We Need More Stores Like This

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I was recently in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Berlin. Whenever I go to a European city, I get excited to shop. I am not usually buying much, or even anything at all, but I am, I realized after this trip, hungry for the experience of shopping in a great multi-brand boutique, which is almost impossible in America. We prefer to sit at home on the couch and troll the sales, order several things, and then return what we don’t want. It’s not that enjoyable of an experience, but it delivers the “out-for-delivery” dopamine hit, which I guess, for some people, is enough.

I am a product of multi-brand brick-and-mortar retail. I worked at several stores in my early 20s, selling Triple 5 Soul and other borderline raver gear, as well as Birkenstocks, Clarks, and Converse. I loved chatting with people and choosing what music we would play, and I learned the power of curation. Bringing together great brands under one roof in a coherent and effective way is difficult, but when you succeed, you achieve something like shopping nirvana, a state in which the customer’s aspirations are fully embodied.

Today, if I need a new pair of boots, I can open my phone and instantly scan 100 pairs at different price points. A few clicks, and they’re on the way to my doorstep. It’s a soulless process of narrowing options, tracking down what I think I want, whereas shopping in person, at a store that harmonizes a variety of brand identities, expands my options, presenting what I didn’t know I truly desired. And it’s a way of getting out of the house and engaging with the real world. I can still remember many conversations I had on the floor while working retail. I met great people and learned a lot about taste and why people choose what they do. The shoppers weren’t beholden to the algorithm or optimizing for deals or free shipping.

I went to Voo Store, which has been open in Berlin for over a decade, on a recent, surprisingly busy, Tuesday afternoon. The staff was relaxed and friendly (but not overly so), and the selection was impeccable: Prada, Miu Miu, Dries Van Noten, and Our Legacy sat next to newer brands like Séfr and Sunflower. With books and homewares for sale and a great coffee shop, the store offers the kind of well-rounded experience that you can’t really have at a mono-brand flagship.

The vibe was more mellow at Norse Store in Copenhagen, but you can still find an excellent selection of Visvim, MAN-TLE, Palmes, and James Coward. Browsing at these shops reminded me of when I would head to Barneys in Manhattan on a Saturday, take the escalators all the way to the top floor, and then work my way down on foot. Sure, a lot of what they sold was not for me or just plain bad, but seeing it all together helped shape my taste, develop my nose for quality, and understand why I was drawn to specific brands and styles. Often, we only see these clothes or other products on a screen. We don’t touch them, we don’t try them on, and we don’t have a conversation with a sales associate about the details of the garments. It’s an experience that I miss.

When I visited San Francisco last month, I texted a few local friends asking if there were any stores I should check out. All of them said that the good ones had shuttered over the past few years.When you consider the cost of rent, import duties, and staffing, it’s a difficult business—and that’s before you factor in the competition, the big-brand flagships and mega menswear websites that are algorithmically optimizing a steady stream of discounts. Which makes the stores that succeed—New York’s C’H’C’M’ and Vancouver’s Neighbour come to mind—all the more special. Shopping should be a social experience, more of a conversation than a transaction. Patronize and enjoy these places while you still can. Bring friends, and make an afternoon of it. Hopefully, you will have a nice chat and leave not only with a handful of new things, but more sophisticated in your taste. It sure beats packing a return when your online impulse buy disappoints.

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