BRICKS & MORTAR Features

FEATURE: WHISKEY IN A TEACUP

When asked what her greatest regret is, Mimi Omiecinski replies without skipping a beat: “I really don’t have any regrets—except not getting my hair professionally blown out for this photo shoot. Anyone that knows me knows I get my hair blown out to go to Parents’ Night. My hairdresser is going to be so upset.”

That, in a nutshell, is “Mimi O,” the owner and operator of the award-winning Princeton Tour Company: self-deprecating, refreshingly open, full to the brim with gumption, and funny as all get out. A force of nature, equally protective of her family and friends as she is of the town she’s called home since 2006, Omiecinski is Princeton’s resident cheerleader and self-described “crazy tour lady.” On this particular morning, she’s waiting on two tour buses (a school group from Florida that has returned to town for the past few years) with her trusted circle of tour guides, Tim, Jacqui, and Jennifer. It’s a mutual adoration society, for sure, because after sitting down at Mimi’s kitchen table, everyone laughing and sipping tea (provided by the hostess, of course), they recount a recent meeting where Omiecinski passionately stood her ground on behalf of the town she loves—and essentially said aloud what was on everyone else’s minds. Of course, we can’t give the particulars here, because that wouldn’t be ladylike, but suffice to say, she’s become a little bit of a rock star (and a lightning rod) for those who know and/or work with her.

“I am going to own that it is diagnosable how little I leave Princeton,” she says, laughing. “I have loved it since the moment we set eyes on it. Princeton has definitely been my favorite chapter.”

Omiecinski’s home overlooks the busiest crossroads in town—the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon Streets—and has a view of the official entrance to the Princeton University campus, FitzRandolph Gate, and the illustrious Nassau Hall. (To wit, she was recently made an honorary member of the Class of 1968.) After climbing 35 steps (exactly) to her apartment, one is greeted with a “Hi, y’all!” and a hug, and ushered into what Omiecinski has dubbed “The Ozone.” At the beginning of each year, she, her husband, Steve (who she lovingly refers to as “Steve-O”), and their 18-year-old son, Stosh, come up with a new family motto. This year’s mantra: “Making a scene in twenty-nineteen.”

“It’s motivational,” she quips, in a lilting accent. “Makes you want to be brave, don’t you think?”

Omiecinski’s story begins down South: Born in Virginia, she moved to Nashville when her father (the mellifluously named White Hall Morrison III) got the opportunity to run Gibson Guitars. She went to schools with names like Harpeth Hall and Brentwood Academy. She was a cheerleader. She dated boys from pedigreed Southern families. Then she headed off to University of Tennessee, where she earned a degree in social work in three years; she was bored and uninspired by the future that was taking shape. So she moved to Atlanta, where she quickly realized she couldn’t support herself on a social-work salary. She got a job with Charter Medical, a psychiatric hospital chain, and was placed in the marketing department.

“A woman named Barbara Dalton took me under her wing. She was wildly ambitious and sharp as a tack,” she says. “She gave me all kinds of opportunities I didn’t deserve. But I’ve always had a work ethic, so I would make a mistake and just out-hustle the crisis. By the age of 26, I was an assistant vice president.”

Omiecinski held senior sales and marketing positions with some of the region’s largest healthcare companies, and her career made her very happy, which was not common for a girl from the South who had grown up believing her options would be limited to someone else’s plan. And then a plan of another kind revealed itself when Omiecinski found herself on a flight with a handsome stranger with “astronaut good looks and a full head of hair.” At the urging of her first-class seatmate, she traded spots with a passenger in coach so she could sit next to the man (spoiler alert: She ended up marrying him).

As Omiecinski says, “the end of the movie” was they ended up dating, they got married, and two years later, had Stosh. And when Steve got a dream job with Johnson & Johnson, one that took him all over the world, Omiecinski was lucky enough to tag along.

“I went to places like Thailand, Singapore, Tokyo, Costa Rica, Vienna, Salzburg, London, Paris, you name it. I’d hire the most outgoing taxi driver in the line for the day. I’d say, ‘Take me where the tourists go.’ And on the second day, I’d say, ‘Now, take me where you wish people would visit.’ I became a student of communities.”

