At the most recent Salt Lake Comic Con event, many people spent the weekend flocking to hundreds of booths, looking for the right geeky item to snag for whatever their desires may be. What some may not realize is that a good portion of those at the SLC con are from out-of-town, with only a select group being local distributors. One of the Utah-based names hustling at events is A Charmed Life, which primarily deals in steampunk-themed works, as well as jewelry and select geeky items. Today we chat with owner Lora Harpster about her event-only business and the items she sells. (All photos provided courtesy of A Charmed Life.
A Charmed Life on Facebook
Hey Lora, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a Utah native, and have always been slightly out of step with the mainstream by choice. I am an avid reader, and when things aren’t too hectic, I read up to 100 books a month. It’s given me a passion for embracing things that are imaginative, fantastical, and great fuel for dreaming. The average American has five or more careers in their lifetime, and I’ve hit that and kept going. They've spanned quite a range: from retail sales and management to real estate support staff to manufacturing administration and management to temporary help management to a college professor. Being a vendor at events is one of the more fun and stimulating careers I’ve engaged in.
How did you first get into clothing and accessories?
I started out selling things like my handmade, artisan soaps that are so amazingly beautiful that many people told me, “I would never use it, it’s too pretty.” I did some hand-crocheted bags, and a few other things like crocheted knights’ helmets that people really liked. But as I looked at what was being sold around
me, and listened to what people were asking for and not finding at the events I attended, I decided I wanted to branch out, and start carrying more product lines.
Prior to your current shop, what experience did you have in retail?
Before I started being a traveling vendor, my only real retail experience in a physical setting was when I was first starting out working while in college. I worked in, and then managed, some of the first self-service gas stations in Utah. They were much simpler than the convenience store set-ups we all expect these days. When Amazon opened up the third-party merchant opportunity, I jumped on that; I sold books for years online. I went to Ebay and branched out into a lot of different products, and sold my soap on Ebay and Etsy as well. Currently, I do very little selling on any of these sites, because my attention and passion are caught up in traveling to and selling at events. I may have come by the shopkeeper bug genetically, though. One of my grandfathers had a truck and a candy route when he was a young man, and his wife worked in retail at department stores and was the Head Buyer for the gift and decor department of a Salt Lake City store, The Paris. I loved visiting when I was a kid.
What was it about steampunk that caught your attention?
I first heard the term “steampunk” at a Renaissance Faire. One of the vendors there was talking with someone else about a new event she planned on attending. That was the first Salt City Steamfest. I remember standing there mouthing the word "steampunk." So that night, after I got home from the Faire, I started doing research. I was captivated immediately. I’ve always loved history, and found the Victorians to be incredibly interesting, so finding a new movement that combined Victorian traditions, clothing and art, and all the other wonderful influences from that era really drew me in. I could see so much possibility. So I applied to be a vendor and... history, as they say.
What made you decide to start selling accessories? Where did the name come from?
The decision on what to focus on followed from my research. I’d already specialized in selling accessories as my focus for other genres, so when I was exploring steampunk, I was asking myself, “If I’m just starting out (which I was, of course) what pieces would I need?" So, hats and watches, gloves, walking sticks, parasols, hair sticks, jewelry, and goggles, lots of goggles, was what I decided to carry. The name was pretty much whimsy. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I’m living a wonderful life, often the sort of life they’d like to lead. So, it’s basically “A Charmed Life.” I added the "SLC" to differentiate from other businesses that use A Charmed Life as their name, and to give information on the geographical area I call home. For a very long time, and even now, many of my regular patrons and friends call me Charmed. And I do answer to it!
How do you go about deciding what you want to carry in stock?
I’m constantly surveying what’s out there, I check other vendors at events, I listen to my customers, and I do random searches to see what new and exciting things turn up. So when gentlemen were asking for vests, I found a source of inexpensive, very nice vests to offer. When ladies asked for corsets that looked good and that they could afford when just starting out, I found those and now they’re a staple stock item. When I find something amazing, like surplus military pouches that work so well for steampunk, I get those in stock as long as I can. What I carry fluctuates as a result. Sometimes I can restock items; often, once they’re gone, they’re gone. One thing that has seemed to really baffle and frustrate out-of-state steampunk vendors is the incredible DIY attitude of Utahns. I’ve talked to vendors who felt affronted by costumers who admired their goods but said, “I could make that myself.” Being from Utah and having a lot of that same do-it-yourself mindset, I try to actually take advantage of that. So I carry a lot of pieces and parts that people can use to make their own accessories, to be the base for their inspirations and dreams.
When looking at steampunk items, how do you best decide what is an awesome item and what is just mediocre?
That’s a hard question! It would depend on what level of steampunk I’m assessing. Is it "just starting out and not sure I want to go into this genre" or is it the level of "I’ve been doing this for years, I am a fantastic craftsperson, and my work is both beautiful and expensive as a result?" I look at the quality of the materials being used. I look at the fit, as I call it; does it look steampunk? There’s a dividing line between steampunk and dieselpunk, for instance. Does it fit the Victorian era in terms of basic influences? A lot of people get really passionate about the genre and would like to see a certain level of cosplay as a result. But, I’m a firm believer that there’s room for everyone, from the hesitant first-timer on up.
