Erica Bentley, co-owner of Keeper’s Vintage, has been a staple in Baltimore vintage clothing for the past 5 years. Keeper’s Vintage, located in the heart of Mt. Vernon, serves as a clothing destination as well as carrier of Baltimore business brands run by women and or people of color. Erica spoke with us in her shop on a Sunday morning about her path that brought her to owning her own shop, from Nordstrom, to teaching, and finding her calling.
Where did you grow up and how did you get into Baltimore?
I was born and raised in Baltimore. I have lived in several different parts of Baltimore but never far. My first house that I don’t remember was North Avenue in Baltimore City, that’s where I lived the majority of my life. Then I went to college, came back and moved to Seton Hill. I went to FIT and USBC to be a buyer. I spent my high school through college years working for Nordstrom; I would come back and forth and work during summers. I got a job at Walgreens and I just asked if I could intern for them over the winter and I did that. I wore that green smock everyday and I was like “Oh my God, I can’t dress like this the rest of my life. I’m just gonna go.” So I worked for Nordstrom and I also interned during my junior year in college. My school had a dual degree program so you had to come back and finish your senior year. The thought was to go back to New York and have eight roommates and not really know what I was going to do or come back to Baltimore where I had my home and family. I had a job here in Baltimore at Nordstrom that I already time invested in so I decided to start here, start at home. Just for the record, it was easier to come home but I’ve never been the type to think someplace else was better than Baltimore. There are other amazing cities but I’ve always counted Baltimore in that number.
How did you transition from coming back to Baltimore to starting your own shop?
I put a lot of years into it. I always was a fan of small boutiques [in Baltimore], people who have been in business here for a long time. I would spend weekends in everybody’s small shop for example Catwalk Boutique which is in Fells Point. I was a regular and I couldn’t afford her stuff but I would just go just because I really like being in the atmosphere of a small shop. I liked knowing what was new, I would be there when a new store opened. I worked for Nordstrom, I would shop small on weekends, and it never dawned on me that I wanted a shop. I always imagined myself doing it though. I would tell people I’m gonna have a shop and get dressed up every day and go there and play in clothes. I would say that but I wasn’t doing anything active towards having a shop. It wasn’t a real goal for me it just was more like a fantasy. I have always had businesses in my head, ideas and stuff just running through my head and I’m never been afraid to just do them. Even still, it didn’t mesh immediately that I should do anything like this. A girlfriend of mine that worked at Nordstrom, we had at the shop together and we started actively doing things, which kind of got me in that mindset years ago. I still didn’t have it as a goal and it wasn’t until I worked for Nordstrom then I worked for Filene’s Basement. I was working retail in middle management, some of it was middle-management hell, but if it wasn’t for Filene’s going under I would’ve stayed in retail. I decided I didn’t want todo retail anymore and I tried to figure out what else I could do. My parents have been teachers for 40+ years and I always said I did not want to be a teacher but I always love children. Even my major, which is weirdly related to children. My major is actually in human ecology, the science of the way the people live, with a concentration in fashion merchandising and early childhood. This is really the collegiate level of home economics – it was fashion, children and nutrition. It’s weird but all of those things have come into my life at some point.
So I said I was not going to do fashion and clothing anymore which made me sad. I wasn’t making any difference so what is the purpose of me coming to work every day. So I decided to go into education. I took the Praxis, I did an alternative program and I became a pre-kindergarten teacher. I thought that was pretty much it. Then a few years later, I had another business idea to clean closets with my girlfriend, which didn’t work out because I realized I wasn’t interested in that type of work. However, after using her sister’s closet as a tester, we ended up with her sisters stuff that we had told her that she didn’t need. We were supposed to donate it for her. Her sister was a shopaholic and she had an amazing closet, so I decided to try and do something with it. This was way before pop up shops so it wasn’t that easy. The only thing I knew to do was go to Patapsco Flea Market. It was a little rough but it was a place where you could set up and sell clothes early in the morning. I think that was the first time I really got bit by the selling clothes on my own idea and so I continued to do so at the market for a long time after that. I had a lot of good quality clothing from working in retail that had hardly ever been worn so once I sold her sister’s clothes; I began to sell my things just to help me market. At one point some friends of mine had a yard sale that basically turned into a swap. It was supposed to be just a one time thing but I convinced them to make it into a business. So that was the start of it and we would go to the Baltimore Farmers Market and sell clothes there.
I think I probably did not have any goals in mind but I am pretty good about taking an opportunity for what it is and the worst that can happen is you just don’t do it anymore. We all had full-time jobs, I was a teacher, one was a nurse, and one worked in retail herself. It was just a side bit but then it blew up. We had people calling us inviting us to do things that we never thought to do before and that was amazing but at the same time is very stressful because we weren’t trying to make this into a full scale thing so after that it just kind of ended because it was a lot. I was left with all of these clothes and as more and more places started closing you just end up with all of these pieces so the next few steps was about where do I put this stuff. Once I saw this was sustainable, I thought I’d rather be doing this with my life. This [owning Keeper’s Vintage] is something that has been in me for forever, I just didn’t know it was there, so I just ran with it. I’ve been selling vintage clothing for at least ten years.
What advice would you give someone who has that main job as well as a side hustle?
Make sure you love it. I think in this new age of everything is entrepreneur, sometimes we try to attach ourselves to things because we feel like we have to attach ourselves to something but it’s all a process. I think everybody should have a million things that they do but if you want to make it your main job, actually try to do it. It came to a point where I had done everything I could to love teaching and it just seemed like it wasn’t in the cards for me. I told myself I’m going to work as hard as I can right now, so when the time comes when I don’t want to work, I won’t have to.
How would you define as success?
Personally, I used to think success was when I’d be able to get dressed up and wear high heels and come into my store, but now I look at success in my soul as freedom. Being able to have choices, a lot of people just don’t have choices. Being able to create and make space for yourself is freeing and to me that is success. It’s not always necessarily about being at the top but being at a place where you can help other people, where you can help yourself, and you have options.
Follow Keeper’s Vintage on Instagram at @keepersvintage and shop Keepers Vintage online at www.keepersvintage.com.
All images © Rachel King, 2018