Inside Burning Man’s Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet

Amid the assortment of eccentric theme camps dotting Black Rock City, the temporary metropolis in the Nevada desert where Burning Man takes place, one sticks out like a fur jacket at a nudist resort. The instantly familiar red and blue Costco sign is jarring at a festival that lists decommodification among its 10 principles, but closer inspection of the sign reveals an intriguing subheading. Soulmate Trading Outlet.

“Costco is not an af—king dating service,” reads a sign in the entrance tent, where a handful of staff (camp volunteers) in red Costco polo shirts greet a stream of visitors. “If you can’t get laid without Costco, you won’t get laid with us.” I’m not discouraged (unlike many, I’m not feeling particularly libidinous while coated in days-thick layers of dust and sweat), but it’s good to see the camp’s intentions laid bare. Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet is about facilitating meaningful connections with strangers, not about hookups or romance. Both are possible, of course, but that’s not the objective here.

The camp was started in 1998 by a wry 40-something known on the “playa” (as Black Rock City is affectionately referred to) as Rico Thunder, along with his roommate Sean (playa name Lazahred), making it one of the longest- running theme camps. Thunder, based in Santa Cruz, had been attending the festival for a few years before and recalls that he and Lazahred were feeling shy and wanting to connect with people.

“Sure, you can set up a little bar and people might stop by and say hi, but we thought, well, if we’re feeling shy, maybe that’s true of other people,” Thunder said.

Rico Thunder, the founder of Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet, at Burning Man 2019.

Rico Thunder, the founder of Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet, at Burning Man 2019.

Courtesy of Espressobuzz

Rico Thunder was on the money. When it debuted on the playa in 1999, the camp was run by four members, but it has grown to a staff of 45 who served “well over a thousand” return customers and curious newcomers this year. The matchmaking process has been thoughtfully tweaked over the past 23 years.

Upon entering the waiting area at CSTO, customers are given a double-sided membership profile survey to fill out with questions about what they are most proud of, what habit they are trying to break, the last time they cried, etc. They’re also asked to plot themselves on a range of spectrums such as queer/straight, introvert/extrovert and kinky/vanilla. After submitting the form, they wait to meet with a staff member who conducts a more personalized assessment, gently interrogating their responses for about 10 minutes. They can grab a drink at the camp bar while waiting, typically for an hour or so, and chat with other customers (shout-out to smiley, bandana-wearing Stevie, recently out of a 10-year relationship and clearly hoping to meet his next partner).

After the follow-up interviews with staff members, customers are given a business card with a member code on it and told to return the following day to receive their matches. This gives CSTO time to process the information on the pencil-and-paper questionnaire, a cryptic procedure allegedly involving algorithms (“It was originally coded into the mainframe that is beamed off playa to the supercomputer to run at a server farm here in Santa Cruz , California,” Thunder said in a deadpan tone.)

A view outside of the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet at Burning Man 2019.

A view outside of the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet at Burning Man 2019.

Courtesy of Espressobuzz

Along side Thunder, a number of staff have been volunteering at CSTO for 20 years or more. “The camp has a certain institutional memory,” Thunder said. “We have it set up in a comically hierarchical way, it’s kind of a parody of corporate life.” Rather than ascending to governing positions, camp elders such as Rico Thunder typically move onto peripheral roles after years of service. “You’re talking to someone who’s just a schmo at this point,” Thunder said. “I’m not managing any particular thing, I’m the guy who sits around and says, ‘Well in my day, this is how we used to do it.'”

In the earliest years of CSTO, they allegedly received a cease and desist from lawyers working for the actual Costco retail chain, but “they sent someone to the event who reported that what we were doing was awesome and so [they] gave their reluctant tacit approval,” Thunder said. “Plus, we gather that Costco Wholesale doesn’t suck as bad as many retailers. Full health care for part-time employees? That’s not sucking.”

After jokingly referring me to the HR department when asked about the hiring process, Thunder said a genuine desire to get to know and listen to others is crucial. “We’re not a bunch of extroverts, ironically. “Sometimes introverts throw ourselves into a role because it gives us cover,” he said. “People who are drawn to Costco are like, ‘Wow, you guys are doing really hard, really serious work and I want to be a part of that.'”

Duckie, an employee of the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet who was recently promoted to store manager.

Duckie, an employee of the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet who was recently promoted to store manager.

Courtesy of Espressobuzz

“Duckie” has been an employee of CSTO for four years running; this year he was made store manager. “I’ve seen a lot of the heartfelt connection that happens there,” he said. “And the importance that it has for people and the power that it has — there are numerous times where I’ve heard about it changing people’s lives permanently.”

He talks about one year where the soulmate process inadvertently connected an ex-husband and wife, neither of whom knew their former spouse would be at Burning Man. They ended up getting back together.

Another customer saw Duckie wearing his Costco polo shirt in San Francisco and told him about how her soulmate was a jerk, but that she’d become best friends with her match’s girlfriend, whom she’d also met on the playa. The girlfriend ditched the jerk, and the two women relocated from Boston to San Francisco and moved in together.

“We hear on occasion that people got married to their soulmate and now have three kids or whatever,” Thunder said. “We don’t know if there are a dozen of them over the years or whether it’s the same person coming back to tell us that.”

Like everyone else who undergoes the matchmaking process, I end up with two soulmates. one person whose questionnaire and camp coordinates I am given so I can go and find them, and another who is given mine.


An “employee” of the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet at Burning Man 2019.

Courtesy of Espressobuzz

My first match is “Toast”, who works for CSTO. I approach a woman in a Costco uniform and ask if she’s seen my soulmate. “I have,” she said with a laugh. “Toast is my husband.” I made it clear on my questionnaire that I’m not necessarily looking for a romantic relationship, so I’m surprised to have been connected with a married monogamist. Toast’s wife sends him my way for a chat, and I can immediately see why we’ve been matched. He’s sweet, sensitive, introverted and unfazed when I suddenly start crying and confess to feeling lost (it’s around day five of the festival and at this point I mean it literally and figuratively).

My other match is a Lithuanian guy called Marius, who calls by my camp twice while I’m out before I go and find him on my last day. He is not quite soulmate material, but he is nice enough. An introvert who came to Burning Man alone, he was hoping to make connections at CSTO. After a brief chat, I gave him my social media details and said goodbye (Marius returned to my camp looking for me later that day, I’m told, but I haven’t heard from him since).

I might not have met my soulmate, but if I ever end up back at Burning Man, I’ll definitely be returning to CSTO. This Costco is the kind of place where you can walk out with a whole lot more than you bargained for.

Annabelle Ross is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian, The Age/The Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Beast and Resident Advisor. She won The Drum award for Best Investigative Journalism in 2021 for her work on sexual assault in dance music for Mixmag.

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