Ask any Princeton resident about the town and you will come away with a sense that this is a pretty interesting place. Ask Mimi Omiecinski the same question and you will be treated to a fascinating exploration of the people, the culture, the history and, yes, the intrigue of these unique two square miles. Omiecinski’s Princeton Tour Company has fast become an eclectic resource for visitors, long time residents, and new arrivals to get to know Princeton up close and personal.
A transplant herself who arrived in Princeton in June of 2006 when her husband relocated to the home offices of Johnson & Johnson, Omiecinski quickly became enamored of her new home. Curious about the houses and buildings in town and on the campus, she began her education about the region at the public library and the historical society. Her enthusiasm for her adopted town found an outlet when she cast about for a new business venture. Originally begun to offer biking tours of the area, Princeton Tour Company has quickly morphed into much more. Guided walking tours, bus and canoe tours, and pre-recorded self guided tours are now part of the growing company.
Hailing originally from Nashville, Tennessee, Omiecinski’s softest of drawls is still evident despite years of living in other ends of the country. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Class of 1988, in social work, she begin a career in health care marketing and sales, primarily for the newly burgeoning industry of HMOs. Princeton is now also the second part-time home of Mimi’s mother, a family therapist, and father, a financial planner. Of course, proximity to their grandson, Stosh, was also a powerful lure for the grandparents who divide their time between New Jersey and Tennessee.
The tours are as eclectic as imagination can make them. Ready to respond to a client’s needs, Mimi and her team have created a variety of popular events. The guides are armed with only the most accurate information gathered from primary sources where possible and all vetted by the staff at the Princeton Public Library and the Historical Society. Recognizing that the truth is often stranger, and more interesting than fiction, Mimi has become a familiar sight at both locales, gaining access to the oldest and best information. Longtime residents who knew some of the famous and infamous characters that are the subjects of some of the tours are a rich source of anecdotes and tidbits of personal insight that make the stories come alive.
For the Einstein fan, there is a tour of his haunts and homes. When led by Mimi’s mom, Bella, a therapist, the focus is on the strong women in his life, each of whom is fascinating in her own right. For those interested in the social and economic history of Princeton, the Presidents tours by Warren Porter, a former commodities trader who chose to step back after 9/11 and become a barrista at Starbucks, are steeped in the financial aspects of the town’s development.
In addition, Porter leads a tour focused on native son Paul Robeson. As an African-American, Porter delves into the long history of race relations that has been part of Princeton since the first days of the college and its Southern student body. And here Einstein appears again as a friend and supporter of Robeson and his family.
Carolyn Robertson, a Penn-educated architect who is chair of the Mercer Hill Historic Preservation Committee, leads tours dedicated to the dizzying array of styles and construction that make the town so visually diverse. Intriguing bits of information about the former inhabitants of the lovely homes spice the tour.
Did you know, for example, that there are at least two examples of “divorce” houses right here on Library Place and Hodge Road? These were huge houses which were literally cut in two, moved a few feet apart and rebuilt as separate residences for the parties. A novel way to get your ex-spouse out of the house in the days when divorce was still a titillating scandal.
A host of other guides lead ghost tours, Atomic Red Scare tours, pub crawls, and wine and cheese tours. A panoply of other events are part of the ever growing list of choices. Omiecinski notes that March 14 is Pi Day (the numeric equivalent of the day — 3-14 — is also the beginning of the value of the mathematical constant, pi) and that day is also the birthday of Einstein. By March 14, 2010, you can bet that Princeton Tour Company will be leading some special events through town and past Einstein’s house at 112 Mercer Street.
Another auspicious day: June 16, “Bloomsday,” the day in 1904 that contained the stream of consciousness that makes up James Joyce’s epic novel, “Ulysses.” Given Princeton’s literary legacy, including T.S. Eliot, John O’Hara, Thomas Mann, Peter Benchley, Thornton Wilder, John McPhee, and of course F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others, one can imagine a literary tour added to the Princeton Tour Company offerings, with perhaps a special pub crawl planned for June 16. Omiecinski says that such an event could well be on the schedule for 2010. And, ever the student of her new hometown, she points out that Princeton has an even more direct connection to Joyce: Sylvia Beach, who grew up in Princeton and as a Parisian bookstore proprietor published the first edition of “Ulysses,” is buried in Princeton Cemetery.
