When North Mankato native Ali Woods first purchased the 1963 Shasta Airflyte she’d found online in March 2019, it was not much to look at.
The outside of the camper was a dingy grayish-white, while the inside was not much better. What windows remained desperately needed replacing, and the laminated floor was warped and weathered. The cabinets and walls were falling apart.
To Woods, though, this camper—which she affectionately named “Birdie”—was the perfect fit for a dream she’d been planning for months: her own mobile boutique.
“I just liked retail, [and] 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 explained. “I thought, ‘How can I do that but have no overhead?’ And I thought, ‘I’ll put it on wheels!’”
From that idea, The Blackbird LLC was born, and Birdie is its one-stop-shop as a showroom, dressing room and storage unit. Birdie has become quite a familiar site as Woods “pops up” around different locations in North Mankato and Mankato. It doesn’t hurt that Birdie is a bright, eye-catching, bubblegum shade of pink.
“I went with pink because it’s just a vehicle color that you do not see,” Woods explained. “Maybe you see yellow or light blue, but you definitely don’t see pink driving around town. I knew it would catch people’s eye. So far, it has. That’s my No. 1 thing I get from people when they come see it.”
It’d be so fun to have a store, but that’s a lot of overhead … How can I do that but have no overhead? … I’ll put it on wheels!Ali Woods
A Diamond in the Rough
For months, Woods hunted for the perfect trailer: something that would fit her vintage aesthetic, be affordable and have plenty of space to work as a showroom. She found Birdie in an online posting by a seller in Cazenovia, Wisconsin — about a four-hour drive from Mankato.
“I said, ‘You know what, I’m going by myself,’” Woods said. “I [wanted] to go see if this was a legit deal. 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.”
When Woods returned to North Mankato with Birdie, her goal was to fix the camper up enough to participate in the city’s Fun Days parade that July. She only had two months of good enough weather to prepare for the parade, and she had a big task in front of her. She ended up gutting the entire camper, redoing the floor, replacing the windows and more. While she received some help from her fiancé (now husband), father, and father-in-law, Woods estimated that about 90 percent of the work was done by her.
“When I think of an idea, I go with it,” she said, adding that she would look up things online if she didn’t know how to do them. “I don’t hesitate. I don’t wait. I just do it. I’m a doer.”
Woods did manage to finish Birdie’s renovations by Fun Days, and she proudly drove her bright pink camper along the parade route, throwing out bright pink candy.
“We had some great feedback,” she recalled. “It’s something fun that nobody’s ever seen.”
Popping up Around Town
Woods officially opened The Blackbird LLC in July 2019. She “pops up” all over Mankato and North Mankato, collaborating with a local business so that she can use its parking lot for the day. So far, Woods has mostly stayed around the North Mankato area, since there are more places for her camper to easily park. She explained that 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. I like to pop up and make it random, because that makes it more fun for my customers. It’s like, ‘Oh, she’s there, let’s go!’”
Woods’ merchandise includes clothing, jewelry, and other accessories, along with a handful of other items. She purchases her wares from online wholesalers, always looking for new and interesting pieces to change up her racks.
She describes her style as “typical boutique clothing with an Ali twist.”
I like funky, I like unique. It’s something that you haven’t seen in a while. I like to bring that vintage style back…Ali Woods
“I like funky, I like unique,” she explained. “[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.”
During nicer days (and because of current health concerns), Woods sets up much of her merchandise outside. Inside, her camper is equipped with several more racks for clothing and accessories, along with a fitting room with a mirror.
“You’re welcome to go in and out,” Woods said. “If you need to try something on, you’re more than welcome.”
According to Woods, since she’s still such a new business, she doesn’t have plans to add or change anything in the near future. She has already built up a group of loyal followers on her social media profiles, where people check in to see where she will pop up next, and she expressed her gratitude for their continued support.
“Over the past few months, I’ve gotten tons of new likes on Facebook,” she said. “The exposure has been awesome. I think I’ve only heard positive feedback. It’s very motivating, especially in times like this.”
While Woods doesn’t have any immediate, specific plans, she said she still has a goal of finding neat new things to offer her customers.
“If I have an idea, I’ll make it happen,” she added. “Everyone on my following will definitely know if anything exciting is about to happen. But the main thing [now] is just getting new product in and trying new things.”