When it comes to clothing, what do you look for as far as materials and design?
Does it look Victorian? Does it fit in with what people think of as steampunk? Does it have a good weight, is it well-made? Do the materials look like they could have been produced during that time period? Someone quipped that steampunk is what happened when Goths discovered brown. Yes, you will see a lot of black and brown in steampunk clothing, but the Victorians absolutely loved color and ornate designs. A lot of their clothing is so intricate that it is breathtaking. Even things like Valentine’s Day cards were made by hand and had layers and layers of decoration. I love perusing historical clothing books and sites. So I knew a lot about the styles and even something about how the clothing changed from the early to late 1800s. There’s an amazing range of style, and it does change a bit depending on the country. As an example, Wild West steampunk draws on the clothes worn during
that time period in the U.S. Steampunk is multicultural, and that aspect is growing, and being encouraged to do so, by some of the well-known and established steampunk figures in state.
What was it like for you when you first started running the business, and why event-only?
It’s not a shop, per se. I don’t have a physical location, and I don’t sell online unless a customer contacts me with a very specific request. I’m a wandering merchant, more or less. I pack up my stock, my display pieces, my tents if I need them, and travel from place to place, event to event. I tailor my stock to the type of event where I’m vending, so that can be quite daunting, every bit as much as trying to maintain and stock a physical location. It’s very similar to the way merchants worked during the Middle Ages, or the early years of American settlement. when traveling peddlers were relied upon to bring staples and luxuries to people without stores or access to the goods they needed and wanted. Trade Fairs were held in many towns in Europe, and merchants from all over would converge there to set up temporary shop. It’s the same sort of thing you now see with events such as renaissance faires, pirate festivals, fantasy faires
, Steampunk and comic conventions. I have always been excited and, perhaps, a bit in love with my vending. I am my own boss, of course, I get to interact with people who love the same sorts of genres I do. I get to build relationships with my patrons, many of whom are dear friends now. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going in the right direction, whether I would be able to gauge what people would be interested in, and if I could make things affordable for people while not losing money. Outdoor events are very much a gamble; the weather can wipe you out, destroy your tent and goods, or keep people from attending. So it’s a bit risky even now. I’ve had many, many people ask me why I don’t have a physical shop or, at least, an online store. The answer is a bit complex. My daughters and their families live out of state. I like being free to simply pick up and go visit without worrying about who’s minding the store, or who’s taking care of shipments. Because I do travel a lot including out of state for events, I’d have to maintain a staff for both
online or physical store sales and two sets of inventory.
How have the steampunk and geek communities responded to you?
They have been absolutely wonderful and make continuing to be a vendor such an easy choice. I’ve been vending for at least six years now, and during that time I’ve come to know so many awesome people. I get hugs from many patrons on a regular basis, I get people coming in that I know well enough by now I can point out a new line I think they’ll be interested in and they love that. Many of my patrons I count as friends; we visit, I know about their families, or jobs, or special interests. It really is a community, and I feel very much a part of it.
What’s it been like for you to take part in festival and conventions?
It’s hard, hard, hard, hard work. There’s no getting around that. I spend hours and hours researching and determining what to order. There’s a lot of physical labor involved in loading, unloading, setting up, taking down, loading and unloading for each event. There’s a lot of standing on concrete floors inside, or hard ground outside during the event. This FanX, for instance, I will have three booths. We’ll fill those up. We’ll have a lot of customers, based on past experience. I’ve been a vendor at all the Salt Lake Comic Cons and FanX events, so I know what I’m in for. Still, it’s so worth it. You get to know not only your patrons, but support staff for the venues, other vendors, and organizers for the events. It’s synergistic. It's a gestalt, the events are always so much greater than the some of the parts that make it up.
Do you specially order anything for people, or is it mainly what you have in stock?
I have done special orders for people. I’ve had people give me ideas about what they’re looking for, and I’ll go search out what I think they’re looking for and let them decide. I do also get orders from people who’ve seen things at an event but couldn’t buy it just then. It’s really easy for me to send Paypal invoices and ship. We’re really good at shipping after all those years doing online sales on Amazon and Ebay. There are a couple of ways to contact me. One is through my email: firstname.lastname@example.org
and the other is through Facebook
. I do have a business page there.
Are you looking to expand your business in any way moving forward, or are you comfortable with things how they are?
at least a dozen events a year. I’ve done up to 16 events some years. Most of them are in-state, but it’s still a lot of traveling. A lot of my time and attention is also taken up by planning, organizing and producing an event with my partners which are going into its fourth year, The Utah Winter Faire. So, in a way I have expanded out from being a very busy vendor, to also being an event producer.
What can we expect from you and A Charmed Life over the rest of the year?
You’ll see me at a lot of fun themed events throughout the year. I’ll be at the Utah Renaissance Festival and Fantasy Faire for four weekends in May, Earth Jam in June, the Midsummer Renaissance Faire in Cedar City in July, Dragon Fyre Faire in Soda Springs in July, Salt City Steamfest and the Utah Renaissance Faire in August, Salt Lake Comic Con in September and the Utah Winter Faire the first weekend in December. I have a pinned post on my Facebook page where I keep the list of where I’ll be throughout the year. I also post information on new products I'm bringing into events, it’s a great way to keep track of me.