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Design Talk by MV no. 11 - How Knowing and Loving my Neighbors-in-Commerce Set Me Up for Survival as a Brick and Mortar Retailer

A while back, I talked about retail neighborliness through the lens of the aesthetics of hospitality. This week I’m talking retail neighborliness on a whole different level. From “bench nights” to stoop sales to space shares, the evolution of cooperation and partnership with neighbors has ultimately set a precedent for what I believe to be the solution to keeping independent and creator-run businesses at the top.

SoHo has my heart. 

I’ve been in the neighborhood a long time, both living and working. When I think about the neighborhood, I imagine it as a character in and of itself. It’s comprised of its citizens and of its visitors, its newness and its tradition. My shop has moved down Crosby Street over the years, and with each location has come new traditions of companionship with my neighbors and neighborhood. I’ve always valued my relationship with it.

Back in the day on Crosby, Tyler Hays opened up BDDW around the same time I opened up my shop. There was an immediate kinship there, both of us designers and businesspeople. While still at my first location, I got a vintage park bench and stuck it out front. Organically, it became a congregation point. When the weather was particularly nice, we – the commercial residents nearby and I – would have “bench night,” an impromptu little get together. We’d swap business stories, catch up on each other’s lives, and nurse cold beers held inside my shop’s little jewelry muslin bags as proxy cozies. Sometimes our older Italian neighbors from when Little Italy extended beyond its current boundaries would join in. We forged a wonderful support system. Together, we were celebrating our true, miniature ecosystem.

The entrance to my current storefront is elevated, with stairs and a ramp leading up to the doorway. When I moved in, I was sad about not being able to put my bench outside, but with this new set-up, I just couldn’t. Refusing to get rid of it, I brought it indoors and it sat, just inside the shop, with a price tag on it: one million dollars. Lucky for me (or not!), there were no takers…

For a couple of years, with the Howard/Crosby intersection as its nexus, the neighborhood jointly participated in a stoop sale. The Smile across the street from me had a lemonade stand, we brought in food trucks, and the participating retailers either had little sales within their storefronts or, like I did, had their clothes and wares spread out outdoors for people to shop. The true colors of the neighborhood were out! It was such a vibrant, bustling community event, and again spoke to the cooperation we’d forged amongst each other.  

A few years after I moved into the current store, retailers around me started closing. They had integrity, loyal followings, and beautiful product, but were being forced out by exorbitant rent increases. As I’ve mentioned before, I reached out to a dear friend, Jessica Fish of the then-recently closed Erica Tanov shop, and asked her if she wanted to join forces. I invited her to set up a shop-in-shop for her new concept line, Birdie and the Boy. This joint retail space worked out great. It was a new way of partnership, directly anticipated by the analog sociality of the business owners in the SoHo neighborhood. And it set a precedent for me, as a storeowner.

Like Jessica had, another friend soon came in to takeover my basement level with their jewelry shop, hosting workshops and activating her brand out of the unique space downstairs. Then Poonam Khanna, Principal at The Union Works, curated her favorite clothes and designers, like Jim Zivic and other incredibles. From there I hosted American Design Club, which brought in its brands and fully made the space its own. These short-term partnerships proved incredibly effective. They activated my space in complementary ways, feeding the overall customer experience; they gave brands the space and built-in foot traffic to get creative with their own retailing, and they offered a support system within the scope of common commercial and aesthetic objectives.

Eventually, I brought my own endeavor into that space with Detroit Built, carrying Detroit-based makers and designers into their first NYC retail spaces. Buyers from West Elm visited, and the New York Times wrote it up. That project perfectly exemplified the benefits of sharing commercial space. I extended the idea to my mezzanine level – which lifestyle brand Maison Mae occupied for two years – and under the skylight in the back of the store, in which jewelry brand Melissa Joy Manning, after losing her own SoHo shop, has gorgeously set up camp.

The success of these space-shares, akin to the work-share idea that companies like WeWork and The Yard have made popular, is witnessed and felt by both my retail guests and by me. We’re reciprocally enjoying increased foot traffic, and we’re each alleviated of costs: theirs, the enormous overhead incurred if they were to have their own stand-alone shop (including a lengthy lease commitment, versus a short-term market “test” by sharing my space); and mine, a reliable contribution to my own monthly overhead.

My love for my neighborhood is expressed in these partnerships, and communality is maintained within them. They’re also the precedent to a much larger, formal trend, by necessity and curatorial practicality: retail sharing. Along with relevant programming, curatorial integrity, and sustained relationships with our neighborhoods, this is one of the solutions to owning a brand or business challenged by the Internet age. I live and breathe its success, and it has allowed me not only to adapt my business model for continued sustainability, but it’s enabled newcomers, smaller brands, and established independent businesses alike to hold their own – and shine doing it – within a crowded commercial marketplace.

Till next week,

As told to Emily R. Pellerin

ps. 

I’m thinking about expanding! Where should the next Michele Varian be? Tell me about your city or neighborhood… Austin? Toronto? San Fran? Brooklyn? Should I be there?!

 

 

Comments

Linda Nash:

Hello,

Great idea to help share shop expenses and sounds like a win win for everyone. Under this concept, does one come in to manage their own shop? Similar, to space booth/space rental in antique shops, this sounds more hands on.

Enjoyed this article.

Thank you,
Linda Nash

Jan 20, 2018

Emily:

I vote go Austin next!!! That city would love Michele Varian! It’s a beautiful bastion of cool that’s also doing commercially innovative things along the lines of retail sharing. ;)

Nov 29, 2017

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