words and photos by Abbey Marshall
Squeezed onto the devil strip between his Goodyear Heights home and the street lies a flourishing jungle of wide-brimmed leaves of fiddle leaf figs, playful hues of wildflower petals, and delicate beads of strings of pearls.
The wooden stand, adorned with the newly licensed name “Lepley and Co.,” boasts dozens of plants lined neatly in their terracotta pots as the tentacles of tall majesty palms and mass canes wrap around the “for sale” sign instructing patrons on details of the pop-up shop at 517 Watson St.
This is quite the operation for Justin Lepley, a recent graduate of Case Western Law School, who originally just intended to share excess mint from his garden with his neighbors. But as his supply quickly sold, he started harvesting clippings from his houseplants and selling those.
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Pretty soon, cars were dotting the edges of Watson Street, eager to see what Justin had in stock next.
“Originally, it was just to have fun and share plants with people,” says the 25-year-old. “It’s turned into an actual business now, which is very exciting.”
At first, Justin would consider netting $300 a week as a success, but after only a month and a half, he says he’s making about $4,000 a week. With the profits, the supply has grown exponentially.
“Every dollar I make, I put right back into inventory and supply new, exciting and rare plants,” he says.
In addition to plants from his own garden and house plant clippings, he’s teamed up with local entrepreneurs and gardeners. He enlisted friends who grow cactuses and lavender and started a partnership buying wholesale from the Cleveland-based Nodding Onion Gardens, which typically sells plants at farmers’ markets that are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have been looking for someone to represent Nodding Onion Gardens for 10 years,” says Nodding Onion Gardens owner Beth Coyne. “So when Justin contacted me about selling our plants wholesale, I didn’t hesitate to say yes as I know it is a perfect fit.”
Justin says he loves interacting with the community through his plant sales, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when public health officials are encouraging Ohioans to stay home and socially distant.
“Plants are just such a great thing that build community,” he says. “When a new leaf unfurls, you want to tell people about that. Especially during quarantine when people can’t get out as much, they’re more in their space, and being able to make it more cozy and have something living they’re attached to is powerful.”
“I love that it’s a treasure hunt to go looking for the stand on the side of the road, but also with all these rare plants,” says Kait Murray, a West Akron resident. “I have about 70 houseplants at home right now, so sometimes it can be hard finding something new, but there’s so many options here.”
Justin mentions that contactless purchasing is appealing to those who want to buy plants, but don’t want to go into a potentially crowded box store. The sign out front his house details how patrons can pay via Venmo or exact cash in the mailbox.
With a set-up like that, Justin relies on the honor system of his neighbors, which, for the most part, has worked. Justin only faced one incident of theft, when two women in a pick-up truck lifted $400 to $500 worth of inventory overnight before a neighbor scared them off.
“Even with that mild setback of people stealing some things, that little bit of bad has been far outweighed by the awesome people in our community that have been excited by supporting me trying something new,” he says, citing an outpouring of “unsolicited,” yet “very kind” donations from those in neighborhood Facebook groups.
Eager to expand, Justin has set up a similar pop-up shop on his parent’s 17-acre farm in Homerville. The reception for his second location was quite good, he says, for those who don’t live in Akron or spot the stand from the road.
But he doesn’t plan on stopping with stands on sides of the roads. Justin is working to secure a more permanent space in the Northside Marketplace, which would be a one-year contract. He plans to move in at the end of July, and though it is a quick turnaround, Justin says he is excited.
“It’s really funny how life works out sometimes,” he says. “I should be studying for the bar exam, but now I spend all my time playing with plants. I’m just so grateful to the community here in Akron for supporting me in my new venture.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.