Your mom always said not to point at people or stare — it’s impolite. But pointing, staring and better yet, talking, are exactly the reaction Niles Graber Miller is hoping to get when he drives around town in his billboard on wheels.
"That’s the point," he said of the neck swivels he receives as he drives his 1970 Volkswagen van painted with advertisements for several downtown businesses.
The 2010 Bethany grad and current Goshen College student, thought of the van idea while living with his family in Cambodia last winter. He was inspired in part by friends Rich and Brenda Hostetler Meyer’s peace-slogan-filled "hippy van," which he occasionally borrowed for excursions around town during his junior and senior years.
"That one always got looks, so I thought I could apply that to something else," Graber Miller said.
He combined his appreciation of downtown businesses with his enthusiasm for entrepreneurship to come up with the idea.
"It feels good to be helping downtown businesses with advertising," he said. "With Elkhart County’s depressed economy, I thought it would be fun to encourage people to shop locally with this moving billboard. Since I was 16 I’ve worked for downtown Goshen stores, and I’ve always been a fan of supporting locally owned businesses."
Graber Miller started out working for former shoe store Shoo-be-Do and has since worked at Maple City Market and at his parents business, Graber Designs Gallery.
During the winter and spring Niles’ parents, Keith and Ann Graber Miller, were leading Goshen College’s international education program in Phnom Penh. From his temporary home in Cambodia, Niles began searching on various Web auction sites for vintage vans.
In late March Niles located the perfect van through craigslist.com and purchased it from the owner the week before his family returned to Goshen in early April. Within 24 hours after he landed in Indiana, Graber Miller went to pick up the van in Cincinnati.
The high school senior spent most of April and May refurbishing the van exterior and interior — scraping off rust and restoring minor exterior holes; repainting the interior; and putting a base coat of white on the van in preparation for selling ads.
Summer was busy with juggling his three jobs — working in the office at New Horizons Aviation at the Goshen Municipal Airport; working at the Kendallville Airport 50 minutes east of Goshen; and continuing his long-time employment at Maple City Market in downtown Goshen.
By late July Graber Miller was ready to secure advertisers for the van. The first ad, on the driver’s side door, came from Graber Designs Gallery, the international art and antiques gallery his parents own in downtown Goshen. The gallery, 208 S. Main Street, also includes art by his mother (a professional watercolorist and interior designer), and by his grandmother, three aunts, and a cousin. The artists use a projector to highlight the designs on the van before painting.
Graber Miller worked with his mom to paint the Graber Designs Gallery ad, then posted a two-week ad on the Redpost advertising venue in downtown Goshen. Within 24 hours of seeking advertisers, he had commitments for most of the van’s panels.
Thus far he and his mom, with some assistance from his artistic cousin Emma Gerig, have completed ads for Ten Thousand Villages, The Electric Brew, Constant Spring, Accents Framing and Gifts, and The County Seat, and in process are additional ads for Better World Books and Spacious Heart Yoga. Three other downtown Goshen businesses will give him the final word on their ads next week, which will leave him with only about three slivers of space.
"The two corner spaces are open and the strip along the roofing," Graber Miller said.
All first-time advertisers have purchased their space for a full year, with right-of-first-refusal in subsequent years. A large ad, like that of County Seat on the side panel, costs $200 for the painting and $400 for the year.
Graber Miller said if the first venture is a success, he may ad another van next year.
Graber Miller and his family will drive the van around Elkhart County as they shop and run errands, and when not in motion it will be parked on the Goshen College campus. The van also will be present at all of Goshen’s First Friday events.
"I’ll always have summer jobs, too," said Graber Miller, "but I thought this was a good way to earn additional income while promoting something I believe in."
Graber Miller, who received his driver’s license and his pilot’s license during the same month just after turning 17, plans to major in business at Goshen College, with a second interdisciplinary major in international studies, history, and graphic design.
As for future plans, creative business ventures are on Graber Miller’s radar.
"It will be entrepreneurship all the way," he said. "I really enjoy this kind of project."