Jimmy Grey started building houses with his father as soon as his hands could properly hold the tools. He completed his first electrical wiring job at 13.
When Grey’s father died four years ago, he decided it was time to do some soul searching. “I was just trying to figure myself out after that, after my rock left my life,” he says.
Grey quit his job in sales to travel in Thailand and Bali. After returning to Santa Cruz, he purchased his first van, a 2014 ProMaster, and set off to explore the country with partner Bez Stone and her two children.
Now, the 37-year-old craftsman is combining his flair for construction with a passion for adventure in the grand opening of a full-service van-conversion business, Levity Vans. Considering operations have been underway for about a year now, the grand opening on Saturday, July 19, was really more of a coming out party. “It feels like a declaration. It’s us saying, ‘We’re here, we’re ready, and we know what we’re doing,” says Stone, who is a partner in the business.
The 17th Avenue shop specializes in upgrading ProMaster, Transit and Sprinter cargo vans into full-fledged adventure vehicles complete with tailored kitchens, rooftops decks, customized windows and whatever else customers need to feel at home on the road. “Lots of companies make cookie-cutter RV-type vans, which are great, but I like Jimmy’s style because he really gets to know who people are and what they want, so they can have things like that special little perch for their cat, which more people have wanted than you might suspect,” Stone says.
The social media-fueled #vanlife trend has romanticized the urge to hit the road in recent years, but Levity’s grand opening comes as Outwesty, a company that rents tricked-out, modernized Westfalias to customers for their California vacations, is closing up shop in Santa Cruz.
Outwesty is returning to Lake Tahoe after a two-year stint on the Central Coast. Owner Dave Phelps says that Santa Cruz “is one of the most expensive places in the world to live, and you’ve gotta pay your employees a lot to make it work. I don’t think anyone could say it’s an easy place to do business.”
Because Outwesty also assists customers with the booking and planning of their trips, the travel agent side of the business was always a challenge in Santa Cruz’s over-saturated tourist scene. “It’s a little bit over-populated in these regions,” says Phelps. “If you don’t book a campsite far enough in advance, it’s very hard to do a last-minute camping trip to Big Sur in June, July, August. That’s one major issue we ran into.”
For Grey, whose full-scale adventure conversions can run between $30,000-55,000, the high cost of living comes with benefits from a business perspective: the wealth in the area makes it easier for customers to meet his price point. For those not looking to shell out so much cash, however, Grey offers priced-per-job window installations, electrical wiring and other specified services.
“The DIYer aspect is a customer base that we’re really passionate about,” says Stone. “If somebody was on a budget, I wouldn’t want to dissuade them. Instead, let’s get creative. Come here, and we’ll do the few things that you can’t do alone, or that aren’t safe for you to do alone.”
Customers at Levity range from corporate executives looking to downsize to retirees on the hunt for adventure. “There’s such a broad spectrum. It’s not just hippies who want to drop out of society,” says Stone. “It’s people who want the freedom to go away from their life and take a break, whether it’s for a year or a month or a day.”
While van life represents an exciting break from normalcy for some, Grey knows that life on wheels can be a grimmer experience for many in Santa Cruz. An estimated 30% of Santa Cruz’s homeless residents were living in their cars in 2017, according to the county’s most recent Homeless Census and Survey. The right to park has long been a contentious topic in the county.
The cities of Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville all have laws that ban camping in public places, although recent court rulings have taken some of the teeth out of those sleeping bans. Efforts this year from Santa Cruz city councilmembers like Drew Glover to expand car camping and create new areas to park legally faced resistance and criticism that Glover hadn’t done enough public outreach. The right-to-park movement has gained attention at UCSC and around the state as students fight for their right to sleep in vehicles on campus. At California community colleges, 19% of students experienced homelessness in the past year, according to a recent study conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.
Grey believes van dwellers should have a safe space to go. He says everyone should have the right to park and sleep in their vehicles, regardless of their circumstances.
“I personally think this is a really great opportunity for us to set up some communities and safe places for people to park their vans,” he says, “whether they’re transients or permanent locals.”
For Grey, who has never run a business before, Levity’s opening represents a leap of faith. “There was that one cliff-jumping moment when Jimmy quit his job … then, there was that moment of, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” says Stone. “We ordered some signs, made the website and just said we’re going to go for it. I think it takes a lot of bravery for somebody like Jimmy to quit his day job and just go for it.”
Levity Vans, 1010 17th Ave, Santa Cruz. 531-4151, levityvans.com.