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With Go Go's Retread Threads, fashion hits the road in Baltimore

Stacey Chambers' vintage clothes bus frequents neighborhoods, farmer's markets

By Colleen Jaskot, The Baltimore Sun

2:57 PM EDT, April 24, 2013

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Stacey Chambers has always been on the move. As a child, her nickname was Go Go, because she rarely slowed down.

So it comes as little surprise that Chambers, 31, would wind up running a fashion boutique out of a bus.

Chambers runs Go Go's Retread Threads (the name borrowed from her childhood moniker) out of a bus from the early '90s she's named Elsa, parking at farmers' markets, at festivals and on neighborhood streets to sell vintage clothes.

Chambers started the business in 2010 after she heard a National Public Radio story about how small businesses run out of traditional storefronts were struggling. It inspired her to take a store on the road. Three days later, a friend found the bus that was to become Elsa (named after actress Elsa Lanchester, who played the title character in "The Bride of Frankenstein"), and Retread Threads was born.

"I think a lot of the time, people have these experiences where they're put on a path … and what you're supposed to do is put right in front of you, but people get scared," Chambers said. For her, "it was like 'Here, you're going for it.' "

With Retread Threads, Chambers joins a growing number of mobile boutiques and pop-up stores, such as the Little White Fashion Truck, which operates in the greater Baltimore region, and Confirmed Stock, a pop-up menswear store which comes to 2640 Space this Sunday.

At first, Retread Threads was a part-time job, and Chambers kept her day position helping people find and showing apartments in Towson. Last year, she decided to run the bus full time.

The bus' colorful exterior, decorated with graffiti, paint and stenciled Day of the Dead-themed skulls, has some people drawing parallels to Ken Kesey's Merry Prankster bus — but that's not the inspiration, Chambers said. One of Chambers' friends, an artist, wanted to paint the bus, so the two of them decorated it over the course of a few months with no specific idea of how it was supposed to look, she said.

"I don't want to disappoint anyone, but … I'm so not a hippie," Chambers said. "I like hippies, I think they're amazing people, but it's not something I'd identify myself with necessarily. I didn't have any idea of how it was going to evolve when I got the bus."

Inside, customers can find clothes hanging along the length of the bus, with shoes on shelves above them. Customers try on clothes behind the fabric curtains of the dressing room in the back of the bus. Before leaving, they sign their names on the ceiling with a dry-erase marker. Most of the seats were taken out of the bus, except a row in case Chambers has traveling companions. Sometimes, her dog, Lil' Frida, a female rat terrier, tends to get hair on the clothes, but Chambers tells shoppers that's part of the experience.

It's fair to say Chambers has an itch for traveling. Eight years ago, after going to school in Arizona, she moved across the country to Baltimore.

"I wasn't doing anything out west that I couldn't do on the East Coast, so I was excited," Chambers said. "Plus, I just like experiencing things and exploring new places."

The clothes for Retread Threads come from thrift stores and consignment shops as far away as Chambers' native Reno, Nev. She also accepts donations, and any items she receives but doesn't use she donates to a Baltimore charity. She credits her success in finding these pieces to her mother, who ran a nonprofit for the homeless that included a thrift store.

While Chambers has a background in thrift shopping, she has little formal business training, aside from a few classes at Baltimore Community College. She also had no experience driving a bus, which isn't as hard as you'd think, she said.

"When you're driving the bus, you can't be afraid," she said. "Everything about this endeavor, about this business and my job is just letting go and not being afraid of things."

As her 2013 schedule starts to pick up with the arrival of spring, Chambers said she eventually would love to help people start similar buses in other cities.

"It would be amazing to empower women, maybe not necessarily franchise, but offer a template," Chambers said. "It is really empowering. I would love to open that up to other people in other areas."

She is also thinking of setting up a small boutique that would be open to customers by appointment in her new home in Station North, where she moved about a month ago.

But for now, she is fine with being on the go.

"I think when you're mobile you get to share with so many more people," Chambers said. "You get to experience and have more opportunities to help people."

cjaskot@baltsun.com