By Jenny Neyman
In Soldotna, brightly colored wisps of fabric flutter in the breeze kicked up by the traffic whizzing by. Along the highway in Kenai, a cloud of sawdust creates a visual accompaniment to the sound of a chainsaw as it roughs out the shape of a wooden bear. Along Kalifornsky Beach Road between the two cities, handbags and other handiwork dangle from racks, providing a splash of color to an otherwise dusty parking lot.
To drivers passing by this summer, it’s dresses, woodcarvings and purses for sale. To Georgia Paulk, Derrick Stanton and Laone Benton, the merchandise is much more than just that — it’s their livelihood, and their lifestyle.
The reasons for becoming a street vendor can be as varied as the merchandise one chooses to sell. It can start as a way to supplement income, support creative impulses or test the economic waters before committing to a full-blown, full-time retail store.
Georgia Paulk wanted find a way to support her wanderlust. After being born and raised on the central Kenai Peninsula and raising her four kids here, she wanted to see more of the world.
“You want to get out of the house, you want to be outside, you want to travel,” she said. “I figured out a way to get from point A to point B and keep going.”
She’s been a waitress, a bartender, worked in retail and sales. At 53 years old, she decided to work for herself.
“I never had any money but I wanted to go everywhere, so you find a way to do what you want to do,” she said.
Her ticket down the highway was women’s clothing. She sells an eclectic, exotic mix of dresses, skirts and tops made by friends with a family factory in India. She also peddles tie-dye fabrics, Hawaiian prints and other specialty designs.
“It’s something I know about, something I like. I couldn’t think of anything else somebody else wasn’t already doing,” she said.
Her mobile store, Gurlz Stuff, was born on a trip to the Lower 48 earlier this year. She spent September through June traveling from Northern California to Utah, Arizona, Oregon and Washington before heading back to the Kenai Peninsula. With her truck, she tows a trailer that houses her living quarters in the front and dress shop in the back. She’ll stop along busy highways, at fairs and bazaars, in front of coffee shops or “anywhere the girls are,” she said.
On the central peninsula, she’s set up along the highway in Kenai and Soldotna and at various community fairs. On July 29, she erected her metal frame shop in front of Hey Good Lookin’ Salon in Soldotna, close enough to the Kenai Spur Highway that her decked-out mannequins hopped to life in the wake of vehicles buzzing past.
“The traffic’s going pretty fast past the front door today,” she said, as skirts swirled around her. “Geez, I could have gotten in that boat.”
She sells for a few days or weeks until she makes enough money to pack up for her next destination.
“I make enough to make a living and get to the next spot. I’m living paycheck to paycheck, just like everybody else. But you’re outside with bare feet and short sleeves,” Paulk said.
Since she’s been back in Alaska this summer, short sleeves and bare feet have been a rare occurrence.
“Wind and rain, those are huge challenges,” she said. “But you just break out the plastic, bring out the rain gear and go for it. I have a tent so I set up in bad weather all the time. This summer you have to set up in the rain or you don’t set up.”
Being constantly on the road presents other challenges. There’s the inevitable flat tires and repairs that come from putting thousands of miles on a vehicle. In Arizona her tent was hit by a tornado, which taught her the value of investing in indestructible infrastructure.
And being so mobile presents challenges for restocking dwindling supplies.
“Out of 10 addresses, two might work out. I’ll call up and say, ‘I need white skirts. I’m in Utah. Send me a couple of boxes,’” she said.
Rising gas prices have cramped Paulk’s style, but not curtailed it.
“You just have to stay a day or two longer in a spot. Just like everybody, you have to figure out a way to make the budget stretch,” she said.
For now Paulk plans to stay in Alaska, mostly on the peninsula, until winter comes. Then she’ll head down the Interstate Highway 5 corridor, if she feels like it.
If not, the ultimate benefit of being her own boss is she can set her own schedule.
“I just wanna go everywhere. When it gets too cold I’ll take the ferry south. … Or I might be out here over a burn barrel selling fuzzy blankets.”
Derrick Stanton grew up loving art and shop class and wanting to work for Disney.
“I just loved drawing and art and creating things,” he said.
After high school he got into carpentry. He also tried commercial fishing with his father-in-law when he and his wife, Becky, moved to North Kenai from Oregon four years ago.
Although he was only in his early 20s, Stanton didn’t relish the idea of forcing himself back into the workforce.
“Most jobs there’s always a cap,” he said. “Usually you can only go so far and there’s usually not much opportunity to create stuff and do what you want to do.”
