The powder-blue bus, its red octagon stop sign altered to read SHOP, towers above a handful of table displays. In this restaurant lot, artists sell their creations: quirky jewelry, retro clothing, apple pie (the fruit picked from a local tree, the dessert from a family recipe, of course), jars of old-school collectibles such as red-plastic cowboys and Indians. It is, one seller on this September Saturday says, "like a mobile Etsy."
At the heart of the sprawl stands Jessica Rogers, a spunky brunette in a vintage dress and cowboy boots. You could call her Kansas City's pop-up pioneer. Consider what the 27-year-old art-school graduate from Florida has done in one year.
In October 2011, she debuted CartWheel. The shop, which was in a camper trailer for several months before moving to the blue bus, sells what she calls her "retro chickie" handmade jewelry, clothing and other items, along with her friends' goods, including stationery and CDs.
Kansas City's first nonfood business on wheels has paved the way for other mobile shops. Last summer, Rogers spearheaded what became the restaurant-lot market. The Gypsy Market Royale pops up outside the West Bottoms' Genessee Royale Bistro the first Saturday of each month and, sometimes, the third Saturday.
Kansas City's mobile retail scene, which came on the heels of the local food-truck craze, is part of a bigger we're-setting-up-shop-right-here phenomenon — a bazaarlike collection of vendors here, a trading post there.
Rogers and other pop-up-minded people, though, aren't confining their fetish to retail. They mean to take art and education, among other things, on the road. For her, the mobile mindset boils down to a personal mission.
"It's all about bringing people together," she says.
Not everyone has hopped aboard the pop-up retail wagon. Some brick-and-mortar merchants say these transient sellers unfairly swoop in and poach from a clientele they've worked hard to build, and they do it while escaping the rent and overhead expenses that factor into a traditional Darwinian control in the marketplace.
This conflict came to a head in July. On First Friday, Rogers parked CartWheel at her usual spot in the West Bottoms, 12th Street and Hickory: the bull's-eye of the multiblock area that becomes resale-shopping central the first weekend of each month. CartWheel was one of several pop-up businesses on the street that day. There were a few food trucks and pop-up retail shops, including Whatchamacallits, where Wade Morton and Todd Brezinka sell nostalgic knickknacks such as California Raisins figurines behind a heavy wooden, turquoise-colored counter.
As Rogers, Morton and Brezinka tell it, all was well until a burly man came toward them, permit in hand. Pack up, he demanded, already angry. These streets are reserved. No, the vendors said, reaching for their paperwork. City employees arrived to settle the permit battle. The pop-ups lost.
The man with the winning permit was West Bottoms power player Monty Summers. He's president of Group Real Estate, which owns 14 buildings in the area (making many of the resale shops there his tenants). He's also president of two other organizations: Full Moon Productions, which runs the haunted houses in the warehouses, and the West Bottoms Business District Association.
His property ownership has allowed Summers to buy a festival permit from the city, according to city officials. The permit gives him control over street vendors working several blocks.
Summers didn't respond to calls seeking comment on the dispute. His second-in-command and niece, Amber Arnett-Bequeaith, tells The Pitch that taking pop-ups off the streets was about fairness, safety, calming chaos and an actual festival.
"These pop-ups, they aren't paying rent and they aren't paying for any of the advertising that these businesses are," says Arnett-Bequeaith, who serves as vice president of the real-estate and haunted-attractions companies. She points out that rent from the brick-and-mortar shops helps fund trash collection, weed and graffiti cleanup, and security from off-duty police officers, among other services she says her two companies provide. "They are trying to piggyback on someone else's hard work and dollar."
The pop-up scene outside the warehouses the first weekend of the month had grown to include people selling from tables in the middle of streets, sidewalks and parking lots, which Arnett-Bequeaith says blocked access to the 20 established shops and caused traffic concerns — pedestrian and vehicle. She says weekends can bring more than 5,000 people to the area.
Arnett-Bequeaith says the permit is permanent and she has worked out agreements to allow food trucks on the streets, but with restrictions on where and when they can sell. And each pays a fee.
Would she let pop-up retailers back in?
"If they are willing to pay, I'm willing to sit down and talk to them about a business agreement," she says.
But some vendors argue that public streets and sidewalks should remain fair game.
"He found this loophole, and now he has a monopoly on the area," Brezinka says of Summers. "It doesn't seem fair."
So the banned retail pop-ups have turned their efforts to an event several blocks southwest of the Monty Summers zone — the gypsy market. Rogers helps manage Genessee Royale, and her boss, Todd Schulte, gave the OK for use of the restaurant lot. Rogers' bus is now a regular here and at First Fridays in the Crossroads, and she has sold at other festivals and markets around town.
"We're excited to be part of getting this end of the West Bottoms going," Rogers says of the gypsy market. "And besides, we're different from the other end. We're more youthful, funkier."
The July West Bottoms snafu was the first time that Rogers had been asked to leave while selling, but others have made it clear in advance that she isn't welcome.
