Local restaurateur Mark Estee see what’s in his “mystery bag” that he got from Junkee Clothing Exchange in Reno. Reno Gazette Journal
Jessica Schneider was getting ready to fly from New Orleans to Las Vegas.
She would sign a lease for her third Junkee location and hit a trade show to buy for the busy Burning Man season.
Then everything changed. Businesses closed overnight.
New Orleans, once bustling in the wake of Mardi Gras, became eerily quiet.
“I always think about Blockbuster and how they were on top of the world, locations everywhere,” she said of the now-closed video chain store. “I always said you have to change with the times. They didn’t and closed.”
But even Schneider could not have predicted the effect a pandemic would have on the world.
“Remember when we thought the road construction would kill Midtown?” she said. Now if only road construction was her biggest problem.
Once again, Schneider was looking at how to survive in a shattered economy.
She was back in familiar territory.
Junkee was born out of the recession
Making a good living as an interior designer at the start of the 2000s, Schneider started to see the signs of a slowing economy and the housing crisis before the recession of 2008 hit Nevada.
She put an ad on Craigslist to buy used clothing and started stockpiling it. She was banking that used clothing would survive a downturn in the economy.
She was right.
In 2008 she opened Junkee on South Virginia Street. Out-of-town travelers and locals flocked to her shop to gear up for Burning Man. Then they started coming in all the time. She dressed everyone from teens wanting retro ’90s T-shirts to couples attending 1920s parties.
In the process, she helped put Midtown Reno on the map, turning an old and empty restaurant supply store into a clothing boutique and antique mall.
It wasn’t easy. The early days were scary as she put everything into her business, enlisting friends to hang clothes in the days before she opened. There were days her bank account came close to having a negative balance.
But Schneider hustled to get her name out there, including by launching a TV show, her own magazine and promoting herself at every opportunity.
Schneider also trained her employees to read customers, to make them feel comfortable as they searched for something to wear to theme parties, beer crawls and ugly sweater parties — “We don’t just send you out with a costume in a bag.”
“It was that one-on-one attention that made Junkee successful,” said Schneider.
Her proudest moment came when she saved up enough to take the entire staff to Disneyland in 2016. In return, her employees, all 17 of them, are loyal. Many have gotten tattoos of black hangers, the logo of the Junkee brand.
When an employee talked about wanting to live in New Orleans, Schneider thought about how she could help make that happen.
Then she thought like a businesswoman.
If she could make Reno a dress-up costume town, branching out to New Orleans could be a natural fit.
The New Orleans store, opened in September 2019, by all accounts was a smashing success. She quickly started breaking even in the Big Easy.
Business was good and Schneider was ready to expand again, this time in Las Vegas.
New business launched overnight
“Then New Orleans just shut down,” Schneider said.
Before Schneider flew back Nevada, Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve was ordering the shutdown of all nonessential businesses. Days later, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak was ordering the same thing.
Now Schneider, who always told herself she had to be able to pivot on a dime, is doing that again.
In less than 24 hours, Schneider launched Junkee Mystery Bags. Like the national subscription plans for clothing, makeup and wine clubs, she’s handpicking items and selling them, sight unseen, to customers.
She’s just one of many business owners looking to survive amid a worldwide shutdown.
Friend and business owner Mark Estee is trying to do the same thing. He is selling food and make-your-own pizza kits from his once-bustling restaurant fronts including Liberty Food & Wine in downtown Reno
“I’m not making money, but I’m doing a little something to keep the people who work with me with money in their pockets,” Estee said.
He was one of the first people to buy one of Schneider’s mystery bags.
“If you know Jessica, you know she is going to really hand pick out stuff you’ll love,” said Estee.
And like Estee, Schneider is an advocate for her small business peers. When she was open, customers couldn’t leave the store without her shouting for them to try Two Chicks for breakfast, Sup for lunch or Chapel for a drink. All are neighbors and friends in Midtown, she said.
The working class is her charity, she says. She’s been known to leave waitresses $100 tips alongside a Junkee business card.
“They come in,” she said.
Her new business offshoot isn’t making a profit and maybe never will.
The first day she sold seven bags. The bags sell for $50, $75 or $100 and are filled with clothes and antique items hand-picked by Schneider. She asks buyers to give their size, favorite colors, music likes and to take a picture of their favorite outfit. From there she chooses items from her 15,000-square-foot shop.
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The bags, which can be ordered via Junkee’s social media accounts, are making enough to help pay employees.
She’s arranging pick up and drop off of the Mystery Bags and has even shipped to people out of town.
The day she shut down after the mandate from Sisolak, she had her employees privately fill out a questionnaire. She asked what their rent was and if they could make it without a salary.
With the money she has made from the sale of the mystery bags, she’s trying to pay employees.
The first few bags paid someone’s rent.
“She cried when I gave it to her,” Schneider said. “So that made me want to work even harder.”
The RGJ interviewed Jessica Schneider about starting Junkee Clothing Exchange in Reno 12 years ago before businesses were shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Reno Gazette Journal
Siobhan McAndrew tells stories about the people of Northern Nevada and covers education in Washoe County. Read her journalism right here. Consider supporting her work by subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal.
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