City Bus Driver Runs Mobile Fashion Boutique Out of 125th Street Truck
HARLEM — The truck that Nneka Green-Ingram uses to house her mobile boutique, Celebrities, was once used to deliver Cheetos.
The metal shelves that held bags of Frito-Lay chips are gone, sold for scrap and used to finance $3,000 worth of renovations to the truck.
Now, there are giant eyelashes around the headlights and visitors to the truck looking for items — say, the glasses they saw on "Real Housewives of Atlanta" — might find them on the glossy red Ikea shelves that hold rows of glittering costume jewelry.
"Location is everything," said Green-Ingram, 36, a city bus driver who drives the truck herself and parks it on 125th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard Thursdays through Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The location is a prime spot to find customers. According to the 125th Street Business Improvement District, nearly 136,000 people visited West 125th Street at Frederick Douglass Boulevard during the first week of February, a 2.4 percent increase over last year at this time. So far this year, the street has seen more than 734,000 visitors.
When she's not on 125th Street, Green-Ingram, who lives in The Bronx, scouts exclusive merchandise she keeps tabs on by watching reality television or reading fashion magazines. She takes the motto for her boutique seriously: "Where everyone is treated like a star."
If someone comes in, for example, and describes a piece they are looking for, she'll find it or put in a special order. That's what she did for a woman who wanted her name on a charm bracelet.
"I love to see a woman look and feel good," Green-Ingram said one busy afternoon. "That makes me feel good."
Customers who stepped into the truck were greeted by Green-Ingram, who was wearing crystal coated, cat-shaped glasses, giant hoop earrings, and fingernails painted a bright turquoise and studded with glitter.
"I love anything with bling," she added.
Even the calculator she uses to add up customer purchases is lined with onyx bling.
Her customers like bling, too. Green-Ingram works with sales associate Carole Cummings, who stands outside the truck and lures mostly women inside.
Items range from a pair of gloves for $5 to a large metal necklace for $35. The boutique also sells some men's T-shirts and accessories. Green-Ingram said she keeps prices low to keep customers coming back. Mostly, she joked, she's selling herself to customers.
Cummings, while smiling at a woman walking down 125th Street who looked like she was in a hurry, admitted her job isn't that hard because of visitors' curiosity alone.
"They just seem to come in bunches," she said.
Judy Crosby, a clerical worker from The Bronx, passed by the truck one day last week and told Green-Ingram that she would come back with her daughter, Shanita Crosby, 20, a student.
"This is hot. This is hot," Shanita Crosby said when she arrived, her mouth slightly agape.
"Everything in here is trendy, it's in style," she added, as her mother handed Green-Ingram a $20 bill to pay for a headband.
Cecilia Damazio, 32, a registrar, came in with her friend Anthony Davis, 30, a security guard, because she was looking for some accessories to wear to a birthday party.
Green-Ingram asked what type of outfit Damazio was planning on wearing to the party and then advised her about which colors looked good against her caramel-colored skin.
"It's more intimate in here and so nice," Damazio said. "There's an opportunity to gel with the client versus being in a big store."
A shocked Davis added, "I didn't expect to see all of this in here."
Green-Ingram always knew she wanted a career in fashion but didn't think it would be on four wheels. She took a circuitous route to 125th Street.
After high school, Green-Ingram joined the U.S. Navy, where she swabbed the deck and cleaned bathrooms. She was honorably discharged nine months later after realizing the military was a bad fit for her.
For the past 13 years, the married mother of three has worked as an MTA bus driver while also pursuing her interest in fashion and cosmetology. Green-Ingram had a boutique off White Plains Road in The Bronx, but foot traffic was slow, forcing her to close the shop. She then began selling jewelry on 125th street a few years ago as a street vendor.
Now, she has protection from the cold and the heat.
"My audience is here," Green-Ingram said of Harlem.
On Nov. 16, 2011, an incident happened that pushed Green-Ingram to investigate the idea of selling jewelry full time.
She was driving an MTA bus on Webster Avenue in The Bronx when a passenger became angry and threatened her after she refused to let him board through the back door. She was scared for her life and ordered all passengers off the bus.
The man spit in her face and then left.
Fearful of returning to work, Green-Ingram remembered a woman she saw selling vintage clothes out of a truck during a trip to Los Angeles. She thought the concept could work in New York but wanted to make the experience a little classier.
She found a dealer in Pennsylvania selling used work trucks. Green-Ingram went out for a visit and saw the old Cheetos delivery truck on sale for $9,000.
She thought it was perfect because of its length and dipped into her pension fund to help purchase the vehicle.
A friend of her husband's is a carpenter and agreed to help install the shelves. Her husband laid the wood floors and the wood to cover the metal walls. The only remnants of the truck's old life are the outlines of a Cheetos sticker on the back door and another sticker near the driver's compartment that told deliverers where to call if they broke down.
Ever tough, Green-Ingram can change a tire and jump-start a generator in one minute — and seamlessly become a fashion diva the next. She drove the truck to 125th Street for the first time in November. There's a little dressing room, mirrors, and Green-Ingram uses a small generator to keep the lights on and the music pumping.
She is currently on a sabbatical from the MTA while she decides whether she wants to go back. She wants to open a mobile salon that would style women's hair and also hopes to become a costume jewelry wholesaler.
"I would love to become a household name," Green-Ingram said, "so I can be an inspiration to others that they can accomplish their goals."