A couple of weeks before this spring's Brookside Art Annual, she asked to join. She says she received an e-mail response that her presence would be disrespectful to the artists who signed up a year ago.
Food trucks and restaurants had a disagreement similar to the West Bottoms retail argument, recalls John Pajor, with KC Bizcare, though the result was friendlier. Restaurant owners went back and forth on whether food trucks were stealing or drawing business at First Fridays in the Crossroads before deciding the more, the merrier. The settlement, however, came with some rules. The food trucks have their own designated area, called the Truck Stop. Pajor says all involved seem to be happy with the setup.
"I think the arrangement adds to the festival atmosphere down there," Pajor says. "You really feel like there's a party going on."
He recalls Rogers' call to him last fall as the first time he had heard plans for a retail business on wheels. After Rogers started CartWheel, at least a couple of other mobile shops hit his radar. An Airstream trailer carries MoVi, a vintage-meets-modern clothing boutique. A weathered, UPS-like truck holds Blue Collar Antique and Restoration and its spiffed-up masculine finds, such as foundry molds turned into décor. And another mobile clothier is rumored to be in the works.
To avoid issues with the city, pop-up owners must conquer a paperwork checklist similar to that completed by traditional businesses. Pop-ups need sales-tax identification numbers, a registration with the Missouri Secretary of State's office, and a business license. Completing the process costs less than $100.
Kansas City, Missouri's most restrictive rule for pop-ups is an ordinance mandating that street vendors stay at least 50 feet away from established businesses selling similar items. Rogers and her pop-up pals say they haven't brushed up against this dictate, and she says the run-in with Monty Summers remains the most significant issue they've had so far.
Pajor says the question of where to sell poses the biggest challenge for pop-ups. The low-cost, relatively easy model lures new businesspeople, but they still depend on customer volume.
A year ago, when vendors asked him where they could sell, he referred them to Nate's Swap Shop on East 63rd Street. Now, marketplaces are sprouting faster than he can track and include Katz Midtown Market. In September, Redeemer Fellowship church turned the former Katz Drug Store site, at Westport Road and Main Street, into a community building that holds an indoor and outdoor market the first Saturday of each month. Farmers, artists and other vendors sell goods there, and visibility is substantial.
"All this spontaneous retail has spawned in recent months," Pajor says. "It's amazing how resourceful these people are. It's fascinating to sit back and watch this."
Observers of the pop-up culture also are looking at the local undertaking called POP. Backed by a Charlotte Street Foundation and Spencer Museum of Art Rocket Grant, POP's organizers have launched what they call a "series of social happenings." So far, the events have consisted of such things as yoga classes, dinners and a barter-driven art market, each with separate temporary locations. The artists behind the project say the point is to find common ground with various community groups while blurring the lines between art and life.
"We're taking a lesson from the classic lemonade stand here," says Lacey Wozny, who brainstormed POP with Maria Calderon. "You're street-level in a really immediate way, where you're inviting participation from a broader audience that wouldn't necessarily feel comfortable walking into a known entity."
Rogers' CartWheel was among the vendors at last month's POP Trading Post, where no money was allowed. The currency for these goods and services was in trade only. The University of Missouri–Kansas City's Gallery of Art in the Fine Arts Building held the public event two Thursdays in September, and for a week, the gallery displayed a shrine representing the alternative exchange. Its title: "Locality As Reliquary."
"We're a rich, rich community in noncurrency ways," says Wozny, who previously served as assistant director at Grand Arts and completed a fellowship with Mildred's Lane Historical Society and Museum. "Who doesn't want to walk up to a bus painted in bright colors like CartWheel and shop? Or a tiny Airstream trailer serving tapas, with a beautiful woman sticking her head out the window?" she adds, referring to El Tenedor KC. "And it's all within the backdrop of a cityscape where you have the whole landscape before you rather than just more stores and walls. You feel like you've been let in on a secret."
Find the one thing you're really good at and stick with it."
Rogers heard that over and over again while growing up and as a student at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. The mantra didn't sit well with her.
"Why do I have to find this one thing?" she wondered. "Why can't I make art, bring people together and teach?"
She majored in fiber and minored in printmaking, a coupling that she says catered to her broad ambitions by allowing her to dabble in screen-printing and weaving and felting and points in between. She designed leggings with a trippy pattern ("rastapasta," she called it) one day and made pretty earrings from feathers the next.
In 2008, she found an instructor who recognized Rogers' ambition. The teacher proposed an idea: Rogers could run an art-reuse center, a place to sell used art supplies and hold workshops — similar to Kansas City's ReStore shops, Rogers says, but with art. She liked the business plan and came up with a name that put a playful twist on the recession she was about to graduate into: Recess. But the deal involved buying property, so Rogers shelved the idea and moved on.
After graduation, she and her dog went on a six-month cross-country car trip that stopped for a visit in Kansas City with an art-school friend who had grown up here and had landed a job with the Plug Projects art space. Rogers kept going, eventually landing in Brooklyn, but a week into her New York move, she was broke. Her Plug Projects friend offered her a roof over her head, and Rogers returned to Kansas City in September 2009.
