Making the Most of Historic and Local Architecture in Atmospheric Retail Design, Pt. 1
For a few years of my life, I lived on the North Side of Chicago North Side of Chicago. I was – and am still – a die-hard White Sox fan. I know, I know. Now, although that statement alone will generate enough comments and argument for this blog, I’ll continue writing, anyhow. Let’s dial back the clock a few years.
Now, back in my day, when Borders was still an operating book store?
The company found a historic, triangle-shaped building on the corner of Broadway and Racine (Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood) and called it home: 4718 North Broadway Avenue.
I remember the afternoon I first passed by it on the “EL” train, excited to see the possibility for both local architecture and big business to get along. My excitement stayed with me until it finally opened. Once it did, I made a visit immediately, and – in as much time – found myself severely underwhelmed.
From the outside, it fit right into the neighborhood, and from the inside, it didn’t seem like you were anyplace other than a Borders bookstore. And this is where a seemingly brilliant idea started to seem, well, less-than-brilliant.
Aside from the exterior façade, there wasn’t much to make this bookstore any more special than, say, the Barnes & Noble in Evanston. Or any other Borders location. The opportunity to embrace the historic character of the building was cast aside for the usual, neatly-stacked, well-lit, freshly-painted, corporate chain store (no matter how hard you try, you can’t put a Sox fan in a Cubs jersey and expect him to get along with the natives).
At one point in time, it was home to the Sheridan Trust and Savings Bank (moved since across the street, literally). Would I expect them to put their cashiers behind old teller windows? Or keep their back-stock inventory sealed away in the safe? Well, no. But it would have been interesting to see what the floors, the walls, the furniture would have looked like, given a retro, out-of-another-era flair.
Borders Bookstore, wearing some hand-me-down architectural duds.
I’m not suggesting that their retail designer had come into town to scour every last antique store for period-perfect pieces, risking watermarks from a condensating cup of iced coffee a patron sets down as he scopes out the bestsellers. But something (anything!) to give shoppers a sense of time and place. Swap-out the usual white dropped-ceiling tiles for ones that LOOK like tin ceiling panels. Replace the fluorescent fixtures with hanging pendants. Substitute the overstuffed sofas for Craftsman Era-esque armchairs. These are only a few of the many ideas someone could have generated to make this an atmospheric store. Regretfully, the only one that made the final cut was not knocking down the original structure. They may not have made a successful bookstore. But they did save a beautiful piece of history from being destroyed and forgotten. That was enough for me, and for that much, I thank them.
I loved that store.
Sure, practically-speaking, it was the closest chain bookstore to my apartment. That was only a small part of the reason I went there. I spent many an afternoon mooching off free reading material, sipping coffee, reading by the light streaming in through the large, arched, second story windows. I miss it.
Ironically, one of the former occupants of this building was a Goldblatt’s department store. If that alone wasn’t foreshadowing enough to know this business may have been doomed from the get-go.
That store, again, is an empty building. Hopefully someone will come along and make the most of it.
PART II: Be sure to come back next week, when Eric takes his story to New York City, where clothing retailer J.Crew made their Men’s Store in one of the most unusual places possible!
Are there any businesses you have been to, or still go to, that have made their home in a former tenant’s building? Do you think there should be more atmospheric stores, unique to their environment? If so, would you prefer these stores to their cookie-cutter counterparts?
Image credit to Henry Justin Smith and UptownUpdate.com.