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.

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

Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.


  1. Joseph Giorgi

    “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?”

    Yes, and YES!

    I wish to God that retailers large and small would put more effort into creating a unique environment for shoppers to enjoy. And taking advantage of local architecture would be a great way for them to start doing so.

    Let’s face it: commerce is moving online these days, and physical stores are falling by the wayside. Our being able to relax with a cup of coffee at the local bookstore is practically a thing of the past already! Unless brick-and-mortar establishments can appease the consumer’s thirst for a simpler shopping experience (and the aesthetics that go along with it), there’s not a whole lot of hope left for them moving forward.

    I don’t mean to be a downer about it. I just wish that major retail brands would take a hint and realize that shoppers need an “experience” to go along with the products they’re buying. Otherwise, there’s no incentive not to just buy physical goods online.

    Awesome post, Eric! 🙂

    • Eric

      I could probably make my next post a response to your comment, Joe. Why? Because you’ve got a darn good point. I’ll be the first to admit, if I find something cheaper than it is in the store, and I can have it delivered to my door without paying for gas to drive to the store? Well, that’s how most my shopping gets done. Christmas shopping, too. Especially Christmas shopping.

      Sometimes you give me the impression we’re going to live in a world run by robots, Joe. (You’re talking to a guy who isn’t on Facebook, doesn’t own an Android, and only recently bought an iPod…naturally, I’m a little biased).

      All depends upon how and why a person’s shopping. If you’ve no freakin’ idea what you’re going to buy when it comes to Christmas gifts? You’re a lot better off walking the aisles of a store, or through a mall, than you are trying to sift through 8458904589045890890980458904598 Google search results for “Oh-crap-it’s-December-23rd-and-I-need-a-gift-for-the-in-laws.”

      Double bonus if you can find it in the store, order it online for less from the store’s website, and have it delivered (totally have done that).

      • Joseph Giorgi

        “Sometimes you give me the impression we’re going to live in a world run by robots, Joe.”

        Oh, we will. 😉

  2. amy

    It seems Starbucks does the best they can to keep the overall architecture feel of a location in tact. The location I’d stop at occasionally while in college was tiny inside, but instead of expanding they kept the structure the same. They embrace brick walls and tin ceilings rather than plaster them over.

    It seems “luxury” stores are more willing to embrace this idea rather than their cheaper counterparts. I don’t know why this is, but I think it should be changed. Great post, Eric! Thought-provoking stuff indeed!

    • Eric

      Thanks, Amy! Well, there’re folks like Mr. Ralph Lauren who, sure, don’t have much a problem plopping down big money for a signature, boutique-looking store.

      This article was supposed to be a one-off blog to stave off some writer’s block. As of last week’s meeting, it was a two-parter. As of today? I’m taking tips from the 1990’s Chicago Bulls, and going for a THREE PEAT!!!

      As for what that actually means? There’s places a little more mainstream, a little more middle-class, that don’t have a problem pulling it off. Chipotle and Potbelly Sandwich Wks., as two examples. Heck…whomever is the interior design MacGuyver at Chipotle makes art from lacquered plywood and sheet metal.

      Think we’d all save a few bucks if we were so talented to fashion Mayan and Aztec-looking wall art from the scrap bin at the Home Depot!

      • amy

        It’s funny you mention Potbelly Sandwich Works, as soon as I clicked “Submit” their restaurants came to mind. I absolutely love the vibe of them, the older the better 🙂 The one closest to me is in a strip mall that was built in 2006, so a lot of the architecture is made to just look old. However, the ones in Chicago that are in old, historic buildings are awesome! Excellent point!

  3. Mandy Kilinskis

    I would not only welcome these kinds of stores, but I would actually go out of my way to patronize them. There’s so much beautiful architecture in Chicago that big stores should be modifying their standard decor to match. It would absolutely help them fit easier into the distinct neighborhoods of bigger cities.

