A couple of weeks ago, guest writer Luke Frazier offered a meditation on the positive signs he found around town. Literally positive signs. The signs said so: This is a Positive Sign. The mystery surrounded the origin and the purpose of the signs. Who would do such a thing and why?
Several readers sent messages or left comments suggesting the culprit might just be Elle Erickson of the Booth Fairy Project. I reached out to Elle who acknowledged being the positive force behind the signs and agreed to an interview.
Elle grew up in the small town of Charlotte Michigan. Her mother worked as a journalist, though she performed as a part-time clown, serving as a role model for Elle of an adult not taking themselves too seriously. Her father was a fifth-grade teacher and the two of them encouraged her to be “creative and expressive.” They and others also modeled volunteerism as a value that Elle has carried forward.
She described herself as not a serious student and somewhat of a class clown saying, “I liked to make people laugh.” After graduation, she lived with friends in Michigan for a while before moving to Charlotte, North Carolina in the late 1990s on the invitation of a friend, even though she’d never visited the city.
Along the way she tried dog walking, the service industry, and sales. She knew she “didn’t want to be in any kind of corporate environment. She said the range of jobs “forced me to think about what I was meant to do on this planet.” She said Charlotte was good to her. She found her future husband there and got married and, to the point of our story, discovered pop-up shops.
The first one she saw was at someone’s home and was very straightforward: They had some clothes and other things for sale, nothing more. She said, “I’d always been very good at thrifting . . . and finding treasures.” She liked the idea and did one of her own, adding her own brand of fun, in 2010, and it was wildly successful. She started doing a pop-up each month, taking over random spots for a long weekend in a range of regional cities from Charleston to Atlanta, and even Knoxville.
“More than just shopping, I created an atmosphere for people to let loose, a playful atmosphere while I’m being silly.” She offered discounts for such things as dancing to the music she played or for complimenting a stranger. She began inviting local artists to join, with everything from massage to body-painting, to local artists offering their work for sale for the first time. She also loved inspiring people to shop second-hand, which is better for the environment. She loved engaging people in a fun way. “I have this performance artist energy and creativity that didn’t have an outlet.
She began attending festivals and at Burning Man someone constructed a booth (think Lucy in Peanuts) and she loved the idea of an advice booth. A booth would allow bad jokes, silly advice, and the opportunity to engage others. It ignited something in her. “I’ve always been a passionate person and an extrovert. I want to inspire people, to live a better life and become healthier.
“It was them coming up to me, instead of me chasing them. Everything changed. I left my marriage of ten years. It woke me up. I came home and had to move forward. It was enough for me. Life is short and everything accelerated.” She left behind a comfortable life, moved to Asheville on a leap of faith, with no savings, and had a friend build a booth that broke into five parts and would fit in her Toyota.
As she offered the booth on sidewalks, inside bars, and at festivals, the concept grew and evolved. It’s free, though after about seven years of doing it for fun, she began to accept tips. A patron might ask for a thumb war, a staring contest, gluten-free hugs, or something more serious like asking, “How can I stop smoking.” She began decorating the booth with signs, became the Booth Fairy, and now prominently displays the sign “Shi#ty Advice: $1.”
She said they sometimes approach tentatively, do something goofy or fun, and then things often turn serious. “I’m not a professional counselor, but I can be there for people, create space for connections, give them a chance to get something off their chest, and sometimes they cry. People just want to be heard.” She offers resources – like the names of local psychologists, books and Ted talks that have inspired her. “Every time someone comes up it’s different. It’s like improv. People need a chance to play and tap into their inner child. Hopefully it inspires them to live a less inhibited life.”
While she began taking tips after being asked for years to do so, she said, “the payoff is the joy of giving to my community. I would pay money to do it, it is so much fun. Having that connection with people brought me so much purpose. I feel I’m doing exactly what I was put here to do.”
