MANKATO, Minn. — Ali Woods, owner of the Blackbird Boutique, won't hesitate to admit she doesn't really like wearing pink. That might surprise folks, given that her mobile boutique, housed in a vintage 1963 Shasta Airflyte, is a very distinctive bubblegum color.
"(Pink) is my favorite accent color," Woods said. "You'd never catch me wearing pink, but I've got everything with a pink accent. I went with pink (for my trailer) because it's a vehicle color that you do not see driving around town. I knew it would catch people's eye."
It's true Woods makes quite a scene when she pulls into her latest location, hauling "Birdie" along behind her. All of Woods' inventory — which ranges from clothes to jewelry to other accessories — fits inside the trailer, which also has a fitting room. When Woods arrives somewhere, she unpacks some of her merchandise to be set up outside, while more is left indoors. Then, when she's done selling, she simply packs everything back inside the trailer and drives away.
Since opening in July 2019, Woods has "popped up" all over Mankato and North Mankato and area towns, spreading out in a collaborating businesses' parking lot for the day. Where and when she arrives is always changing, since she bases it on her schedule for the week and also what might be most exciting for her clients.
"I like to pop up and make it random, because that makes it more fun for my customers," Woods said. "It's like, 'Oh, she's there, let's go!'"
Woods was born and raised in North Mankato, where she still lives. After graduating from Mankato East, she started studying business at South Central College. At the same time, at only 19 years old, she started her own wedding decorating company, Ali Marie's Weddings and Events, the Mankato Free Press reported.
"I was decorating weddings and learning how to run a business while (actually running) a business."
She ran her wedding business for seven years and built up a wide client base, but she eventually got tired of having so much stuff piled up at her house. She decided to sell her inventory and start with something new. At the time, she was working at a local boutique, and she was interested in starting something similar — but with a twist.
"I thought, 'It'd be so fun to have a store, but that's a lot of overhead that I don't want to be paying,'" Woods said. "I thought, 'How can I do that but have no overhead?' And I thought, 'I'll put it on wheels.'"
Woods started looking for an RV she could pull behind her vehicle, hoping to find something vintage because she likes that look. She found someone in Casenovia, Wisconsin — about four hours away — who was selling a 1963 Shasta Airflyte. She liked what she saw enough to make the drive and see it in person.
"I went, saw the camper that day, went back home, thought about it and sent him a check the next day. He fixed it up to get it drivable and then I took it home to do the rest."
Woods purchased the camper in April 2019 and ended up completely gutting it: tearing out cabinets and seats, redoing the floors and painting the entire space. She did almost all of the work herself, though her fiancé (now husband) Logan, her father and her future father-in-law also pitched in. What she didn't know, she researched online and taught herself how to do.
"When I think of an idea, I go with it," Woods said. "I don't hesitate. I don't wait. I just do it. I'm a doer."
Woods' goal was to finish the camper in time to have it included in North Mankato's Fun Days parade that July, giving her about two months to finish renovations. Although there was snow on the ground until May, Woods was able to finish everything in time to join in the parade, throwing out — what else — pink candy.
"We had some great feedback," she said about her grand debut. "It's something fun that nobody's ever seen. It was the first time they saw it, at the parade."
Woods' original goal was to find retro-style clothes at local thrift stores, but after hunting for clothes for a few days, she came to the conclusion it would be too difficult to regularly find enough clothes that fit the theme.
"I took a couple days doing that and thought, 'This is just too hard,'" she recalled. "I can't specifically go out and find the exact style I'm looking for because it's not new. So I started looking into wholesale. I decided that's the route I wanted to go."
Now she orders her inventory from online sources, bringing in new pieces all the time. She describes her style as "typical boutique clothing with an Ali twist."
"I like funky, I like unique," she said. "(It's) something that you haven't seen in a while. I like to bring that vintage style back… I like the '50s, '60s and '70s. Some of my items have that, but some of them are just a fun new style that we haven't seen yet. It just depends. It's always changing."
Woods' camper is equipped with several racks of clothing, as well as a fitting room with a mirror. In recent months, because of COVID-19 concerns, Woods has usually set up most of her inventory outside so that people can maintain distance while shopping.
"You're welcome to go in and out," she said. "If you need to try something on, you're more than welcome."
So far, Woods has mostly stayed around the North Mankato area because there are more places for her camper to easily park. She explained Mankato only has a handful of spots where she can settle down for the day, and she's only allowed to pop up within the city four times a year. She also travels to some events, such as county fairs, where she tries to stay the length of the event.
"A lot of events have been canceled, so it's just easier to stay here and pop up in local parking lots," Woods said. "But I will travel wherever."
Woods has been building up a steady following of customers throughout the past several months, with people following her social media pages to see where she will pop up next.
"Over the past few months, I've gotten tons of new likes on Facebook. The exposure has been awesome. I think I've only heard positive feedback. It's very motivating, especially in times like this."
She said she plans to keep doing what she's been doing going forward with no new plans in the works… yet. But as soon as she has them, she promises her customers will know.
"If I have an idea, I'll make it happen," she said. "Everyone on my following will definitely know if anything exciting is about to happen."