As clients suggest other ideas, the list grows so that even longtime Princeton residents have new adventures. In addition to the guides, there is even the distinct possibility that the members will be treated to words straight from the horse’s mouth from the likes of George Washington.
Every guide is distinguished by his or her passion about the subject. An added benefit to giving the tours is the opportunity to get additional information from participants. Often a tour member will have particular insight into a topic and the wealth of information about the town is increased right on the spot.
One particularly popular tour begins at the Carousel Diner at 180 Nassau Street, the “real eating club in town” as Mimi calls it. Participants are treated to the reminiscences of several older residents who knew the quirkier, more celebrated subjects personally.
Prices of the tours vary. As little as $20 per person gives you a 1 1/2 to 2 hour tour. The ghost tour and the pub crawls are only $10 per person. For those who wish to move at their own pace, a series of self-guided pre-recorded tours is being developed, with $5 from each download being given to the Princeton Public Library. Each tour is wheelchair and stroller friendly. Larger tours are available on shuttle buses but “the town shows off best with a small group” Omiecinski believes.
From little acorns, giant oaks do grow and the same holds true with Omiecinski’s venture. In only about a year of service, she has led tours as large as 125. Already she has booked four large groups for May. She has averaged at least one tour a week of around 35 people. Guides are true partners in the effort, sharing revenues, less credit card fees and taxes. Always on the lookout for talent, Mimi is on the prowl for a person passionate about the denizens of Princeton who haunt the ectoplasmic environs to lead the ghost tours.
New tours are in the planning stages. “My favorite tour is the one I’m creating,” says Omiecinski, obviously reveling in the learning process. Currently in the works is a 007 tour to highlight life of Mo Berg, Princeton ‘23, one of the first Jewish students admitted to Princeton and a baseball star who played in the major leagues as a catcher. Obsessed by languages, he eventually was fluent in 16 different tongues and was recruited to spy for the U.S. on his tours around the globe with Babe Ruth et al. Berg’s story melds into those of Allan and John Dulles and John Forrestal.
In addition, Omiecinski was given the idea of developing a Housewives of Mercer County tour by a group of women who were intrigued by her Girl Power tour. The diaries of two famous First Ladies, Ellen Wilson and Frankie Cleveland, reveal a snarky relationship between them worthy of HBO.
Omiecinski and her family don’t just talk the talk of downtown, they literally walk the walk. When house hunting prior to their final relocation to Princeton, Omiecinski was determined to eschew the lifestyle of the suburbanite, dependent on gas-guzzling SUVs. With the exception of a stint in the ‘burbs of Florida, she had always lived in a town or city and liked being close to everything. The Florida experience was too isolating and she was not going to repeat it.
After looking at a variety of options, the family found its niche, a large, third-floor condo right on Nassau Street, literally across from Nassau Hall. “We are not only on the main street, we are of it” Mimi states proudly. But Main Street doesn’t have to intrude when it’s not wanted. Extensive prior renovations to the dwelling has sound-proofed it. But, come Communiversity, her windows are thrown wide to the excitement and the music.
While dad Steve does have a commuter car, Mimi and her son can stroll the streets of Princeton to get where they need to go, be it school, shopping or entertainment. When necessary, Zip Cars provide transportation to more remote destinations not within walking distance such as little league games or dentist appointments. Groceries come via Pea Pod, delivered to her door from ShopRite, or from McCaffrey’s, which also offers home delivery, or from the local health food stores a brisk walk away.
This sense of sustainable local symbiosis is a prevailing trait for Omiecinski’s company. All services and equipment used for the tours is locally purchased. Business are highlighted along the tours and participants are encouraged to stay in town to enjoy dinner and shopping. All supplies and services are locally provided, regardless of the lure of slightly cheaper access via the Internet. “We are about fostering the original sense of community” she says. Buying local provides greater recognition for the tour company as well.
