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Wheeling 'n' dealing: Spring brings parking lot vendors of sculptures, rugs, trees
Wheeling 'n' dealing: Spring brings parking lot vendors of sculptures, rugs, trees

From towering tamaracks to moose statues fashioned from recycled cans, seasonal vendors have emerged in local parking lots.

The roadside folks migrate with their goods, hawking everything from sheds to hot tubs to garden plants. They've sprouted along the edges of major roads along with western Montana's reluctant spring.

Some vendors sell for just a few weekends, while others stay for several months. Many follow the sun - visiting Missoula in the summer and then traveling to California and Nevada in the winter.

Roadside vendors tout the upsides, including the freedom to set their own hours and their low overhead. But their sales are unpredictable - they may earn big bucks one day and draw nothing the next day.

Armon Fox arrived in the Rosauers parking lot in his Winnebago Chieftain this week and will remain for two weeks. He's sold moose, elk, buffalo and other wildlife sculptures created from melted down and recast soda cans, transmissions and hubcaps from this site, and also travels to Great Falls, Helena, Bozeman and elsewhere.

"I have people knocking on my door at 3 a.m. and I tell them I won't come out and talk to them unless they have a big, fat checkbook," he said jokingly.

Rosauers manager Jerry Kuykendall said he's never seen parking lot sales at Rosauers stores in three other states where he worked before coming to Missoula nine months ago.

"My first day here, I saw a guys selling decorative blankets and I wondered, 'What's going on?' " he said. "It's kind of a Montana thing."

The store recently upped its rental fee from $50 to $100 a day for weekend vendors and to $1,200 per month. He said the store provides water, electricity and other utilities.

The vendors "generate excitement, especially with the flowers and trees, and it brings people into the parking lot and hopefully the store," he said. "Plus, it adds to the aesthetics of the parking lot and is better to look at than pavement."

With gas approaching $4 a gallon, some vendors say they're still traveling to different cities and states. But they've raised their own prices, too.

That's the case for Spud Fulford of Shed Antler Designs in Huson, who said he's been "chasing the rain around." He points his rig to sunny spots, making stops from Missoula to the Washington coast.

His chandeliers, lamps, wine racks and other products from naturally shed antlers range from $50 to $20,000.

Merchants typically pay $50 to $100 a day for parking lot space, although some spots can be found for free with sufficient scouting.

The city of Missoula requires an "itinerant vendor" license, ranging from $14.50 for a one-week license to $28.50 for a 90-day license or $57 for a full year, said Scott Paasch, a senior business license specialist.

The city also requires a one-time criminal background check for $42.

Paasch said downtown ambassadors enforce the permitting downtown, while city engineering inspectors do spot checks in the Reserve Street area.

He said about 15 to 20 people have acquired licenses so far this year.

Fulford said turf wars are fairly rare, and he recently set up in a new spot just a few blocks south of Rosauers on Reserve Street. Last Saturday, he sold zilch. Last Sunday, he moved $2,500 worth of goods.

"I don't mind other vendors setting up beside me because it gives more variety and attracts more people," he said.

Steve Adams of Adams Ranch and Tree in Proctor was cleaning up after selling 700 trees off the Rosauers lot since mid-April. His family-run outfit operates from the spot in the spring and also sells Christmas trees in the winter.

"This is like our second home," he said. "We've fostered a clientele here through our many years. We come in the spring because it is the prime time before it gets too hot."

He said the maples, aspens and spruce trees were top sellers, pointing to several 14- to 25-foot trees with prices of about $340.

Several street vendors said they've acquired some street-wise strategies. Finding a spot with good access and parking is crucial. They look for a heavily trafficked area. But drivers aren't likely to stop if they are traveling at 45 mph or more, so the vendors note the speed of the traffic, too.

Intersections are good, they said, because people slow down or are stopped and have time to look around.

Savvy vendors also raise balloons, American flags or other eye-catchers to attract attention to their wares.

Larry Conant had set up his brightly colored blankets, with images including Bruce Lee and Batman, on stands near the C.S. Porter Middle School on a recent day.

"They call me the 'blanket man,' " he said. "Everybody can afford a blanket. You buy a kid a toy and it ends up broken and in the trash heap, while a blanket lasts."

Conant said he travels to Kalispell and sells blankets year round. He said the NFL blankets and animal prints were the top sellers, with prices ranging from $550 to $65.

"Everybody is into something different," he said.

Tracey Jacobson and her father, Tom, examined several different ones before selecting a San Francisco 49ers blanket.

"My boyfriend loves the 49ers and you can't find these around here," she said.

Just a few yards away, Joyce Bangert sat with her dog, "Reggie," as she tried to attract passers-by to buy her Coyote Gulch Log Furniture.

She said construction on U.S. Highway 93 outside their Hamilton shop has hurt their trade, so they've been coming up to the corner of Reserve Street and South Avenue West for the past month.

Scattered around her were bed frames, swings, chairs and bar stools ranging in price from $85 to $925.

"Why do this? Necessity," she said. "It's been OK. Even if I don't sell something every day, it gets the word out about our store."

Reporter Pamela J. Podger can be reached at 523-5241 or at pamela.podger@missoulian.com.

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