Festooned with painted flowers, Day of the Dead skulls, and fluid, Bmore-style graffiti spelling out "GOGO'S RETREAD THREADS" in fat balloon letters, a magic bus roams the city, appearing at various farmers markets and festivals, bearing a funky payload of vintage clothing, cool shoes, jewelry, and more.
Proprietress Stacey Chambers has been piloting her peripatetic vintage-store-on-wheels since late 2010, when she realized she needed to move on from the apartment leasing gig she'd worked for eight years. "It was one of those complacent jobs where you are never going to do anything other than exactly what you're already doing," she recalls. "It's not like I was unhappy, but at the same time, I needed something other than another day at the office-something more."
Chambers' dream of more was to start her own full-time vintage clothing business. Leaving a steady job to launch a new business in an unsteady economy was scary. She briefly considered going back West, where her family lives, she says, but affection for her adopted hometown overruled. "I'm kind of an aberration in the fashion world," says the girl who loves horror movies and outdoors activities like fly-fishing as much as she enjoys pulling together whimsical, offbeat outfits. "Everyone in fashion has a kind of polish, and I'm all tarnished. But I feel like people in Baltimore get that, share the same vibe. I really love it here."
Chambers spent her early years in Nevada where, she says, she "grew up in a thrift store." Her mom ran a charity program in Reno that included a homeless shelter and thrift store, and young Chambers would work there with her. She says that being around mass amounts of donated clothing gave her a feel for quality materials and well-made garments, and an appreciation for brave and singular personal style built upon one-of-a-kind items. After arriving in Baltimore 10 years ago, she began amassing "a ridiculous amount"-"piles and piles"-of antique apparel by shopping at estate sales and the city's thrift stores. Sometimes she sold things at consignment stores, but the notion of having her own shop continued to tug at her. She started saving money and stockpiling merchandise. She took classes in small-business planning and management. She was inching toward opening her very own brick-and-mortar vintage clothing boutique.
OK, then-so why the bus?
"The bus is NPR's fault," she laughs. Just as she was searching the city for the right storefront space, she heard a National Public Radio news story about how, in an extended economic slump, small retailers were going out of business in droves. Chambers says she felt crushed, briefly, but then decided that instead of delaying her dream, she'd modify it. "I figured I would do a gypsy kinda thing. Show up with my stuff at festivals and fairs, go where the action is," she says. "I started thinking it through, replanning. I realized I'd need a larger vehicle to haul stuff around, and then where would people try things on? So I got the gypsy idea on a Tuesday. I called to my friend Chris, who does auto repair, to just kick around the idea of maybe getting a cool old Winnebago. And literally the same day, he finds me this bus. Five days later, the keys are in my hand, and I have no idea if I can even drive it, but everything had just fallen into place so easily, it all felt inevitable. Kismet. I decided to just go with it."
By the last few months of 2010, the bus-Stacey christened it "Elsa"-had been transformed into a rolling boutique and was appearing every Sunday at the Baltimore Farmers' Market under the JFX. By spring of 2011, Gogo's Retread Threads was folding back its glass-and-metal door at four different farmers markets almost every week, as well as at various local festivals and events, from Sowebo to scooter rallies-a schedule she continues to build upon. "I'll go wherever," Chambers says. "I do public events, private parties. I am always looking for new events to go to." Her goal in 2013: more college festivals.
Gogo's wares run from classic vintage to newer, gently used clothing, accessories, and shoes for both men and women. "People who come on the bus often say how they love that all this great, cool stuff has already been amassed in one place for them," says Chambers. "It's not like spending hours at a thrift store combing through everything for maybe one good find. The thrill of the hunt is not for everybody." She herself does enjoy hunting for the merchandise that fills Elsa's homemade galvanized pipe racks. (She also gladly accepts donations, and buys items outright for resale.) But Chambers' deepest pleasure comes from uniting someone with a just-right piece of clothing.
She tells the story of a dress she sold, one of her own. "Nothing special, it was from, like, H&M and I used to wear it to work. It never really did much for me, you know? And so I put it out on the sale racks, and this woman takes it into the dressing room and comes out all excited. She's like, 'I do salsa dancing, and this is the perfect salsa dress-watch!' And, yowza, she flips the hem so that the dress moves with her in this beautiful, fluid wave. That dress had been, like, what I wore to the office when I did filing. On me, it was just. . . uninspiring. And then someone else puts it on and it takes on this whole new existence. It was like a completely different item of clothing."
"That is what I love about doing this: I get to help people find the salsa dancing hidden in the filing dress."