She took a position running an after-school art program for children at the Mattie Rhodes Center, then began teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute while serving as a manager at the Genessee Royale.
A West Coast vacation during the summer of 2011 left her awed by the pop-up business scenes in California and Oregon. She saw parking lots full of trailers, trucks, buses and tables offering burgers and bracelets and clothes and collectibles and on and on.
"You'd see them in grungy areas and then in nice neighborhoods," Rogers says. "What an opportunity to reach a broad market."
A mobile shop in Portland particularly caught her eye. Vintage clothing and handmade accessories were for sale in a converted camper trailer called Wanderlust. It had opened in the fall of 2010, when Portland had a few hundred food trucks but no mobile fashion shops. In less than two years, its business has grown enough that owners Vanessa and Dan Lurie have opened a second Wanderlust, this one in a brick-and-mortar storefront.
In June, Wanderlust was featured on the Today show as well as in USA Today. Both stories focused on the boom in mobile businesses on the nation's streets. Restaurants, hair salons, florists and clothing are increasingly on the go in cities such as Austin, Los Angeles, New York and Boston, according to USA Today.
Some of these places have put tougher restrictions on their traveling businesses. In downtown Boston, nonfood mobile retailers can sell under a hawker and peddlers license, but not between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., according to a September article on The Atlantic's Cities blog. Even then, they must move after every sale or every five minutes, whichever comes first. The owner of a truck business selling men's apparel is leading a petition for change, the story says.
What Rogers had seen in Portland fueled her next chapter. "I can do this in Kansas City," she recalls thinking. Two weeks after returning from her West Coast trip, she bought a 1969 Wigwam trailer off Craigslist. Driving to her Waldo home one night, she thought of what she would call her new endeavor. "I knew I wanted a name that was playful, jovial, youthful and made sense," she says. "I was thinking out loud: 'It's a cart. And it's on wheels ... CartWheel!' "
Several months after the business made its October 2011 debut, Rogers found a more spacious home for her shop: a bus whose days of transporting the elderly to a church in Greenfield, Missouri, had ended. After gutting and refitting mobile space No. 2, Rogers passed the first camper to a friend in St. Louis, who transformed it into The ReTrailer: a mobile tea parlor.
Inside CartWheel, the patchwork covers on the few remaining bus seats complement the free-spirited mood set by her eclectic mix of merchandise. (She made the covers from her grandmother's quilts.) Rogers' items — glitzy cow-tooth-pendant necklaces, reupholstered chairs — sit alongside clothing and ceramics from friends and acquaintances. Prices start at a couple of dollars. Tags higher than $50 are rare.
"All along, I've wanted CartWheel to be a way to connect local artists and then connect their handmade stuff to people who aren't already familiar with them," Rogers says. "You can build community everywhere the bus goes."
Rogers and the Genessee Royale teamed up with Garnet Griebel of Scarlett Garnet Jewelry to kick off the Royale market. Griebel's studio sits across the street from the restaurant lot, inside the Livestock Exchange Building. Another of the restaurant's neighbors, Amigoni Urban Winery, also promotes the market. From this foundation, the market has grown through word of mouth. All are welcome, and the organizers haven't yet discussed the idea of charging vendors to sell. (Rogers does not collect payment from those who sell their items aboard her bus.)
Shops nationwide carry Scarlett Garnet, and Whatchamacallits also sells in River Market Antiques and 600 Central. Others, though, hope that the gypsy market can attract a steady enough customer base to make a single-site business work. Billy Emerson has sold his goods as a vendor inside West Bottoms shop One Man's Treasure and at events such as the Greaserama car show; he wants his truck-based Blue Collar to become his main location.
For some vendors, it's too soon to know how mobile they want to be. Rachel Rolon sells her beer bread and bagels under the name Black Dog Bakery, her black dog by her side. For now, she relies on a mix of shoppers seeking out this place as well as those stumbling upon it — people like Ashley Rippeto. On the first Saturday in September, Rippeto and two of her friends ate lunch at Genessee Royale and then couldn't resist browsing Rogers' bus. They left with a bag of finds.
"This is how the West Bottoms is," Rippeto says. "You never know what you're going to see. There's always something new and fun."
So here Rogers is, doing those three things she wanted to do back in art school: Make art, bring people together and teach. She can't yet live on CartWheel alone, but she's seeing a steady increase in profits and she has big ideas for the future. Some disused Kansas City building might yet house Recess, for instance — that old art-school idea. Such a place could anchor the warehouse art mecca she dreams of creating, a place for artist residency programs and mixed studio and living spaces, and maybe even live music.
For now, she's moving CartWheel forward, brainstorming with the skills-and-networking nonprofit Kansas City Freeskool to find ways to take her bus on the road as part of a grassroots educational effort. She's trying to form a mobile business association and find more pop-up-friendly spots, and she aims to grow the Gypsy Market Royale.
"My dream is to fill up that whole lot," she says with a wide, confident smile as she points toward the Genessee Royale's 50-space parking blacktop. "It's just a matter of hooking up all the right people."