Costco Camp Burning Man

Costco Camp Burning Man by Duncan Rawlinson - (CC BY-SA)

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In the middle of the Black Rock Desert, nestled between goggled partygoers and towering effigies, you can find the strangest Costco in the world. This unofficial Costco location — subtitled the Soulmate Trading Outlet — doesn’t deal in bulk dry goods or cheap hot dogs but connections and love, and you can find it at Burning Man (where else?).

For the uninitiated, Burning Man is a week-long party-cum-art festival in the Nevada desert that attracts everyone from Santa Cruz hippies to ultra-rich techies like Mark Zuckerberg. Costco: Soulmate Trading Outlet (CSTO) is one of the dozens of theme camps at the event that offer entertainment, art, and services to Burners (as festival attendees are known).

Gallery: 10 Types of People Who Shouldn't Set Foot in Costco

Meaningful Matchmaking

As its name suggests, CSTO is a matchmaking service, though its adherents insist it’s not about romantic love or casual sex. Instead, it’s about facilitating meaningful connections, as Annabel Ross explains in her recent SFGate piece.

Burners simply fill out a form that asks them questions about the last time they cried, their habits, their sexuality, and other personal tidbits. That’s followed by a 10-minute interview, after which Burners are handed a business card, which CSTO members can then use to find their matches the next day. And sometimes, it actually works.

After Burning Man 2022 came to a close this September, Redditors shared personal CSTO stories with the r/BurningMan community.

“I met my Costco Soulmate on the Playa before the big evening sandstorm. Great connection and she requested that we keep in touch,” one Redditor commented.

“Came with my partner the first year and when we returned to pick up our new soulmate I was matched up with him again,” another Burner wrote. “I wanted an upgrade, but I guess (the) warranty expired!”

The Soulmate Trading Outlet's Origins

CSTO has been "in business" since 1998, when Santa Cruz-based Burner Rico Thunder and his roommate had a hankering to meet new 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 told SFGate.

Since Thunder established his relationship-focused theme camp, it’s been a resounding success — both in terms of matchmaking and popularity. A position at CSTO is so coveted that the camp has required applications, and the staff has ballooned from four to 45.

Costco's Response

But Costco wasn’t happy about the theme camp’s branding — at least not at first. According to SFGate, CSTO allegedly received a cease and desist letter. However, that changed after a Costco representative actually visited Rico’s camp. They were so impressed that they “gave their reluctant tacit approval,” Thunder said in his interview with SFGate. (Cheapism reached out to Costco for comment and will update here if we hear back).

Even if Costco shuts CSTO in the future — and that seems unlikely given its staying power — the camp has already touched thousands of lives.

“We hear on occasion that people got married to their soulmate and now have three kids or whatever,” Thunder told the publication. “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.”

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