Top of the shops

As the high street becomes depressingly homogenised, an adventurous breed of independent retailers is creating individual shops that both rework the past and look to the future. Clare Dowdy examines their appeal

There seem to be two schools of retail thought running in parallel at the moment. While the chain stores are taking over high streets and malls around the world, a fledgling band of entrepreneurs is doing its own thing.

This new breed is operating in defiance of broader trends. Eric Schlosser describes the decline of the independent store in his book Fast Food Nation, where he saw the fast-food model being adopted by retail in general. ‘The basic thinking behind fast food has become the operating system of today’s retail economy, wiping out small businesses, obliterating regional differences and spreading identical stores throughout the country like a self-replicating code.’ This process is charted in the UK by Joanna Blythman. In Shopped – The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, she describes how most English towns have become ‘trolley towns, shaped by the grocery chains that dominate them’, which leaves just ‘charity shops, video shops and, in more affluent centres, branches of large retail chains’.

Despite this, these new retailers are not put off. Instead, they are choosing to position themselves as niche and high end. As Kevin Hawkins, former director-general of the British Retail Consortium, puts it, ‘The secret of success for the small retailer is to offer consumers something different, something better and something targeted very precisely at a particular portion of the market.’

Such retailers often play up a sense of nostalgia for what’s disappearing from the high street. That means reinventing a traditional format for the modern consumer. A classic UK example is Labour ‹& Wait, the quirky shop selling kitchen, home and garden products in London’s East End. It was designed by its owners.

But there are smart reinventions from Athens to Rio, which show that innovative design can breathe new life into traditional formats. The Greek word bakaliko means grocery store. These little family-owned corner shops are a dying breed, as consumers turn to supermarkets for convenience. The young chain Bakaliko makes references to the original stores, offering foodstuffs as if they were handmade, according to owner Maria Cousta. These are local delicacies in own-label packaging. Central to Red Design’s graphics for Bakaliko is the illustration of a cat – an allusion to the original grocery store which often had black cats hanging around outside. Other graphics draw on the golden era of Greek TV or old black-and-white Greek films.

Slice (as in ‘slice of life’), a fledgling chain of upmarket, international delis, references traditional Chinese design. Lyndon Neri of Shanghai-based Neri & Hu Design & Research Office divided the space into three areas/ a central cashier, a marketplace and a delicatessen. ‘The central area is where you enter and is surrounded by wooden screens,’ says Neri. ‘These screens are an integral part of Chinese domestic spaces.’ The ‘market’ is flanked by tables and chairs creating a figurative city street, or what Neri calls a modern abstraction of an old-world market.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, owner Michelle Myers is harking back to French patisseries for her store Boule. Myers, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, modernised the traditional Art Deco patisserie. ‘Traditional shops have ornate gold-detailed casings in rounded marble. My casings are more sleek and linear, so they are more like jewellery cases,’ she says. She describes the graphics, also designed by her, as having the same sophisticated, Art Deco feel.

But it’s not only independent food shops that are borrowing design cues from the past. Skeen, a men’s skincare boutique in Paris’ Le Marais district, has a whiff of an old-style apothecary about it. As Emmanuel Fenasse of Franck Salier et Blandine Claverie design studio says, ‘It’s a real wall of products. All the shelves are the same size, and are floor to ceiling. We wanted to give an impression of profusion.’

And, while Marcelo Vasconcellos and Alberto Vicente are not the first people to recreate the brocante, their vintage furniture store is surely one of the most aesthetic examples. Their conservation of a 1912 building in old Rio is intentionally rough and ready, leaving bricks exposed and replacing the floorboards with planks from a colonial farm. So Mercado Moderno’s feels like a pleasantly higgledy-piggledy junk store which belies the prices of the Tenreiro, Sérgio Rodrigues, Zanini and Zalzupin pieces on sale.

These stores are beacons of individuality in a world of standardised shop fits. As innovative design concepts, their influence may be felt far beyond their immediate environments.

Claire Dowdy is author of One Off: Independent Retail Design, published by Laurence King, priced £20

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