In addition to this drive for a fully sustainable economy among downtown businesses, Omiecinski developed her “Princeton Gives Back” program. Working with Pedals for Progress, this effort focuses on refurbishing abandoned and unwanted bicycles to be sent to Africa. Often the only means of transportation in many countries, a bicycle can mean the difference between employment and despair. Omiecinski was looking for a way to dispose responsibly of bikes which were past their prime for her. The program has drop off sites at various locations and while they will take donations in all states of disrepair, Omiecinski stresses that hers are fully refurbished before being sent off. View Pedals for Progress’s website for further information: www.p4p.org.
Princeton area corporations were among the first to recognize the value of a touring company as a draw for attracting new hires and for entertaining visiting officers and their families. Being able to give prospective employees a detailed introduction to the area offers a greater sense of place at a time when a family is about to be uprooted. Companies also use the tours as corporate team building events. Locals too gravitate to the lively tours as a means of giving visitors a deeper appreciation of their hometown. Princeton Tour Company has played host to the women’s basketball teams during the NCAA tourney and serves as an unofficial welcome wagon for visiting dignitaries.
Omiecinski concentrates on Princeton the town. Princeton University naturally plays a central role in the tours for its part in bringing many famous people to the area. But there are tours of the campus aplenty and there is no competition. The gowns of the university were and are part of the town so there is no need to intrude into ivy covered halls beyond a brief walk through for perspective and to give tour members a sense of the place that played so big a role in the lives of so many. The history of Princeton is irrevocably intertwined with the development of the university and an appreciation of its genesis explains much of the socio-economic development of the village beyond Nassau Hall. But more background than that is the bailiwick of the administration and Omiecinski leaves its student-run Orange Key guide service to handle it.
With spring in full bloom, Princeton is decked out in her finest. No time is better to learn the secrets that the town hides or to find out more about that odd building you pass every day. Take a tour, take several tours. No matter how long you have lived somewhere, there is always a street never walked or a story never heard. Einstein often needed the police to help him find his way home? Who knew? Mimi Omiecinski does.
Princeton Tour Company, 98 Nassau Street, in front of Starbucks and Hamilton Jewelers near the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon streets. 609-902-3637. www.princetontourcompany.com.
Tours are offered year-round weekdays and weekends, either by appointment or on a first come basis. Some special tours, leaving from the Starbucks-Hamilton Jewelers location, include the following (quoting from Omiecinski’s own descriptions):
West Side Architectural Walking Tour, Thursday, May 28, 1-3 p.m. $20 per person. “See the significant architectural examples in Princeton’s answer to the Philadelphia Main Line! See the homes of Einstein, Robert Wood Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland and more.”
East Side Architectural Walking Tour, Friday, May 29, 1-3 p.m., $20 per person. “See the infamous Eating Clubs, the site where Einstein signed the letter to FDR informing him of Hitler’s plans to build an atomic bomb, homes of Michael Graves and Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison. This tour is sure to inspire discussion about the personalities who have lived here.”
Doggie Walking Tour, Sunday, June 7, 3-5 p.m., $20 per person. “Humans will love getting the inside scoop about Princeton’s famous landmarks while canines will be amazed at Princeton’s doggone amazing cultural, academic and historical significance to our nation. Your pet will dine on doggie treat from Pawtisserie’s while owners are treated to a tall iced or steamin’ coffee from Starbucks! Come solo, with friends, or with your leashed, vaccinated and well behaved dog.”
Ghost Tour, Saturday, June 20, 7-9 p.m., $10 per person. “Take a lantern led walking tour while hearing about the ghosts of Princeton. We have Revolutionary War ghosts, ghosts who love theater, ghosts who chased (and chase) good looking women. There are even a couple of geniuses that can’t part with Princeton. The tour ends at our sponsor for this tour, Nassau Inn, where everyone’s most lovable ghost loves to haunt.”
Fourth of July Tours, Saturday, July 4. 1 p.m.: Presidents Walking Tour. 2 p.m.: Townie Biking Tour. 4 p.m.: Town & Gown Walking Tour. 7 p.m.: Ghost Tour.