The Road Ramblers

I’ve been a bit irregular in posting over here as of late and here’s why- we’ve been working on a big, super exciting new project- the Road Ramblers.

Since November, we’ve been planning. We bought an old bus in early December 2015 and have been working on gutting and converting it, readying it for a six month trip around the country, during which we will be documenting small towns through interviews, photography, video, art and the collection of artifacts. All of this will be compiled into a web series and then a book, if you’re able to help. We have exciting premiums in addition to the book- namely original art and photography. We’d appreciate your help and love for you to follow along!
Thanks- Alex and Spencer

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/263559793/road-ramblers

Updates on dinerhunter will be sporadic, probably more confined to the east coast leg of the trip when I’ll be able to return to the original mission of this site- diners.

For regular updates from the road through Road Ramblers, check in at theroadramblers.com, our Instagram, and our facebook.
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On the Road – Las Vegas 2

Saturday was a new record for me. 20 thrift shops in a day. In Las Vegas, they’re mostly grocery store sized, so where I’m used to a half dozen racks of men’s stuff, these came through with aisle after aisle. Hundreds of suits and jackets all in one place, shirts as far as the eye can see, and decent prices for the large part. I realize Las Vegas is a relatively new town with a transient population, but I hoped it would be a numbers game- 20 shops, thousands of things at each of them, bound to be some vintage in there somewhere. It turned out I was half right. There was no shortage of early ’60s overcoats, tweeds, plaid cotton, largely small collared, fly fronted and raglan sleeved. One or two in nearly every store. Unfortunately, many were stained or moth damaged, and most of the stores were asking $20-$30 for them. This may not seem like much, but the current overcoat market is bad. I could put one of those in the eBay store at $10 and it would probably go unsold for a year. The local vintage shops won’t touch them at any price. Usually it stands that where there is one piece of vintage, more are lurking, waiting to be found. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, and my entire sellable haul from the day’s thrifting was a single necktie, which goodwill had priced at $4, about eight times what I’m used to paying for thrift shop ties.
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After picking Alex up from the photo conference, we met up with Jason T. Smith, star of Spike TV’s “Thrift Hunters”, “Thrifty Business with Jay and Nay”, “Thrifting With the Boys”, etc. at Frankie’s Tiki Room. I compared my experience with my aborted vintage-picking TV show with his two seasons in reality TV, we talked the state of thrifting, eBay sales and how people like us have ruined thrifting for everyone by divulging its mysterious ways. You couldn’t hope to meet nicer people than he and his wife.
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So far, the haul stands at a ’40s English summer suit, a turn of the century sack suit, Hollyvogue tie, vintage Notre Dame Athletics shirt, pair of vintage eyeglasses and a vintage patch.
We made it into Salt Lake City last night only to find we’re due to catch the edge of a potentially 3 foot snowfall. We’ll try to keep it brief here and head west before things hit.

On the Road- Las Vegas 1

By the time we had reached West Yellowstone, the sun had set, temperatures plummeted and it started to snow heavily. We spent two hours white knuckled, through Yellowstone National Park and Targhee National Forest, crawling along in near whiteout conditions with only the tail-lights of a semi to guide us. We pulled in late at the first motel we could find, on the outskirts of Idaho Falls. The motel was the kind we strive to avoid, with crippling stains on the bed and towels. The mattress, pillows and carpet were steeped in decades of nicotine and the heater had given up on life. We spent the night in every piece of clothing we had packed, shivering, and woke up stiff, bloodshot and exhausted.

Snowcovered fields gave way to green and eventually to the stunning red rocks of Arizona. The cold of our previous night was replaced by baking heat and an equally broken air conditioner in our car. Windows down is fine in town, but at 85mph on the highway, the wind is almost as unbearable as the sweat.

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But, after 850 miles of solid driving, we made it. Our hotel doesn’t have free wi-fi (go downstairs, smoke! gamble! drink!) and the pool outside our window is in the process of being jackhammered out. So out into the city! While Alex is at a photography conference, seeing her photographic heroes- I venture out! To the shops!