What Omiecinski didn’t know was that all this globetrotting would be a prelude to falling in love with Princeton. So when Steve’s job moved them again, this time to a quaint Ivy League town in the Northeast, Omiecinski hightailed it to Princeton. She put in an offer on a house, and then, after spending the night at The Nassau Inn, realized the heart of town was where she wanted—and needed—to be. The next day, she made a realtor take her to every listing within two blocks of Palmer Square until she found “the one” (which turned out to be an apartment). Once that was settled, Omiecinski did what she always did in a new place: She dug in. She got the lay of the land by biking and walking everywhere, eschewing her car in favor of foot power. On her excursions, she would see people like poet Paul Muldoon at Small World Coffee and Dr. John Nash strolling along the sidewalk. She audited a general history course at the University, and it was official: She was hooked on her new home.

“My good friend lived in Bucks County at the time, and she was like, ‘You’re a one-note orchestra. We get it. You love it. Now just do something with it.’”

BLOG Mimi O for Jen Version B

Omiecinski went out into the community, gathering information and support from everyone including shop owners, people on the street, and the Princeton Public Library. (She credits Kopp’s Cycle, Landau, and Hamilton Jewelers for helping her gain her footing in those early days.) She bought a fleet of bikes and started doing tours under the moniker Princeton Bike Company. But then she got a call from Mars, Incorporated, the food conglomerate, to facilitate a corporate event with strict parameters: a bike-walking-canoe tour for 150 people in under two hours. If she failed to deliver within that time frame, she would get significantly less than her quoted rate. At the time, she wasn’t making any money and thought, why not? She didn’t have anything to lose, so she agreed to the terms.

“I hired a friend to be George Washington,” she says with a laugh. “He went down to the canal. When the group was canoeing on Carnegie Lake, he commanded them to turn back at a certain time so they wouldn’t be late.”

Thanks to “George,” the group wasn’t late—and Omiecinski had the street cred, confidence, and experience she needed. She decided to sell the bikes and instead double down on the walking tours. Today, she keeps things streamlined: the “Ghost Tour” in October, a winter holiday trolley tour (which, similar to the original bike tours, covers everything from the Princeton Cemetery to the Institute for Advanced Study), and public walking tours every Saturday and Sunday, April through November. She’s also just launched a “Toast to Princeton” tour for adults on Saturday nights that includes Prosecco. And when it comes to the select few who lead the tours, she is, as one can imagine, pretty particular.

“I keep it tight,” she says. “You have to be weird for Princeton but not too weird. I’m really picky about who can be a tour guide, and I think it disappoints people. But I know the types of people who want to take a tour, so you’ve got to be willing to learn the info but not feel compelled to share the whole thing.”

Princeton Pi Day, a celebration of Albert Einstein’s birthday, on March 14 (which also happens to be the numeric equivalent of Pi), is another of Omiecinski’s very bright ideas. The day is marked by Einstein look-alike contests; pie eating, judging, and throwing; a Pi recitation contest, and a Pi-rade. It’s a local “holiday” that began in 2009, and Omiecinski insists wouldn’t have been possible without the full and enthusiastic support of the Princeton Public Library. She employs young kids to work the day’s events, and has found hiring Princeton’s youth is great for all involved: They gain valuable work experience and she gets to groom the next generation of tour guides.

Omiecinski’s also made an impression on the area’s younger set with her children’s book, Goodnight Princeton. Although she waves away the idea of being called an author, she did, in fact, write the book on her phone while stranded in an airport. With illustrations by Courtney La Forest, the book is a sweet love letter to the town she loves. She’s very clear on the fact that there’s no other city in the world that inspires the same kind of joy she feels when she’s in Princeton.

“Princeton is international. It’s global. It’s luxury. And that can be intimidating. If you let your mind wrap around that axle too long, you’ll miss out,” she says. “All of these things you see, you revere, you admire, and you respect about Princeton, it’s actually way more accessible than people realize. So if you can muster it within yourself to ask, all the things you hear about Princeton, it’s all within your grasp. That’s probably the best-kept secret in town.” —Jennifer P. Henderson (photographs by Dan Komoda; article originally appeared in Bricks & Mortar: Spring/Summer 2019

%d bloggers like this: