garnett’s travels in search of vintage clothing took him to New York, Miami, and London, and he kept an off-site warehouse to store what couldn’t fit in his stores. “My job is a constant treasure hunt and my great joy,” he told the Globe in 2005, after helping outfit the actors for the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line.”
In the mid-1990s, he relocated to the South End and rechristened his business. The new name came from a phrase that stuck with him from a trip to London. A random passerby who had heard of his business took one look at his dapper outfit and asked: “Are you Bobby from Boston?”
“One of the biggest things about him was his love of England,” his sister-in-law said, and that extended to his collection of jerseys for the London-based Arsenal soccer team.
Mr. Garnett, whose marriage to the former Connie Avdoulos ended in divorce, has worked at the store with his daughter, Jessica Garnett Carrion of Cambridge.
“He was really fun,” Jessica said, recalling that on his shopping expeditions “he took me to London, he took me to California, he took me to Montreal. I had everything I could want for, every outfit, every new feature that came out. And I dressed in vintage, too.”
In addition to his daughter, brother, and sister-in-law, Mr. Garnett leaves his mother, who lives in Brookline; his former wife, of Ames, Iowa; and two grandchildren.
Family and friends will gather to celebrate his life at 4 p.m. Wednesday in Davis Funeral Home on Walnut Avenue in Roxbury.
On Thayer Street in the South End, the aisles inside Bobby From Boston are very much a monument to its founder. “Every inch of the store is his personality, his essence – every single item,” his sister-in-law said. “From the tiniest little tie bar to a display case with shirt collars, the store just defines him.”
While talking with Mr. Garnett, shoppers could recline on a leather couch he had picked out or sit in chrome-frame chairs covered in zebra print. “People would come in and hang out with him because everybody just loved him,” his daughter said, speaking by phone as she stood inside Bobby From Boston. “This whole store – I’m looking around and everything I see is him.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.