On paper, there are some 75+ antique, vintage and thrift stores in town. Before leaving, I had plotted them all out with one of those route-planning algorithms developed based on the flight patterns of bees. But with no internet, no printer, and my PDF having converted all my addresses to GPS coordinates, so far I’ve had to wing it. Las Vegas’s antique stores are nearly all clustered in roughly four blocks of the old section of downtown. Left to my own devices, I go into picker mode. Vintage clothes? Vintage clothes? Vintage clothes? No- none here- on to the next store. 5 minutes and done, sticking out like a sore thumb. Dealer. Not from here.

There are a surprising number of vintage clothing boots here in Las Vegas, but dealing mostly in 1970s cheese. Polyester used car dealer jacket? Leisure suit? Three mile thick paisley necktie? You got it, buddy. The older clothes are thin on the ground, but either there’s no market, or they’re out of the dealer’s comfort zone, so I was able to pick up a couple of gems at otherwise outrageously priced places. Along the way, I ran into the star of the reality TV show, “Thrift Hunters”, and unsurprisingly in this strange vintage world we inhabit, we had friends in common. We’ll be meeting up for drinks at one of the local tiki bars- more on that later. Tomorrow should be my big thrift day, but after the couple I hit yesterday and the day before, I don’t have high hopes. They’re around in abundance, and are the enormous Goodwill-type shops, so no shortage of things to go through. But so far what I’ve been seeing is mostly very low-end suits from the 1990s, stained rental tuxes and novelty print neckties. It could be a numbers game- dig through a few thousand and maybe something will have fallen through the cracks.

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Stay tuned, more to come over the course of the next week as we finish up in Nevada and work our way through a few more states.

On The Road – Deer Lodge, Philipsburg, Anaconda

This weekend, Alex had a commission to do some photography back in Anaconda and some thesis photography work that took us to Deer Lodge and Philipsburg.
With snow in the forecast for Saturday, we drove out Friday night, after a stop at an antique fair in Bozeman. I got my shop talk and dealer gossip in with Tamara of Mountain West Mercantile (Livingston, MT) and Brian of Rediscoveries Vintage Clothing (Butte) and found a couple interesting bits of vintage.
Then off to Deer Lodge, a little over 120 miles away. Deer Lodge was founded in 1864, around the Grant-Kohrs Ranch. The Montana State Prison was built in Deer Lodge in 1871 and operated through to 1979, when it was replaced with a new facility outside town, currently the major employer of the area. Deer Lodge was a major railroad town in Montana before being bypassed in 1980. Railroad hotels built in the early decades of the 20th century sit abandoned, The Montana’s ground floor businesses having survived into the early 1980s, while The Deer Lodge was abandoned after a boiler failure in the 1960s. The historic prison is now a museum, comparable to Alcatraz, only without any other people to spoil the creepiness of the experience. An annex to the prison houses a car museum, and buildings across the street are used as an old west museum, toy museum, pen museum, and a local history museum. This is well into the off season. Downtown is more dominated by pawn shops, casinos and bars this time of year.
We woke up to whiteout conditions out our window at the Western Big Sky Inn. Lucky for us, it was more wind than snow and the roads were more or less clear by 10. It hasn’t been that long since we were in Deer Lodge, but two of my “go-to” stops have disappeared, an antique shop in an A-Frame on the edge of town and a thrift/junk/antique store right downtown. The antique store by the prison didn’t seem to have any new stock since my last pass through over the summer and the thrift shop had almost no men’s section. We drove around town taking pictures, through the residential areas, with their one bedroom company houses, through the industrial areas (there is still one large lumber mill just outside town) and through the back alleys of the main drag. It’s always fascinating to see how these towns have changed. How the ground floor of a building was redone in the ’60s, and now bears a sign from the ’80s, but the upper floors are untouched. How the facade of a building may stand, but the building behind is a pre-fab metal shed, erected after a fire claimed the original structure. While taking pictures of one of the abandoned railroad hotels, the owner of a secondhand shop down the street poked her head out and started watching us. In typical Montana fashion, instead of “hey what are you doing, get out of here!”, we were met with the full history of the place, which she now owns and has been working on fixing up when time and money allow, and of the town, with some recommendations on hidden spots for us to shoot.

