Monday, April 29, 2013

The Ins and Outs of Bus Life

Since I opened in 2010, I've gotten dozens of inquiries from people who want to open retail carts asking if I'd be willing to talk to them or answer questions over email. I have a canned response that I send them, apologizing that I can't address their questions more personally and explaining that I get several requests each week. Some of these people have questions about logistics ("Who should I talk to in my city about permitting?"), some want statistical information ("How many customers do you see each day and what are your average daily sales?"), and some just want my opinion ("What are the advantages and drawbacks of having a retail cart?"). While I desperately want to help these folks, I have so little free time that I barely see my own husband anymore.

I finally decided that I'm going to blog about it. This post will be part educational, part confessional. My hope is that it will help those who are thinking of embarking on a crazy adventure like mine, and it will remind me of how far I've come and how lucky I am to be doing what I'm doing.


I lost my job as a college administrator in April of 2010. I had been at the college for more than six years and the news came as a huge shock. One of my colleagues also lost her job that day, so she and I attempted to give each other career advice. I remember her looking me in eye and asking, "If money weren't a consideration and you could do anything in the world for work, what would it be?" My answer? "Thrift."

Posing with my mom, the Queen of Thrift
My mom and I started thrifting together when I was a little girl, and I continued the tradition after I left home. I loved searching for needles in haystacks, and I absolutely adored vintage clothing. I'm not sure if I was born in the wrong decade or just appreciated pieces with history. Maybe it was both. Before I caved to peer pressure in the 7th grade, I could often be found wearing ensembles inspired by the Andie Walsh character in Pretty in Pink: grandma sweaters, 1950s day dresses, costume jewelry, etc.

Thrift shopping was the sacred activity I did every single weekend to clear my mind and reboot. It was my version of going to yoga class or church or the gym or the library. It brought me peace and made me feel centered. Friends would ask to come along on my thrifting adventures, and I'd have to turn them away. I was a lone wolf. Thrifting represented my ME time. Of course, I had never thought of thrifting as a potential career. 

My co-worker's next question was, "OK, how can you make that happen? Personal shopping? Selling stuff on Ebay? Opening a store? What does that look like?" I immediately thought of all the incredible vintage and resale shops in Portland. How could I ever compete with those shop owners who had been open for years and worked so hard to build their reputations? Not to mention, how could I afford to lease a storefront? 

We sat in silence for a moment. Then the words just fell out of my mouth. "Maybe I should just get a bus and sell stuff out of it - kind of like the food carts do." The idea sounded preposterous. But my friend looked back at me, wide-eyed, and said, "Yeah. Maybe you should."

That was it. That moment sealed my fate. I would be the 37-year-old lady who satiated her almost-mid-life-crisis by buying a piece of shit double decker bus off a used car lot in Springfield, Oregon.

After I latched onto the idea of getting a bus, I spent hours every day scouring Craigslist, Auto Trader and Ebay looking for the perfect vehicle. I seriously considered a converted tour bus, a 1930s school bus, a beat-up former ambulance and a former prisoner transport van before finding my bus. It had so much character and so much more space than all of the other options. I had to at least look at it. 

When I say that my bus was a piece of shit, I am being kind. It was literally falling apart. The wallpaper was peeling off the walls, the window gasket was crumbling, everything was covered in an inch of dirt, there were cigarette butts crammed into every crevice and there were dozens of bench seats that would eventually have to be removed. But I loved it. I had always considered myself handy, and none of the projects seemed beyond my skill level. Besides, what else was I going to do? I didn't have a job.

This is the part of my story that most aspiring small business owners are curious about. How is it that I can park my business (in a bus that doesn't run) on a parking lot on Williams Ave.? There is so much to tell, but I will do my best to address the most commonly-asked questions. I need to mention that my "mobile business" (as it is often referred to) is not mobile. I stay in one place on Williams Avenue. Most people who inquire about how I started my business want to know how they can open a mobile business. Some of the points below apply to both, while others are specific to my situation.

  • Set your small business up just as if you were opening a brick-and-mortar shop. Write a business plan, choose a business structure (sole proprietorship, LLC, etc.), register your business, get a business license and arrange for financing. While your business will be housed in something unique, it will still be a good old-fashioned small business and needs to be set up as such.
  • Find an ally in your local city's development office. These are the folks who specialize in property zoning and codes. They'll be able to answer questions about where you can park your business, whether you're mobile or you intend to stay on one place. I get a lot of questions about zoning and permits, but every city's policies are different. Be sure to consult someone in your city.
  • Get everything in writing, whether you're corresponding with a city representative, a vendor or your future landlord. What you're doing is unusual, and - let's be frank - it will probably confuse people. If you're ever sent from department to department, or given conflicting information by more than one person in the same company, you'll have evidence that you're just doing what you were told.
  • If you intend to park your vehicle rather than driving it around, it may be as simple as 1) finding a place where you can legally park it and 2) paying someone rent so you can stay there. That's what I do in Portland. (Please see my second bullet point above re: researching your city's regulations.)

Fast forward six months.

Covered in paint and high on fumes.
I found the perfect place to park my bus on North Williams Avenue, next to Pix Patisserie. I was elated. The property owners were very generous and intrigued by the idea. They asked me to jump through a lot of hoops, but they appreciated my industriousness and really wanted me to succeed.

I'll never forget those days when I was simultaneously trying to write my business plan, identify an insurance provider, compile my financial plan, negotiate my lease, get the blessing of the City of Portland, finish the grueling bus conversion process, find a company that could install an alarm system and shop for enough clothes to fill a bus, amongst other tasks. There were mornings toward the end when my husband would have to physically push me out of bed and proclaim enthusiastically, "Honey, it's almost over! You're so close!"

