People Issue 2016: Vivian Mims, the one-woman welcoming committee

The friendliest face in south Minneapolis.

The friendliest face in south Minneapolis.

The City Pages People Issue celebrates ordinary folks who do extraordinary things. Though their triumphs are rarely acknowledged, they make the Twin Cities a better place.

Vivian Mims strides down the stairs at the Seward Co-op's Friendship Store to scoop up a shopper in a tremendous hug. She pulls back and beams. It's a smile that makes popping in for a carton of eggs feel like a life-affirming experience.

The shopper says something. Mims lets out a full-bodied laugh that radiates all the way back to the meat counter. She stops to help a young cashier with the register before shepherding another customer through the new space.

Stumble bleary-eyed over the threshold of this south Minneapolis grocery store, and Vivian will swoop in to lead you to the coffee aisle before you can shake the snow from your coat. "Whatcha' looking for?" she'll say with the easy manner of a close friend — genuine, not cloying.

A few more visits and you'll notice that Mims is seemingly everywhere at once, that her good mood is permanent. Her ebullience is likely what got her crowned the first black homecoming queen at the University of Minnesota in 1979. It's undoubtedly what got her this job.

Before this she spent years in accounting, burying her head in ledgers until the truth was too obvious to ignore: "I am a people person," she says.

So she surrounds herself with people now. When the Friendship Store opened in south Minneapolis, Mims was wisely chosen as the front-end manager, the welcoming committee, the personality behind the mission. Bringing good, sometimes pricey food to a neighborhood starved for grocery options takes finesse and cooperation. It takes community building that begins with Mims' wide open arms.

The teenage cashiers turn to her for guidance. "I want to make them feel safe and build up their self-esteem," she says. "Some of them have been through tough times. If anyone can offer them that it's me because I've also been through dark times."

She doesn't like to talk about the depths of these dark times. She's now 12 years into recovery and a mother of two daughters, one working on her master's in public health at the University of Minnesota, the other a nurse delivering babies in South Carolina.

She glows when she lists her daughters' accomplishments. Summa Cum Laude. Phi Beta Kappa.

"Sometimes I look at them and I think, 'Who are you and where did you come from?'"

We know exactly where they came from.

Click here to read the rest of our People Issue 2016 profiles.