By Keisa Sharpe-Jefferson
For The Birmingham Times
Once you meet the owner of Janelle Sweeney of Janelle’s Attic Gold, a California native who’s called Birmingham home since 2001, upbeat is the word that comes to mind as she flashes her million-dollar smile attached to a big, vibrant personality.
Not only is she upbeat, but she’s also resilient and a survivor. Sweeney’s faced hard, traumatic lessons through her own alcohol abuse, family unrest and loss, military rape and assault, deadly and devastating natural disasters, and health crises, including miscarriages and breast cancer survival.
Despite all of the challenges, Sweeney has found a way to create and bring joy into the lives of others through Crestwood’s Urban Suburban, which makes novel finds available to thrift and vintage shoppers. One walk into the store is like stepping back in time, walking back through yesteryear, and reminiscing of days now gone.
“I take old pieces and repurpose them by adding a few special touches. I’m not an artist technically, but I enjoy creating unique pieces or art with these pieces I find,” the 55-year-old Sweeney said.
As we talk, Janelle remembers a life of challenges back to her teenage years. Her mother sent her and her brother to live with her father in California when they were young: “Mom told my brother and me, ‘I’ve done my part, now it’s your father’s turn.’”
While staying with her dad, she recounts holding responsibilities and roles that, she said, no child should have had to fill.
“At 14, I was cooking, driving, paying bills, and looking after my brother,” recalled Sweeney. “I was basically acting as my father’s wife and my brother’s caregiver.”
She also recalls being physically and sexually abused by another family member, an uncle. It was just one timeframe that set the stage for more trauma later in life, Sweeney said.
A Difficult Time
After high school, Janelle left San Bernardino, California, and joined the military. “My dad wanted me to join the U.S. Air Force, but I joined the U.S. Army just to spite him,” she said with a smile. “And he told me I wouldn’t last two years.”
Well, Janelle served for four years, from age 17 to 21. She was in one of the first classes to participate in co-ed training. While there, she was assaulted and raped while training at Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Aberdeen, Maryland. It was revealed in 1996 that multiple female trainees in Aberdeen had been raped by multiple male members of the schools’ military faculty. She even conceived her first children—twins—discovered only after she threw up while running one day. She would later suffer a miscarriage.
Nonetheless, she remained steadfast in the armed services. “There was no going home,” said Sweeney. “I’d made a mess of things there with drug and alcohol abuse, so there was no going back. My only option was to stay in the military and tough it out.”
And that she did.
After her service, she packed up all of her belongings (and traumatic experiences) and went back home to California—for a short while, at least. Trauma added to more trauma.
“I actually left California and came to Enterprise, Alabama, to stay with an Army captain at his home. And, needless to say, after some time that didn’t end well,” said Sweeney, adding that this captain “friend” eventually put her out of his house, and she hit another temporary pitfall.
Again, she didn’t stay down for long.
Learning to Live Again
Soon after, she began dating her next-door neighbor and eventually landed a go-go dancing job at The Toy Box, located between Enterprise and Dothan, Alabama. Regardless of how it looked to everyone else, Sweeney needed money, and this latest job provided plenty of it.
“I made up to $1,500 in one night but averaged about $400 a night, which was a pretty good living in Enterprise,” she said, adding that she met her best friend, Kipling “Kip” June Johnson, at The Toy Box.
They both interviewed the same day and had a common chord: Kip, too, struggled with drug and alcohol abuse.
In spite of those challenges, while working at The Toy Box, Sweeney said this was a time she felt she was actually coming into herself. It was also during this time that she dumped the neighbor she dated, met another gentleman whom she said, “hounded her for a date,” and went on to marry him and have her first and only child—after a total of nine miscarriages before.
Persistence paid off when their union produced her now-26-year-old daughter, Shaye Sweeney.
But trouble came calling again.
“After 10 years of marriage, I left my ex-husband and started drinking really bad again. I saw that Northwest Airlines was hiring, and I got the job after my first interview,” Sweeney said.
That job lasted for six months. “It was a great experience, but I did a lot of stupid stuff while I flew for them,” she said.
For instance, Sweeney left her daughter with her brother’s baby momma in California while she was on one assignment.
“I eventually had to give my daughter to her dad, but I fought like hell for the chance to be in her life again,” said Sweeney.
That opportunity would come a couple of years down the line.
“Airline life was great, but I just didn’t know how to live it,” said Sweeney.
Looking on the Bright Side
After her stint with the airlines was over, Sweeney moved to Birmingham to live with her best friend, Johnson. What Sweeney absolutely loved about Johnson is that she “called her on her bull—-.”
“She saved my life when she offered me her couch after I lost my job with the airlines,” said Sweeney. “I got on a Greyhound bus in December 2001, and she came to get me when I arrived in Birmingham. I slept on her couch for a week before I went to the Fellowship House to get sober.”
While Johnson helped Sweeney get sober, Johnson lost her own life to her battle with addiction.
“I knew in my heart the last time I saw her that she was tired. She died the very next day. I was angry and sad when that happened, but I know now she’s at peace. She’s not struggling with addiction anymore,” said Sweeney.
After the passing of her best friend, Sweeney faced yet another storm—literally. She survived the deadly 2011 Super Outbreak of tornadoes, which killed 72 people in Alabama, in Birmingham’s McDonald Chapel community. Though her home was wiped out, Sweeney is grateful that she’s here to tell the story.
Add another layer of trauma: “My neighbor, Denise Pinkerton, [was killed in the tornado and] laid out in the street for days before anyone came to our aid. It was just awful,” recalled Sweeney. “[The ironic thing] is I’d never met her, but I would watch her as she and her daughters would have lawnmower races outside in her yard. That is still a fond memory of memory of her for me.”
There was a silver lining in the cloud of the storm, so to speak, because Sweeney actually got started with antiques afterward. She’d had renter’s insurance and used the proceeds gained ($10,000) to buy some novel, vintage items at yard sales and such in order to decorate her home. But turns out, she found out she has a pretty good eye. Sweeney would sell these items to other people and make pretty good money by using Facebook.
“I would revamp some of these items and sell them to other people,” she said. “I would buy some items for a quarter, decorate it, and sell it for $27.”
About six years ago, she found another piece of jewelry at The Foundry in Fairfield—a coral necklace that she bought for $3.99. Minutes after walking out of the store, she turned around and sold it for $300 before she left the parking lot.
“Buying old people’s stuff is my jam and always has been. I’ve always loved antiques. I’ve always loved vintage,” she said.
Sweeney has made peace with her past and her pain, and she continues to look for opportunities each day. She has successfully beaten breast cancer after multiple surgeries—16, to be exact—and she describes her healing journey today as challenging still.
“I struggle daily with body dysmorphia after having numerous surgeries. Also, I wish I’d had an advocate to help along my journey because I honestly felt like a guinea pig after having various surgeries,” she said.
Sweeney has a lot to be grateful for. Her daughter, Shaye, has made Janelle a grandmother, affectionately known as “Grandma Jelly” to 2-year-old RaeLynn Elizabeth.
Janelle Sweeney said she needs to laugh.
“I’ve cried enough in my lifetime that I purpose now to be happy. I’ve had such a terrible streak of things happen to me. I just have to laugh because if I stay in this dark place, I won’t come back,” she said.
To view Janelle Sweeney’s artwork or hear more about her fascinating life story, she’s vending at Punk Rock Flea Market at Cahaba Brewery October 15. She’s also set up at Urban Suburban most days, or you can reach out via Facebook (www.facebook.com/janellesatticgold).