Then on to Philipsburg (founded 1867), a former mining town which went bust following the closure of mines and sawmills in the 1890s. Starting in the 1990s, the town began to be restored and geared to tourists. It’s a beautiful town, very much in-tact, but with a fakeness stemming from the restoration. The most compelling buildings were the ones on the fringes, still abandoned, still bearing faded signage from the 1920s in the windows. The 1990s does 1890s signage hanging from all the businesses (candy stores, gift shops, breweries, jewelry stores) and the restorations deny the century in between, the rise and slow decay which makes all these western towns so interesting. It’s nice to see a town in this area having found a way to drag itself out of the ashes, but it’s strange to walk down a main street filled with things which are so real yet feel so fake. We had a great lunch at the local soda fountain, a drug store from the late 1800s with a beautifully preserved 1930s Liquid Carbonic Corporation soda fountain and 1990s-does 1950s retrofication. The thrift shop was a gold mine, and we found a cache of vintage hardware at the antique shop for the bus interior. We drove Alex’s ’96 4 Runner on this trip and kept getting stuck in snow or sliding backward down hills while exploring the neighborhoods. Scary, but no harm done.

Finally, we ended up in Anaconda. We’ve done Anaconda so many times now for Alex’s photo projects that it’s started to feel like home. Like a small town that you’re trying to escape. We were set to meet up with a photo client for a commission of some photos of downtown around noon. It later turned out that his short ski trip scheduled that morning had turned into a 20 mile backcountry trip. So we waited. And we waited. It being Anaconda, there aren’t a lot of businesses. It being Sunday, there weren’t a lot open. It being Super Bowl sunday in a sports town, there was nothing open. We’ve so thoroughly done the town on a half dozen other fine-toothed-comb photo trips that even driving around for hours, we couldn’t find much new to shoot. So we sat in the car downtown waiting for the phone to ring for hours, until the sun started to dip behind the mountains which ring downtown. We eventually got the call, halfway back to Bozeman, and all was resolved. Alex had guessed and taken the shots that were needed in the time we were sitting. I made a good enough haul Friday and Saturday to pull the rest of the trip into the black.

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On The Road – Whitehall, MT

The plan was to make a run yesterday down to Dillon, in Southwest Montana. We stopped in Butte for lunch at the reopened M&M cigar store (founded 1890) and at a few antique shops. After a stop at Rediscoveries Vintage Clothing and a lot of shop talk with owner Brian Mogren, who’s owned it since 1980 and really knows his vintage, it started to snow. With deteriorating road conditions in the direction we were planning on traveling, we were forced to turn back to Bozeman, making a brief stop on the way back in Whitehall for some photos.

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On The Road – Red Lodge

Last week, we headed off to Big Timber, about an hour west of here. It’s always been a quick stop on the way to other places, and I’ve never had it as a destination; never really spent a lot of time there. We found a large antique store on the outskirts of town we’d never been to before- “Country Crossroads”, with a sign saying “gifts and crafts” and a front parking lot full of wrought iron patio furniture. It looked like the kind of place we generally pass up, the type of place which deals in scented candles, reproductions and those tack-welded metal letters you see everywhere now. But we were determined to really do Big Timber this time around, so we stopped. Not a craft or gift-shop tchotchke in sight. All good vintage and antiques, all organized by type, size and color. It killed me to pass on a set of large Halliburton aluminum cases, but with the big trip coming up, the less large things like that I buy, the less I have to put into storage.
We swung through Livingston on the way back home, hitting and striking out at my favorite thrift shops. While Alex was out getting some more shots for an upcoming photo series. I popped into Mountain West Mercantile, to visit with its owner and my friend, Tamara Mason. After some shop talk, she showed me a couple of western suits that had just come into her shop. Oddly, the market for that style is much stronger in Europe than it is in the US. It’s easier for me to sell them online to someone in the UK or Germany than it is for her to sell that particular shade of vintage westernwear at a shop specializing in vintage westernwear in the American west. The vintage market is bizarre sometimes. I somehow left a pair of pants from one of the suits behind in the shuffle and in a typically Montana act, she drove over the mountain the next day to hand deliver them. Again, I can’t recommend her store enough- if you’re here, you have to stop.