What Stanton wanted to do — or thought he could make a living doing, at least — was make and sell log furniture.
“I thought it would be a good fit in Alaska,” he said.
Turns out it was, and it wasn’t.
“Everybody wants it but no one wants to pay for it,” he said.
Luckily he had a hobby that turned out to be more lucrative for his business, Derrick Stanton Log Works. A chainsaw carver had invited Stanton to watch him work for a week and taught him the basic cuts for making bears.
“He handed me a brand-new chainsaw and said, ‘Here, get after it,’” Stanton said.
Three years ago Stanton, now 24, heard from a friend that the new owners of the Kenai Spur Lodge along the highway in Kenai wanted something other than junk cars to take up residence in their parking lot. So he set up a stand to make and sell his carvings.
Unlike log furniture, it didn’t take long to get sales rolling. The first summer he had to scramble to keep up with demand. Then winter hit, sales dried up and he realized there’s more to vending than just the “carve it and they will come” mentality.
“It was biz 101 — OK, you have to market,” he said. “… I learned a lot of things the hard way that first year.”
He does some mall vending during the winter and sells in the parking lot of Trustworthy Hardware in Soldotna. In the summer, he also sells one day a week at the Diamond M Ranch on Kalifornsky Beach Road.
He’s brought on two assistants, Hans Iverson and Jacob Bisset, and is constantly making improvements to his operation and his inventory.
“I thought my bears looked a little better, but now I look at it and go, ‘I sold that to someone?’ I made a lot of what I called expensive firewood for a while. I just kept on fixing my mistakes,” he said.
His bears vary in size from table toppers to furniture-sized, each with a different look and expression. He has a basic pattern for the fish he carves, but all his pieces are roughed out with a chainsaw and grinded by hand, so they all end up unique.
“People say to me, ‘I’ve driven by for three years and haven’t had time to stop, but now I’m here and I really like what you’ve got,’” he said.
Stanton shares the common foe of all outdoor vendors — the weather. And since there’s no door to lock at the end of the day, he also has to deal with setting up and tearing down all his equipment and carvings. But he’s at the point where the business is enough to support he and his wife, their two kids and the one on the way. It’s full-time work, but time has a different meaning now that it’s work he enjoys.
“I set out to do log furniture but ended up getting the desire of my heart,” he said. “Every other job I’ve ever had I counted the clock all day. But out here you go, ‘What, it’s the end of the day?’”
Controlling the purse strings
Laone Benton’s Kenai River Purse Company gives her a chance to indulge her creative side and try out a business idea before jumping in too deep.
Benton would like to open a store — with actual walls and a roof — to sell her wares, but isn’t sure she’s ready to make that leap.
“First, I have to see what the market is to see what sells and what doesn’t sell before looking at a storefront. Ultimately, I want to have one, but it’s scary,” she said.
So for the past three years, she’s sold out of tents or amid open-air displays at fairs, festivals, community markets and by the side of K-Beach Road.
Unlike her friend Paulk, traveling between Homer, Anchorage and the central peninsula to vend is enough mobility for her.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t think I’d like to do that,’” she said of Paulk’s traveling trailer lifestyle. “I like my house. I like going home at the end of the night. “
Years ago Benton made and sold porcelain dolls and was able to make some money at it. After raising five kids and working 17 years at Louie’s Restaurant in Kenai, she decided to get back into vending.
She taught herself to sew purses, and when she saw how popular they were she branched out into selling manufactured bags and organizing purse parties, along the same idea as Tupperware parties.
“I look online and see what’s in, what’s popular,” she said. “I come in with new products all the time. It changes, what’s in and what’s not.”
This summer, the warm gloves, cozy socks and baby hats she makes have been top sellers.
“People come in and they’re cold so they buy all this warm stuff,” she said. “But it’s hard to keep up with it. Either I’m sewing or on the Internet. It’s a full-time job.”
Her husband owns his own business, DeWayne’s Electric, so she doesn’t have sole breadwinning responsibility. That’s been a good thing this summer, while she and her husband are building a new house and moving into it, the weather has been lousy and she’s come down with bronchitis.
She and a friend would still like to have their own retail rental space, but those plans are on hold as people hold onto their purses, and what’s in them.
“We’re scared. We’re just waiting to see how the economy goes. People are definitely holding onto their money,” she said.
In the meantime, she’s holding onto the positives of vending.
“It’s nice because all the vendors you work with are very nice,” she said. “It’s a very happy environment because you get to know everybody. Unless the wind is blowing 90 miles an hour.”