As someone who loves fashion, I also have to mention that I spent that six-month bus conversion period wearing paint-covered sweat pants, tank tops, bandanas and Converse. The only occasions that I dressed up were the shows I played with The Stolen Sweets. At the beginning of each show, my lovely fellow singers would pick all the paint out of my hair and I would apply extra makeup to hide my comically sunburned skin.

We moved the bus from its temporary home in a dirt parking lot in deep NE Portland to its new urban home on Williams Ave. in October of 2010. I was slated to open in about 10 days when I got a call from Kristi Turnquist at The Oregonian. At the time, I was very excited that she had heard about my shop, but I had NO idea how important that phone call would be. The Oregonian ran the article about my bus the week that I opened. The story focused on how I lost my job and used unemployment checks to fund my new career. To this day, people still bring that article into my shop, insisting that the story made them want to visit Portland. It's the biggest compliment I can imagine.

There's one tow truck in Portland that can move my shop, and you're lookin' at it.


I've been known to say, "Everything's harder on the bus." It's true. There are days when I think, "What I wouldn't give to be able to walk into a shop and just flip on the lights." Instead, I have to get there early to make sure that either the heater or air conditioner is on long enough to make the temperature comfortable. I have to empty out the contents of the bus into our little AstroTurf area so customers know I'm open. I have to carry my cash register and money with me to and from work. I don't have garbage service, so I have to take my garbage home with me in my car every night. Wen it rains, I have to clean up puddles that form as a result of the leaks I still can't seem to patch. I have no storage, so I have to lug new clothes to the bus each day in IKEA bags. Never mind trying to sprint next door in between customers to pee.

Being a conductress is also a very social job. Thankfully, I am very social. What I didn't realize, though, was that I would be using all of my socializing energy at work. By the time I get home to my husband, I don't have much left. I've spent the day meeting people from all over the world, answering questions about how I got the idea and where I found the bus, handing out stickers to little kids whose parents thank me in advance for "just letting us look." Sometimes I think the repetitive nature of what I do is the source of most of my exhaustion. And then I realize that, compared to the other things in my life, my time on the bus is actually my down time.

When I'm not working at Lodekka, I'm typically shopping, playing music or doing office work. Shopping - as we all know - can be a really exhausting process. In order to keep my bus stocked, I have to shop for at least one full day a week. I usually leave the Portland area, so the day involves anywhere for 90 minutes to 4 hours of driving. While I get a ton of enjoyment out of treasure-hunting, the experience is nothing like it used to be when I was thrifting for fun. Now I'm thrifting for my livelihood. I've noticed that my reaction to finding an amazing item is much more subdued than it used to be. The reaction has slowly morphed from "YES!" to "Whew." This is not to say that I don't still love thrift shopping. I look forward to it every week. However, I used to quit shopping for the day when I felt like it. Now I stop when I think I have enough stock to provide new stuff for my customers.

I am now unofficially in three bands. There are days when I have to close the bus early to sound check or make it to a gig on time. I'm sure this has caused frustration for potential customers on occasion, but I feel blessed to have this kind of flexibility. It allows me to continue playing music, which brings me a lot of personal fulfillment.


Photo: Ninna Lee

When I decided to open my own store, I didn't really grasp the fact that I would be working in retail. And the retail world is rife with challenges. The job is really physical. I do a lot of setting up, breaking down, carrying heavy stuff, running up and down the stairs, hauling stuff to my car, etc. Retail is also really social. I recently heard the Chinese proverb, "Don't open a shop unless you like to smile." What a great observation. It is my job not only to sell clothes, but to provide a pleasant experience for customers. On days when I get up on the wrong side of the bed, I sell a lot less. And I'm stubborn, so it's hard for me to snap out of a bad mood. Fortunately I'm a pretty upbeat person, but the days when I feel antisocial are brutal. Retail also involves working on weekends. I never realized what a creature of habit I was until I stopped working a Monday through Friday job. I was raised in a household where Sunday was reserved for BBQs, watching football and mowing the lawn. Rolling out of bed on Sunday morning to go to work feels incredibly unnatural to me. I also didn't fully realize that working for myself meant working ALONE. I'm an only kid, so I certainly have a "lone wolf" tendency, but I also value working on a team. I miss having colleagues to bounce ideas off of and collaborate with. Working alone can be really isolating.

Photo: Maarten Noordijk
While I miss having colleagues, I still value my day-long thrift shopping trips more than I can say. My routine involves choosing an area or town to drive to, mapping out my route, getting in my car and listening to various NPR podcasts until I arrive. I can't emphasize how important it is for me to have at least one day a week where I don't have to talk much. My job on the bus is incredibly social, and it must be balanced out by at least one day of letting someone else do the talking; in most cases it's Terry Gross or Ira Glass.

Between my mini-adventures and my conversations with people from all over the world, my professional life feels very full. Impossibly busy and exhausting, but full. Customers often comment that I have the best job in the world, and I really need to hear that. It's easy to second-guess my career path when I'm lugging clothes to the bus or picking up garbage outside the shop in 85 degree weather while wearing high heels. The job may not be glamorous, but it's MINE. And I get to decide where my bus adventure will go next.

Which reminds me, I need to wrap this up so I can go buy new AstroTurf. Ah, the life of a conductress.


  1. pretty cool I guess ^_^ keep posting these kinda stuff Peeps would definitely love it
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  2. I can't thank you enough for this insight, much appreciated!

  3. Erin! How lovely to hear the process you went through as you worked on Lodekka. Wishing you wild success & sending you love from the east coast.

  4. THANK YOU! Your willingness to share is so appreciated! I started my own mobile vintage business "the vintanthromobile" last year and I am still teaching myself the basics. I look forward to visiting your shop one day (I am in Connecticut). Keep up the hard work!

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