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Yesterday’s trip was to Red Lodge, MT. Red Lodge boomed in the early part of the century following a coal strike in the 1890s. The mines largely closed during the depression. Tourism bolstered the town’s economy in the 1930s following the construction of the Beartooth Highway and it now straddles the fine line between upscale ski-town and down on its luck Montana mining town. The “antique mall” in town turned out to be a relatively small storefront shop dealing in old-west reproductions and rifles, and the thrift shop inside a senior center, while clean and organized, didn’t have much stock older than the 1990s. The antique shop and thrift shop on the way back, in Columbus, Montana were both closed in that typically small town way that makes you wonder if it means closed for the day or closed for good. So 300-some miles on the car and a tank and a half of gas and nothing for the shop to show for it.

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But, as you can see, an interesting town. We were struck by the herds of deer and especially by the dozens of wild turkeys roaming the downtown. Deer on the steps of the courthouse. Turkeys at city hall!

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On The Road: Back in Billings

We went back to Billings again yesterday. It’s an easy 140 mile drive which makes for a busy day trip or a relaxed overnight. We opted for the overnight, staying at the Dude Rancher again. There are pics of it in the first post of this thread. We hit town around 5:00, just as the sun was setting, but still with enough time to get an hour in at a big antique mall on the fringes of downtown, Marketplace 3301. There were definitely some things there I wish I had bought, but that were just too high- an 1800s bearskin coat for $250, or the sign off the Great Falls Hub store, from which I’ve had a number of pieces that were originally sold there over the years. But if I bought everything I wanted, I’d be broke with a houseful of unsalable things. Not that that’s too far off the mark as it is.

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The next morning, we went back to 3301, to finish up the second floor, as we ran out of time Thursday evening. We went for breakfast at a place called the Muzzleloader. It boasted having been in business since 1957, and was out on the industrial side of town. I had visions of a typically western cafe- knotty pine, worn stools and a rifle hanging over the counter. Pulling up we were met with an enormous Cracker Barrel reject looking building, half cafe, half casino. Inside was large and impersonal, with that certain combination of beige and pastel that only late ’80s remodelings can yield. But, it was packed with locals and had a chicken fried steak special, so what the hey, we gave it a shot.

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Then on to downtown Billings, for Yesteryear’s antique mall, a sprawling 3 story place. It has remarkable turnover in their stock, and I’ve always managed to find good things there. Oxford Antiques, in business for 31 years, was closed for the day. Last I was there, I was chatting with the owners and they were mentioning that they were easing somewhat into retirement, ramping down their hours and marking lots of the stock in the store down 50% to move it. So hopefully they were out enjoying the last bit of good weather before winter hits in full and I’ll catch them next time.

I made my requisite stop to Montana Vintage Clothing- if you’re ever in the area, you must stop. They have racks and racks of vintage menswear, 1920s-1960s, suits, ties, jackets, shoes, hats, you name it. And while their men’s section has the scope and sheer volume that would make people here weep, it’s small when compared to the women’s side. They’ve been in business 17 years, are extremely knowledgeable and friendly and being located in Billings, have affordable prices. You could score yourself a ’30s suit, tie and hat all for under $200.

Then on to the thrift shops, the big Goodwill outside town, the two St. Vincent DePauls, the Montana Rescue Mission, the Family Service Secondhand. I swear they’ve raised their prices, with better deals to be found at the antique shops. $30 for a mothy ’50s overcoat? That’s more than I could charge with all my experience and contacts. We passed abandoned warehouse buildings bearing the signs of two defunct antique malls, and the abandoned Salvation Army. For a town that’s always been reliable as a source of vintage for me, it seems it hasn’t always been kind to the shops that sell it. There’s a certain desperation to Billings.

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We made one last quick stop in Big Timber, where I finally bought a ’30s/’40s suit (sans jacket) that I had seen on the pricing rack the better part of a year ago, but had been unable to buy then. It took its time, but finally made its way out. As we got closer to Bozeman, the temperature dropped and the snow closed in, white specks on the horizon growing into snowy mountains.

Exhausted, we settled back in. This was the trip of Open Roads. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be another one.

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