B y the end, the Vintanthromobile was a bit of a diva.
You might remember her. She was a retrofitted 1999 Ford shuttle bus that roved New Haven selling vintage fashion. Her owner, Melissa Gonzales, an art teacher by day, had saved the bus from the scrapper and dressed her front-to-back in boots and buckles, hats and hairpins.
Even primped and polished, booking gigs proved impossible at first. Seeking partnerships with event organizers and brick-and-mortar retailers, Gonzales would explain the concept to them over the phone: “It’s like a food truck but full of vintage clothing.” “Oh no, no, we don’t have any room for that.” Click.
She kept at it anyway. “I’m kind of neurotic. When I start something, I don’t stop. I’m like a bulldozer.” Slowly but surely, New Haven wised up to the charm of the Vintanthromobile. Soon she was a mainstay at the city’s outdoor markets and tentpole events.
But popularity came at a price. As the bus’s profile rose, so did her odometer. She became about as capricious as a typical celebrity. Her tires blew out and her brake lines broke. At a gas station, Gonzales realized fuel was leaking out the bottom nearly as quickly as she poured it into the tank. It wasn’t long before she’d memorized the tow company’s phone number.
Today the bus sits quietly in a driveway in Hamden. While the Vintanthromobile’s moment in the spotlight has passed, her fans still remember her. Gonzales gets regular calls inviting the bus to farmers’ markets and venues around town, she says, but now Gonzales is the one doing the refusing. She’s too busy nurturing a bigger endeavor, The Haven Collective.
The Collective is many things: a vintage fashion boutique, an events venue, a crafting studio, a pop-up retail space. Located at 938 State Street, part of a stretch of popular destinations like Modern Apizza and Cave à Vin, entering the shop on a sunny day is like opening a mid-century children’s book. Petite coffee cups dangle on the wall. Ball jars gleam with rainbows of candy inside. In the kid’s section, a knee-high kitchen leavens imaginary biscuits. And of course, there’s the clothing, numerous and neat, mostly for women but also for men. It’s the first vintage store I’ve ever been in that smells like a dollop of cream and not like Uncle Larry’s ties.
On Sundays, The Haven Collective hosts its Brunch Craft Series and the front foyer becomes “Mimosaville.” Daylight streams in through big front windows and illuminates plates of gourmet bites, fresh coffee and a craft studio in full swing. (And by crafts I don’t mean your 4th-grade glitter-’n’-glue sessions.) Workshops range from candle-making to wreath-weaving to advanced iPhone photography. Limited space caps participation at six, maybe eight, per session—and yes, mimosas are included.
Beside its Sunday brunch series and craft lessons, The Haven Collective features a new pop-up designer every two to four weeks. Having started out doing pop-up shops herself, Gonzales is now paying it forward, with a regional bent. In five months of operation, all but one of its pop-up vendors has been locally based. “There’s no vintage store like it in the city,” Gonzales says.
Back when The Haven Collective opened its doors in October, news of the opening rolled hard through East Rock. So hard it shook loose a levy somewhere upriver and brought a steady stream of East Rockers right to the door. For three solid months, the store was a spectacular hit. Gonzales sold nearly double what she’d expected to. On Sundays, workshops filled up with grad students and young professionals. Mimosaville was a boomtown.
And then came winter.
Business dropped as fast as the temperature and the snow came down harder than a hex. State Street’s foot traffic froze over, and on top of that, Gonzales’s business partner backed out. She was left twiddling her thumbs as the snow piled on.
But Gonzales is from Chicago. She can take a hard winter. And spring is just around the corner. Both plants and people are starting to pop up on State Street. The other day, she says, she had to turn away whole groups of shoppers while the store’s inventory was reorganized.
Bigger changes are also afoot. Gonzales opened the Collective with the help of Project Storefronts, a city-sponsored venture to put artistic entrepreneurs and creative types in empty retail spaces throughout the city. The organization fronted Gonzales the money for the first month’s rent and subsidized several more months’ worth. “If it wasn’t for them and all the business we got the first few months, I’d be hurting,” says Gonzales. Now that it’s time for Project Storefronts to step back, The Haven Collective will have to make it on its own.
Just like the Vintanthromobile did. Asked if New Haven will ever see the rolling vintage shop again, Gonzales said, “I’d have to get someone to watch the store for me.”
“Or to drive the bus,” I offered.
A smile rose on her face. “I wouldn’t trust anyone else to drive,” she told me. “I’m the only one who can keep her running.”
Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.