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As Boston government dawdles, founders of Sneakerbox retail truck plan to go west

Posted by Scott Kirsner  April 10, 2013 02:31 PM

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I tweeted Angela Schipano, the co-founder of the Sneakerbox retail truck, recently to see when I might check it out somewhere around Boston. There aren't very many entrepreneurs using trucks to incubate new retail concepts, but I like to keep tabs on those who are.

"Actually, we are going to be relocating to California," replied Schipano. "Boston still does not have permits that allow us to sell."

The City of Boston, and city agencies like the Boston Redevelopment Authority, have been aware of and in discussions with retail truck entrepreneurs for more than a year. There have even been some small tests, like allowing trucks to sell their merchandise on City Hall Plaza around the holidays. But Schipano says that there's still no permitting process or pathway for retail truck entrepreneurs to find legal locations in the city to operate on a daily basis, unlike their food-peddling counterparts. And she asserts that police in Boston and surrounding cities often follow retail trucks' postings on Twitter as a way of finding out where they're operating, and then asking them to move or handing out expensive citations.

Schipano and her co-founder, Tiffany Crews, both went to college in Boston. They worked together at the Nike store on Newbury Street. Schipano lives in the North End. And they tried to start a business here.

"The thing that's great about a retail truck is that there's not a lot of overhead," she says. "You can open your own business — and that hasn't been easy for a lot of young people, given the recession we've been through." The eventual goal, Schipano adds, is to be successful enough to open a brick-and-mortar location, where they can showcase much more merchandise. (We've already seen that happen with food trucks like Clover Food Lab, which has two fixed locations, and another two set to open this spring.)

sneakerbox.pngBut Schipano says that she and Crews (pictured at left inside the truck) are planning to move to southern California next month. "There are maybe ten locations where you can sell street-side and it's legal, in places like Santa Monica and West Hollywood," she says. Permits vary in price — but they exist. (Sneakerbox's founders sampled the California scene earlier this year as part of a cross-country tour.)

I'd love to see Boston generating more revenue, supporting new entrepreneurs, and potentially cultivating future brick-and-mortar shops, by making retail trucks legal in designated spots around the city.

And at least some in city government are supportive of the idea. "We have to figure out how and where it can happen," Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson told me earlier this week. "I don't want innovation to be stunted based on regulation."

But that, right now, is where we're at.

"It really is a bummer," says Schipano. "Boston has so much potential. I wish it would've worked."

Update: Melina Schuler, a spokesperson for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, sent me this comment via e-mail:

We’ve developed several models for launching a retail truck program in Boston that are being currently vetted across city departments. Retail trucks are a new business model on the streets of Boston and any new policy that supports its presence on the public way must be carefully and thoughtfully crafted.

We’ve stayed in close contact with retail truck owners to keep the dialogue open and have held meetings with business leaders to understand potential impacts on existing retail.


(For more background on the retail truck issue, see this excellent Lawrence Harmon column from April 2012. Photos on this post come from Sneakerbox's Facebook page.)

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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