MASPETH — In the late 1980s, Jimmy Ahearn saw how much money a friend made selling dresses at local flea markets and thought he could do it, too.
So, he and his wife, Vidalia, bought dresses from wholesalers and sold thousands every weekend — first out of a car, then out of a school bus — in a gas station parking lot on Queens Boulevard.
In 1989 they moved into a large warehouse in an industrial stretch of Maspeth and called their shop Payless Dresses. Customers who hail from around the world pack the 59th Street store on weekends, looking for deals on dresses, coats and other clothing with labels that can be found at Macy's and Lord & Taylor. Casual dresses sell for about $30, and fancy dresses aren't priced higher than $99 each.
"It was hard work, but it was always fun," Vidalia Ahearn, 58, said.
She now handles the business herself after Jimmy, who developed cirrhosis of the liver, died in New Orleans in December while they were seeking treatment. He was 56.
"It's been a really wonderful experience, and it was really a blow when we lost Jimmy," she said. "I still think he's going to walk in here any minute, because this was his castle. I had the funeral procession come by here because this is really home."
Jimmy had always dealt with the wholesalers at the Garment District, winning them over with Irish charm and cheesecakes he brought from the nearby Junior's Cheesecake Factory in Maspeth, she said.
Now his widow does it all, from talking to customers to placing orders for clothes. Vidalia and their three adult children have worked to adjust to life, and running a business, without the "big strong man" who was such a force in both.
Despite their struggles, business is booming, Vidalia said.
Payless Dresses celebrated its 25th anniversary in Maspeth with a party, and recently hosted a prom fashion show televised on “Good Day New York.”
Now looking to expand its offerings by selling more men's clothing, Payless Dresses will be open for as long as Vidalia and her six-person staff can manage.
"The last year was really, really hard," she said. "I hope to be able to keep it going —so far, so good."