CAMBRIDGE — Over 40 years in and around Central Square, Susan Phelps’s Hubba Hubba evolved from a vintage-clothing store with a hint of erotica to a fetishist’s emporium with a little vintage clothing. For the devotees of all the overlapping subcultures Hubba Hubba catered to along the way — punks and goths, new wavers and new romantics, drag queens and leather daddies — the constant was Phelps, a magnetic figure in Boston’s underground.
She was a nearly ageless scenester with an impish wit, avant-garde instincts, and a reservoir of colorful stories from her pre-Hubba Hubba years, as an art school graduate who had lived in London, New York, and San Francisco. She ultimately settled into a Harvard Square apartment that she shared in the 1970s with a pet monkey named Tito, having apparently cajoled him through customs in a more forgiving era.
But in the half-lifetime she spent running Hubba Hubba, Ms. Phelps, who died Saturday at 79, was especially a generous listener, adept at making all kinds of people feel comfortable with who they were or wanted to be. That combination made her so much more than the first person in the area to import Doc Marten’s boots or, later, the preeminent purveyor of locally made leather bondage harnesses. For so many who didn’t feel at home in the mainstream, Hubba Hubba was a haven, and Ms. Phelps their den mother, style icon, and spirit guide.
“She made you feel that it was OK to be who you are — in fact, that it’s wonderful to be who you are,” said Candy, a cross-dressing academic who moved to Boston for grad school in the mid-1980s; even today, that dual identity is sufficiently sensitive that she asked to be identified by her drag name. “So many people need that.”
If the nationally known alternative nightclub ManRay around the corner was the pulsating venue they populated after dark, Candy said, Ms. Phelps’s store — which survived fire and rising rent across a handful of locations — was the neon-lit daytime venue where they could get outfitted and talk.
“It was the clubhouse for castaways,” said Candy, who became a close friend. She called Ms. Phelps a connector for Boston’s subcultures, “the hub of the wheel. All the spokes went to Hubba Hubba.”
Though Ms. Phelps had been forced to slow down by heart trouble and degenerating vision in recent years, she kept that mostly to herself. She continued to cut a vibrant figure around Harvard Square, where she lived for decades in an apartment overlooking Cafe Pamplona, and at Hubba Hubba, where she downshifted to a few days a week.
On Oct. 28, she turned heads at a ManRay reunion party at the Paradise Rock Club, with her blond hair, black eye liner, and crackling smile. Her lean figure corseted in black velvet and lace, she greeted a flurry of friends from behind a merchandise table.
“I looked at her and said, ‘Damn, Suzi! If I was 70 years old, I would totally hit on you. You are gorgeous,’ ” said Julia Kanno, a 45-year-old artist and poet who helped Ms. Phelps at the table that night. Ms. Phelps laughed, raised her shoulders and eyebrows quickly for effect, and went, “Hubba Hubba,” Kanno said.
This all made Ms. Phelps’s collapse at home the next morning so stunning. Though few knew her age, she emitted an eternal vibe that made people forget she was mortal, said Jesse Galkowski, her godson.
It is unclear how much time elapsed before a neighbor found Ms. Phelps and called 911, but the days she spent connected to machines provided a chance for loved ones to say goodbye, said Dave Hatch, a cousin who had been close with Phelps since childhood.
News of Ms. Phelps’s death, posted on her store’s Facebook page over the weekend, prompted waves of social media tributes — stories of Ms. Phelps counseling people out of abusive relationships or through the coming-out process, or just being kind to gawky teens who rode the bus or commuter rail all day to reach her store and stood awed or uncertain in the entryway.
“Bought my first pair of Doc’s from Suzi, first leather jacket, too,” wrote Keith Bennett, of the metal band PanzerBastard. “And she put a spiked gauntlet on hold for me when I was 14 and didn’t bat an eyelid when I paid for it with $19 worth of quarters.” Chris Ewen, a member of synth-pop trio Future Bible Heroes and a former ManRay and T.T. the Bear’s DJ, wrote, “I’m speechless with grief, and thankful to have known your beautiful soul.”
Hatch, Ms. Phelps’s cousin, said she was a “knockout” with an irresistible spirit from her earliest years in Cambridge and Lexington, the older of two daughters of a hard-driving father, Dick, who treated her like a son, and a homemaker mother, Marie, who had once played piano in silent theaters.
Ms. Phelps’s father studied at Bowdoin and Harvard Business School and built and sold rides for small amusement parks, Hatch said. An avid outdoorsman, he taught his daughter to hunt, fish, and sail, imparting a love for nature that led Ms. Phelps to buy a wooded cottage in Mashpee in her 50s. While her father’s family could trace its lineage to early settlers of Massachusetts Bay, her mother’s father was a Fish Pier machinist from Nova Scotia, with tattoos on each thumb.
She emerged from that environment as a free-spirited but self-sufficient artist with a “frugal Yankee” streak, lifelong qualities that informed Hubba Hubba. Though her parents, who lived into the 1980s, may not have been the target demographic for studded collars or edible panties, they endorsed her success identifying a market and building a sustained business, Hatch said.
After studying at Rhode Island School of Design, Ms. Phelps worked as a freelance textbook illustrator and graphic designer while sharing a globe-trotting life with a series of boyfriends. By the 1970s, Ms. Phelps had settled in Cambridge and spent weekends scouring flea markets and selling curated finds from the Victorian age and Roaring ’20s at antiques fairs and pop-ups.
“It was so much fun, but the setting up and breaking down of the show for a day or weekend was too much work, and I said, ‘I want a permanent location,’ ” she reflected in 2012, for a short documentary made by her godson’s Boston University classmates. “And that was the beginning of Hubba Hubba.”
With an eye for nascent trends and an affinity for London underground style, Ms. Phelps pivoted toward the new punk market, and Hubba Hubba, which opened around 1978, became the go-to place for skintight jeans, shredded skirts, and bullet-shell belts.
By the early 1980s, the punk look and its offshoots were spreading from city to suburbia and reaching adolescents, prompting a raid by Cambridge police on Hubba Hubba and nascent Newbury Comics to seize metal-studded accessories preemptively as “dangerous weapons.”
Unfazed, Ms. Phelps kept doing what she was doing, while recognizing overlaps between punk and bondage wear and expanding in that direction, particularly when ManRay went full time in 1985 and imposed an alternative-minded dress code.
For a time, she ran Hubba Hubba alongside a younger painter she met through the art party scene, Liza Chapman, both a romantic and business partner.
“They were a partnership that burned out as fast as it started, because they were just so high octane,” said Galkowski, 26, raised on stories about the erstwhile “coolest lesbian duo in Cambridge.”
Long after that relationship ended and Chapman moved, Ms. Phelps became godmother to her children born in the 1990s, Galkowski and younger sister Anastasia. To them, Ms. Phelps was a loving and inspiring “fairy godmother” whose apartment concealed endless curiosities. When he was a boy, she surprised him by transforming her Mashpee yard into an Alice-in-Wonderland dreamscape; when he was at BU, she cleared racks of vibrators aside so his band could play shows at Hubba Hubba.
In addition to her godchildren, Ms. Phelps leaves a sister, Caroline Rau of Colorado.
Some friends who will toast Ms. Phelps at an in-the-works memorial service heard her talk recently about retiring to the Cape for good, growing old with a pack of Labs. Indeed, she’d been talking about retiring to the Cape for more than 20 years, but she died living the life she wanted, Galkowski said.
“She loved the city, she loved being social, that person who was kind of the maternal Cambridge philosopher,” her godson said. “She would have been too lonely down there.”
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