Trump, Lesbians & Archery

A white lesbian couple with a black son, a 65 year-old half-blind Trump supporter, and the Mayor who is also the high school civics teacher and archery coach walk into a bar.

Well, a vintage store, actually.

Well, our real-life actual vintage store, actually.

And I’m starting to wonder if maybe we’re onto something that can help heal our souls, and maybe our nation in the process.

The Backstory

After 14 years working in politics and the church, my wife finally let me try out my crazy idea of hosting a vintage flea market on our property in January of 2019. She wasn’t ready to let me quit politics altogether — that was our livelihood after all. But we could try it out and see what happened.

I had been growing increasingly restless with politics since 2016 when I left the Republican party, quit my job as the CEO of a large political consulting firm and helped run an independent campaign for president against Trump and Clinton. That led to a few years of working in the political reform space, and in a large national faith-based project. These projects included incredible people and amazing ideas. The principles were simple:

  • There is a life that is truly life available to us. We don’t have to live in hopeless despair or numb survival.

But by late 2018, I was hankering for a different kind of challenge, and really starting to wonder if any “movement” was really possible, in the way we typically think of them. All the “big things” I’d tried to do had, for the most part, failed in all measurable ways to bring the change I wanted to see. It’s not that big changes and movements never happen, it’s just that I was beginning to believe that wasn’t how I was supposed to engage the world. The cost is exceedingly high for leaders of movements. Read history. Nine out of ten towering historical figures had personal lives which were, to put it kindly, a trainwreck. Yes, they moved the arc of history. But at what cost, ultimately?

We were doing our best to advance our principles in big ways across the nation. But they didn’t seem to be taking hold in the ways we hoped. Of course there were plenty of people living this out — but united, systemic change didn’t look possible. I began to really wonder if our approach, or at least mine personally, was off. Maybe the only way to really do this was at the local, up-close level. To live it out and let it spread, if it could, through the authentic channels of real relationship.

I had also harbored a mostly secret dream for years of owning a “general store.” I dreamt of the kind of place where people gathered, goods were exchanged and the real currency was relationships. My wife and I have always loved cool old stuff. But she wasn’t ready (and she was right) for us to take the plunge on opening a retail store with no experience and no backup plan. So that brings us to January of 2019.

We invited some vendors, created a facebook page and did our best to promote our first “Vintage Market.” That first market had twelve vendors and probably around 500 people showed up. We created an environment that people genuinely enjoyed and the feedback was tremendous. Plus we made a little money. We were onto something.

I kept consulting and worked on those projects. But I kept feeling secretly totally overwhelmed and completely helpless, even as my passion never waned for the underlying principles.

We decided to host another vintage flea market.

In March of 2019 we grew from twelve vendors to 20, and from a few hundred people to somewhere just over a thousand in attendance over two days. The buzz was growing too.

More than buzz and a cool event, though, we started to notice something. People were genuinely having a good time. There was an atmosphere of community, togetherness, joy, ease, comfort. And just about every kind of person you can imagine showed up at one point or another. White, Black, Latino, Asian. Young and old. Rich and poor. Conservative and liberal. Christians and atheists. All just to shop for cool old stuff? Or maybe it was more than that.

In September of 2019 we decided our test was sufficient and we could try our hand at retail. We hunted around and found a tiny retail space in a hundred year-old building in the struggling historic downtown of our small southern town. We opened it with cash on hand and did the cheapest renovations we could. Then we filled it with cool old stuff and opened the doors. We didn’t know if we’d make it or not, but we went for it.

I was stressed out trying to juggle the demands of consulting work with running a retail store, but it was also exhilarating. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I sensed right away it was going to be very meaningful. Immediately I began to see one of the most important functions of our work: listening.

Like the old-fashioned bar tender, I would stand behind our counter and people would pour out their troubles. I heard about wives with cancer, recently deceased parents, a child who committed suicide, job loss, struggling artists. People cried, and laughed and sighed. And almost without fail, I heard a version of the phrase, “I had one of these when I was a kid.”

Not About The Stuff

It wasn’t about the stuff, though. It was about the stories. Old stuff, vintage things as we call them, are a portal into the past which allow us to talk about things that are sometimes hard, sometimes wonderful and almost always pregnant with the possibility of healing. I’m sure you can think of a time when some item or smell or song jogged a memory in a vivid way that surprised you. Our brains, connected to our souls, have this amazing capacity to remember. This is not always good, but it’s true.

In the best of circumstances, as we recall a memory it opens a place in us that otherwise wouldn’t get opened. Maybe it’s a kitchen spoon that brings a pleasant memory of our mom and sets up a conversation about what we learned from her, and how that has shaped us in good ways. Or an album from James Taylor which conjures the bittersweet memory of a friend gone too soon, but allows us to be thankful for the time we had together. Or a beautiful and simple painting of a farm scene, recalling the carefree days of childhood when we wandered our grandparents farm in what seemed like endless adventure.

Sometimes, it’s not a specific thing but rather being surrounded by all these familiar items and a listening ear that create the opportunity to share hard things. I’m not really sure. But I do know this: people are hungry to connect. To be heard. To tell and hear stories which remind us who we are, and give us hope for who we can be.

By our October, 2019 market we had 30 vendors and around 2,000 people. The same for December. Then March and October of 2020 grew to nearly 40 vendors and around 3,000 people. We made it through our first year of retail life and turned a healthy net profit even with COVID and all the associated challenges.

What’s Next?

Now we’re planning for our next big outdoor market and looking to expand our physical space. We think there is tremendous demand, and need, for spaces where people connect in real ways, in person.

Digital life divides us. But when we get up-close and personal, it is easier to see the humanity in one another, in spite of deep differences. We need places which are designed for this. Where people of all different backgrounds are encouraged to be in the same space. Where the white lesbian couple feels as equally welcome as the young black man or the older Trump supporter or the young Latina single mother.

We can’t force the interactions or what may happen next. But we can create the space. And that is what we intend to do.

Welcome to Sycamore Lane. We can’t wait to hear your story.

Disciple, Husband, Father, Friend. www.joelsearby.com

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