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."