We interviewed Judi Henderson-Townsend, the owner of Mannequin Madness, for our story on senior entrepreneurs, airing on the Monday broadcast of PBS NewsHour. Surrounded by “stiffs” in an Oakland, Calif., warehouse, Henderson-Townsend told us how she got into the business and described the surprising reasons customers come to her for mannequins.
Paul Solman: What inspired this business?
Judi Henderson-Townsend: I am an accidental entrepreneur so nothing really inspired it. I was looking for a mannequin one day for an art project, I wanted to put it in my garden, and I was surfing on craigslist and saw a guy was selling what I thought was one mannequin.
It turned out he had fifty mannequins to sell and I was kind of amazed by all these mannequins. He just casually mentioned that he had a mannequin rental business and now that he’s leaving the state there won’t be a place to rent a mannequin in the Bay Area.
Paul Solman: And an entrepreneurial light went off in your head?
Judi Henderson-Townsend: It was an “aha” moment. I thought, “The Bay Area is such a creative community.” I figured there should be as least one place to rent a mannequin.
Now, I never planned for it to be a full-time venture for me. It was just going to be a part-time hobby.
Paul Solman: So, who are your customers?
Judi Henderson-Townsend: My customers run the whole gamut. I have seen every age, every ethnic group, every sexual orientation, every income group in here, because people aren’t just buying mannequins for a retail store.
They may be selling something online, say on eBay or etsy. They might be doing an art project, going to Burning Man, they may be doing a video shoot. Sometimes they’re going to a craft show.
Many times we had people who were doing a trade show or they’re having a party and they want to put their mother’s or their grandmother’s gown on display at the party. There’s no limit for the imagination that people come up with to use a mannequin.
Paul Solman: Burning Man?
Judi Henderson-Townsend: Burning Man is this big art installation that takes place in Nevada, I think in the fall. People have come here and bought the oddest things to make art projects. Some guy bought fifty legs that he was just going to do something with. People make furniture with mannequin parts. Mannequin hands are very popular items. I have a board on Pinterest that just has mannequin art.
Paul Solman: So you must be a major supplier to the mannequin artists?
Judi Henderson-Townsend: A lot of artists come here and they go through our boneyard. Our boneyard is where we have things that really aren’t in intact condition, but they’re still creative for art projects. Say you want to mosaic a mannequin or something like that, you don’t need something that’s in perfect condition. You want something that just has the human shape. You’re going to put something in your garden like what I was planning to do or sometimes people just want to have a torso sticking up out of something, like a Halloween display.
Paul Solman: What about your most memorable customer?
Judi Henderson-Townsend: My most memorable customer was a photographer who hired a nude model to pose among the mannequins here. So it’s like nude on nude and she also was heavily tattooed. We had to have a closed set that day.
This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions