When Pacific Beach resident Eric Brown Jr. stumbled upon a ‘90s school bus in March, he started to see the vision of owning a vintage clothing store take shape in the vehicle’s rearview mirrors.
Growing up, Brown — who was born in San Diego to a military family in 1991 — bounced back and forth from Northeast Ohio to Southern California, completing some of his education in Clairemont Mesa. After high school, Brown enlisted in the Navy and found himself stationed in Seattle.
It was there that his passion for vintage clothing developed. On weekends he would scour thrift stores and sell his finds on eBay for extra cash. When shopping secondhand, the ‘90s child focused on that decade, a time he thinks some of the most iconic entities in TV, sports, music and fashion were born.
“When I would find cool pieces from the ‘90s, they would instantly trigger a memory from my childhood and there was a story that always went along with that item,” Brown said. “I think that’s what makes vintage clothing unique: people feel connected to the items in a way that is deeper than the aesthetics.
Brown decided to turn that passion into a career. He moved back to San Diego in 2016 to study marketing and entrepreneurship, continue running his online shop, and work at Urban Outfitters to learn the larger retail landscape.
The idea to open up his own brick-and-mortar vintage clothing store developed once he graduated college in February. Yet with San Diego’s sky-high real estate prices, he hit a wall. So Brown decided to take matters into his own hands and create his own space. He bought a 1994 Ford school bus — previously used as a maintenance vehicle for the Carlsbad School District — and got to work restoring it into a mobile boutique.
“The whole bus from top to bottom was filthy so I spent a lot of man hours cleaning every inch of that 17-foot bus. If the sun was up, I was inside working on it,” he said. “Once the bus was clean, I gave the inside a couple of coats of fresh white paint to keep it as bright and open as possible.”
Renovation tasks included removing seats and storage structures; leveling out holes and installing wood floors; and building custom racks and shelves. It took four weeks to transform the vehicle into what is now Backtrack Vintage, a mobile boutique offering a large selection of all things ‘90s.
From garage and estate sales to swap meets and flea markets, Brown finds his inventory just about everywhere. To avoid repetition in the San Diego market, he often travels to states, including Nevada and Ohio, for unique products. Yet his collection’s theme is consistent, focusing on high-quality items from his favorite era.
“I like to look for anything that is a pop culture reference: bands, movies, sports teams that dominated the ‘90s and anything that is vintage Nike,” Brown said, adding that he gravitates toward brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren because the designers stand the test of time and offer diversity in their products.
Brown is one of the few veterans to own and operate a fashion boutique in Southern California. During his time in the Navy, Brown said he mastered the art of attention to detail — a talent that’s clearly displayed in the intentional set-up of his small space.
“It’s not every day you get to shop inside of a school bus, so I want it to be memorable,” he said.
For its grand opening, Backtrack Vintage will be stationed in the back parking lot of Vintage Threads and Grails for the store’s recurring Pacific Beach Vintage Bazaar, which features various vintage vendors and food options.
After that, the mobile boutique will make its way around the local vintage clothing circuit, including a Creative Collective event in San Marcos on May 4, and Kobey’s Vintage and Sneakers Swap Meet in Point Loma on June 1. Brown plans to keep the vehicle moving around the county and shows no signs of slowing down.
So if you’re looking for a blast from the past, a trip to this ‘90s school bus might be in store. For a sneak peek at items lining the racks before its official opening, stalk the shop’s Instagram at @backtrack.sd.
P.B. Vintage Bazaar
When: Noon-5 p.m. on April 28
Where: Vintage Bazaar at Vintage Threads and Grails (1031 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach)