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Are Retail Stores the New Community Centers?

Why so many boutiques are serving up their wares with a side of coffee.

The cafe at Christopher David in Portland (Serena Trieu/Flickr)

There are more than a few ways of looking at Shinola.

On one hand, it’s the fount of a high-end hipster aesthetic: leather goods, watches, bikes. On a larger scale, it’s both a symbol of and a contributor to Detroit’s complicated revitalization.

But the company’s brick-and-mortar shops also nod to a growing urban retailing trend.

Let’s call it the rise of the multifunctional lifestyle store.

Take, for example, Shinola’s New York flagship, which opened in Tribeca in 2013. While it (of course) stocks Shinola-branded wares, it also plays host to a “newsstand”—a coffee- and book-selling venture independently run by the restaurant group The Smile. This collaborative model between the companies will be applied to the two new Shinola outposts slated to open this summer in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

It makes sense for the businesses to share a space—one for which Shinola foots the cost—says Bridget Russo, Shinola’s chief marketing officer, because the two companies attract a similar customer base that “appreciates quality products, good coffee, and an experience that goes beyond retail.”

It’s that last point to which boutique stores like Shinola are increasingly clinging in order to remain afloat in an evolving retail market.

“It’s obvious why we’re seeing this trend: threat,” says Barbara Kahn, director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School. “Why would I go into a store when I can just buy something online?”

The answer, Kahn says, lies in the community experience that only a physical place can provide.    

The Smile Newsstand in Shinola’s Tribeca store. (Nicholas Steever)

Bookstores have long been ahead of this idea. Barnes and Noble opened its first location with a Starbucks in 1993, and in Seattle, Third Place Books takes its name as an homage to sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s idea of a “third place”—public ground outside the home and workplace where “people can gather and interact while experiencing a sense of ease and belonging.”

Now, brands are feeling the need to offer something beyond just a strict retail transaction. Shinola is “built on collaboration and storytelling, so it made perfect sense for us to use our retail spaces as a place for the surrounding community to come together,” Russo says.

Certainly, Shinola’s community-building efforts also make good business sense: the longer someone lingers in a place, the more loyal they’ll feel to it, and the more likely they are to buy.  

Plus, the coffee shops create an accessible space for customers—particularly amid Shinola’s more steeply priced goods. Someone who comes in and doesn’t want to spend $550 on a watch can still leave with a cup of coffee. And at higher-end home goods stores like West Elm, book signings, bazaars, and pop-up workshops have made the stores into meeting points.

These in-store microcommunities are yet another reaction against the sprawling uniformity of the mall, already under threat from its more experiential, New Urbanist incarnation, the “lifestyle center.”

In these largely outdoor developments, high-end chain stores and restaurants populate districts meant to evoke a sense, albeit a manufactured one, of old-fashioned “Main Street” culture. Their aim—commerce—is the same as that of the mall, but the vibe is much more personal; lifestyle centers measure around 320,000 square feet to the mall’s 800,000 The New Republic reports.

And while the architect David Kitchens tells TNR that he doubts the lifestyle center model as a longterm antidote to the mall’s numbing mundanity, he acknowledges that they fit with the trend toward re-establishing a sense of community on a smaller scale.

“As development gets larger and larger,” said Kitchens, “people now want to decentralize and build personal feeling back into their lives.”

A photo posted by Caitlyn Williams (@caitlyn777) on

Local urban businesses have taken it upon themselves to foster this sense of close-knit belonging in city environments. Cafes like Birch Coffee in New York prompt those in search of caffeine to also seek out conversation by barring wi-fi before 5 p.m. on weekdays and leaving conversation-starter placards up for grabs by the pastry case.

And by introducing a coffee stand in the front of its brick-and-mortar store, the Portland interior design firm Christopher David has become a destination for its Pearl District neighbors.

Co-owner Chis Giovarelli tells CityLab that he and his business partners originally planned the coffee shop as a grab-and-go stand in their retail space, which already combined flower arranging and interior design. “We just figured that with the urban setting, people would want to stay on the move,” he said.

But they’ve since had to increase the number of seats, Giovarelli says. “We found that people do want to come and stay. They enjoy the surroundings, and Portland is such a small city that they can count on meeting someone or running into someone they know here.”

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