Spokane Journal of Business

Parking-lot peddlers push plenty

From birdhouses to flags, vendors sell array of items on Spokane’s streets

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Randy May sits quietly next to his pickup and trailer, watching traffic at one of Spokanes busiest intersections whiz by.

Occasionally, he catches someone pointing at one of the dozens of birdhouses lined up on a row of tables in front of him. Even if they dont stop, the gesture brings a smile to Mays face.

The 42-year-old Yakima, Wash., man is a vagabond craftsman of sorts. About a year ago, he traded in the aches and pains of 20 years of construction work for the pain-free lifestyle of making homes for birds and selling them at busy intersections throughout the Pacific Northwest. When he talked about his trade last month, May had been traveling for the previous 14 weeks, and he didnt plan to stop until the weather said it was time.

He wasnt alone. On most summer days, and especially on weekends, Spokanes roadsides teem with vendors who peddle everything from fruit and vegetables to flags, windsocks, silk flowers, backyard windmills, sunglasses, chainsaw art, porcelain statues, and a plethora of other items.

These parking-lot peddlers rent undeveloped land at or near busy intersections or in shopping-center parking lots along well-traveled thoroughfares.

The name of this game is visibility, says May, adding that the $100 he paid to rent an undeveloped parcel at the southeast corner of Division Street and Francis Avenue for two days was well worth the price. That site formerly housed an Arbys restaurant, which was wiped out by the Division Street widening project.

Many vendors stay in a single location for a week, then bounce to another busy roadside within the city or even to another town. Some prefer to stick to trade or craft shows on the weekends and set up camp at busy intersections during the middle of the week. Still others find a spot that works well and stay there for the entire summer.

While every vendor has a different approach, the perks of their mini-industry are similara flexible schedule, low overhead, being their own boss, getting time off in the winter, and having the ability to travel and make money at the same time.

There are a few drawbacks, however, they say. The hours are long, the weather can be unpredictable, and law-enforcement personnel occasionally view their businesses with a suspicious eye.

The requirements to operate vending stands vary depending on where a vendor chooses to locate.

In Spokane County, vendors who tear down their booths at the end of each day generally dont have to get a permit from the county to sell their wares, says Jeff Forry, a senior building technician for the county. The same is true for vendors who simply sell from the back of a truck, such as often is done with corn on the cob, or out of the trunk of a car. If, however, vendors set up a more permanent structure that they plan to leave in place for awhile, such as a tent for a produce stand, theyre required to buy a $35 temporary permit and post a $500 bond. The permit can be for as little as a day or two or as long as six months.

Vendors who set up camp within the city limits have two options. They can buy a $35 permit, which allows them to do business for up to 90 days, or a $60 business license, which allows them to do business for a year. Hazel Waggoner, taxes and licenses administrator for the city, says that the city issued 120 temporary permits in 1996, 138 in 1997, and 92 through July of this year.

Sunglasses to flags

Out in the street-side marketplace, the temperature was well into the 90s one day last month, but Sherry LaClaire didnt seem to mind the heat.

Sunglasses sell better when its hot out, says the Portland, Ore., woman, who has spent most of the last five summers peddling sunglasses at busy street corners in cities throughout the Pacific Northwest with her husband, Perry.

As if to prove her point, a man walks up to LaClaires small stand at the northeast corner of Division and Hawthorne, eyeing a pair of sunglasses. He looks for a minute, listens as LaClaire tells him about the advantages of a particular brand, then buys a pair for $10.

Up the road a ways, Perry LaClaire also is selling sunglasses. His stand is located in the parking lot at the northeast corner of Division and Queen, near NorthTown Mall.

The LaClaires, who live in Portland from September to April and are on the road for most of the summer, stopped in Spokane before heading to Missoula, Mont., and Billings, Mont. Sherry LaClaire declines to say exactly how much in sales the couple takes in, but will say that they usually sell between 50 and 100 pairs of sunglasses a day at an average price of about $10 a pair.

We do much better than we would if we were working in 9-5 jobs, she says, adding that her husband is employed in the construction business during the winter months.