Searching for other ways to “spread more good vibes,” and expand her work, she came up with the idea of a Bliss Mob. She said it’s kind of like a protest, but with a positive twist. She brings the signs, bubbles, and a bull horn, gathers a small group, and they hold the signs on a sidewalk or parade about. The signs might say “Free Hugs,” “Free Compliments, “Take a Deep Breath,” and so on. She said the purpose is nothing more than to encourage people who are passing by. I’ve included a photo of one of her Bliss Mobs that I stumbled upon in 2016.
She said the impact was wonderful. “People may look at us a little weird, but maybe it reminds people that everything will be ok.” She’s had people double park their cars to run over and get a hug. She’s replicated the Bliss Mod in a number of cities, and she’s seen others pick up on the idea. She said she’d love for it to be a regular feature in cities everywhere, noting that she believes the ripple effect is that the people who see it pass some kindness along to others.
She does a similar thing in nursing homes where she said she’d always volunteered. She now takes a group, along with an accordion, a gong, stickers, and glitter and loves watching life spring into their eyes. She said the staff often begins to dance along. They also take time to stop, hold hands, listen, and offer eye contact.
Another expansion is into trash clean-ups. She organizes a group to do the work with the hope that the “magic” of volunteering will inspire them to continue. As you might expect, the trash pick-up isn’t a drab, ordinary affair: She brings the music and the tutus. They dance, they preen, they clean. She considers it “making friends in the sunshine while helping the planet at the same time.
Positive Signs Spotted Around Town, Knoxville, July 2023 (Photo by Luke Frazier)And about those signs?
She said they “grew as I grew. I’ve always made those signs to decorate the booth. During COVID, hugs didn’t go well. We offered ‘gluten free air hugs’ outside stores,” using her megaphone. She had an artist friend who made stencils for her signs so she could replicate them on plywood. She included “Take a Deep” breath, which she said makes people subconsciously take a deep breath when they read it (did you just take one?). They included, “You’re Doing Great,” and “You are Loved.” She said it was phrases people needed to hear during that difficult time.
She made dozens, grabbed hammer, nails, and ladder, and placed them all over Asheville. She got great feedback from people who said it made them feel calm or comforted. She took them to other cities like Atlanta and those we saw in Knoxville. She even took some to Austin on a trip. She heard great stories about people struggling with a decision and when they saw her signs, they took it as a sign of what to do.
Strongly inspired, she established a crowdsourcing campaign through which she purchased two billboards in Asheville. saying “Take a Deep Breath.” She said, “At that time, everyone needed a reminder.” She heard from many, including nurses and firemen that they would see the signs and it calmed them on their way to work. Others still tell her that they “see” those signs when they pass the billboards that have long since turned to other topics. She’s now got a mural in the works in Asheville with the same words in hopes of making a more permanent reminder.
“If I had a million dollars, every city in the US would have a “Take a Deep Breath” billboard.” She’s now got bumper stickers, “which is great because people will take a deep breath” in traffic. She’s getting them in different languages and thinks they will be important as our coming political season heats up. She’s also added neon signs.
She said COVID inspired her because she couldn’t do what she’d been doing, all of which resulted in the signs. Of Knoxville, she said it’s always held a special place in her heart, and she loves coming here. So maybe we’ll see more signs or get a chance for more hugs. Whether you see an offer of free hugs or a refreshed (she said those looked worn) Positive Sign, think of Elle and of a person who just wants to make things a little better.
For now, she’s focusing on her Popup in Asheville and not carrying that around. She has a permanent spot at 81 Broadway Street and she’s there a long weekend each month. Her next scheduled popups are September 28 – 30, and October 27 – 29. She still travels with the booth and the bliss mobs and she’s sent her stencils to ten different cities trying to get that to spread. She’s also doing events for hire. Of all of her work, she said “It’s goofy and silly, and there’s inspiration and depth to what I’m doing.”
If you’d like to follow along to see what comes next for Elle and the Booth Fairy Project, you can dial in on the Booth Fairy website, on Instagram, or on Facebook. You can go to the webpage to donate to support her work or go directly to her donation page a one-time donation or support her for a tiny amount each month.