The LaClaires and May, the birdhouse maker, werent the only out-of-town, parking-lot peddlers to set up shop here last month. Lorin and Sheri Dennehey operate an itinerant business called Denneheys Designer Silks, which makes preserved floral arrangements.

They live in Sacramento, Calif., but in reality, are on the road most of the year. Theyve been to about a dozen states throughout the west over the last five years, coming and going as they please. Lorin Dennehey, a retired mechanic, says theyll stay in one area for a month if they like it and if their flower arrangements are selling well. Otherwise, theyll stay for just a day, as they did in Spokane last month.

This is our life; it allows us to travel and make a living at the same time, he says.

The couple staked out a vacant piece of land along Division, not far from Franklin Park Mall, for their one-day stay. Within minutes of stopping, the couple had set up shop, which essentially involved hanging some floral arrangements on the side of their trailer. Dennehey says the floral arrangements, which are a cross between a swag and a wreath, are preserved so they can last for more than 20 years. They serve as decorations for homes, hotels, and offices.

By midafternoon, the Denneheys already were making plans for their next stopin the Western Washington community of Poulsbo.

One day is plenty; you tend to burn out a spot if you stay longer than that, Dennehey says.

That may work well for peddlers like the Denneheys, who have the freedom and ability to move from city to city, but other vendors, especially those who operate produce stands, like to stay at an intersection on a more permanent basis.

Chris Kinyon and Chantel Martinson operate a produce stand called Fresh Start North along U.S. 2 near Northpointe Plaza. Kinyon says they open the stand in April and dont close it until December. During the late fall, Fresh Start North switches from produce to pumpkins, Christmas trees, apple cider, and wreaths.

Kinyon and Martinson, who live just behind their fruit stand, rent the space for their enterprise from a family friend. The hours are long, usually from about 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. Kinyon says the couple gets most of the produce for their stand from his fathers 26-acre farm near Liberty Lake. Theyll pick up other items, including citrus, by traveling.

The most colorful vending booth in the Spokane area might be Kris Mautes. Unofficially called Flags & Rags, Mautes office is located in her front yard on Market Street, just north of the Francis-Market intersection. She uses a van to store her inventory, which includes more than 200 flags, hand-made jewelry, sunglasses, bandanas, windsocks, and stick flags. The flags vary about as much as the jewelry she sellsfrom a big yellow smiley face to anything with an image of an American flag on it.

The American flags have always been popular, says Maute, who quit her job as a waitress six years ago to start the flag business and hopes to open her own retail shop soon.

Maute says she used to jump from intersection to intersection, looking for parking lots and other areas that generate busy traffic. At those sites, shed set up camp, sometimes for just a weekend and other times for a week, depending on how brisk business was. Last year, she decided to try her luck at a more permanent location just outside her home, in addition to spending about two weekends a month at trade shows.

An accidental career

Many people who operate vending booths get into the seasonal business by accident. Thats what happened to May, the birdhouse maker from Yakima.

One day last summer, May made a birdhouse for his wife in his garage. He decorated it with pinecones, sticks, and moss that he had gathered from a wooded area near his home. A neighbor saw the birdhouse and asked May if he would make her one. Soon, other neighbors were knocking on Mays door. So, he made six birdhouses in one weekend and sold them to people who lived nearby.

May then decided to try and make a little money out of his hobby. He made 100 birdhouses, rented a booth at a street fair in Packwood, Wash., west of Yakima, and sold 60 of the birdhouses in a three-day span.

Thats when I thought there might be something to this, he says with a laugh, pulling down his hat to keep the blazing sun out of his eyes. Mays temporary camp at Division and Francis offered no shade, but is one of Spokanes busiest intersections.

May makes about 55 different models of birdhouses, and prices them at between $15 and $75, depending on their size.

Things have gone so wellhe sold more than half of the 120 birdhouses he brought to Spokanethat May plans to open his own shop in Yakima soon with more capacity than the shop in his garage. A construction buddy plans to join him in the endeavor, doubling both the businesss production and its selling efforts.

  • Chad Cain

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