    Not to spoil that much about part two, but if I ever found myself in New York, I would definitely make sure to visit that J.Crew store! Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Broadway show, and the J.Crew store.

    • Eric

      Thanks, Mandy. I’m right with ya on your sentiment toward these types of stores. Heck, I don’t even like Macy’s, nor have I ever bought anything from them, but I’ll be damned if I don’t spent at least one night of the holiday season wandering through the State St. store and looking at the store windows.

      I think, partly, it’s a sign of respect. Seeing some big-box or nationwide chain squeeze into a quaint street, and plaster up some oversized light-up sign just isn’t cool. Anyone remember what happened when Macy’s thought they could get away with adding extra and larger signage on the State St. store that used to be (and for some of us, still is) Marshall Field’s? I. Rest. My. Case.

      The Tribeca J.Crew store’s a Men’s Shop, Mandy, but let me look into it…I think they’ve a store exclusively for women someplace else (and given their larger buying demographic is women, I’m more than sure they do).

      Although I won’t argue with that travel itinerary! 🙂

  4. JPorretto

    Well done, sir.

    I’m probably in the minority here, but I just don’t care about the atmosphere of a store (maybe I’m not in the minority considering the lack of atmosphere nowadays). Good atmosphere to me is wide aisles, logical organization, and fast checkouts. Anything past that is gravy.

    • Eric

      Thank you, sir!

      I think we’ve another blog post, come to think of it: shopping for recreation vs. shopping for necessities. I highly doubt anyone’s going to enjoy a worn-in, overstuffed leather armchair in the aisle when they’re trying to get through the produce section.

      To be fair?

      Stores as stark, bare, and open as the Apple Store freak me the heck out. Stores, well, need stuff in them. I’m not asking for original Monet on the walls, but, come on, man. There’s a happy medium in there, someplace. You see that with a lot of boutiques and “trendy” shops.

      I just think there’s something to be said for a business that is cognizant of the relationship of the product to the consumer, and moreover, their business to the community in which it sits.

      Also, remind me to have someone decorate your favorite grocery aisle with New England Colonial furniture and knick-knacks for the next time you’re shopping. Now that’d make for one funny stunt prank.

      • Amanda

        “I highly doubt anyone’s going to enjoy a worn-in, overstuffed leather armchair in the aisle when they’re trying to get through the produce section.”

        Eric, you never fail to crack me up! =)

  5. Jill Tooley

    Fascinating stuff, Eric!

    I would much rather visit a store with an inviting atmosphere when I do my leisurely shopping. If I’m looking for books, clothing, or something equally time-consuming, then there’s no contest — I’ll go for visual appeal every time. However, if I need to run in and out of Aldi to grab a loaf of bread, I’m probably not going to care much for antique furniture or custom ceiling tiles. As you mentioned, this is all dependent on the shopping experience itself.

    I forgot about Potbelly as well! In most of the locations I’ve been to, the decor is only made to look old-fashioned. I’d love to visit one in a historic building!

    I’ve always been fascinated with Excalibur Nightclub in Chicago. Only been there once, but it’s a COOL building and I later found out that it’s rumored to be haunted! Spooky…

    Awesome post! Looking forward to part 2! 🙂

    • Eric

      Potbelly’s a pseudo, in-the-cracks, straddling-the-fence variant of this. They make their locations suitable to the stores they’re in, or locations they’re at, but – right – they’re about as old as the bread they bake in the morning. I just enjoy the thoughtful design…heck, even the waiting line turnstile posts have a vintage, retro kick to ’em.

      Ironically, even grocery stores have taken notice. The ones in Orland have both remodeled in the past couple years, adding things like non-fluorescent, shaded lamps to lights aisle, faux-wood flooring for a “market” like atmosphere, etc.

      Both of the aforementioned managed to add atmosphere without making a literal obstacle course for the consumer. It’s neat to think companies are starting to be more mindful about not only how much business they make, but HOW it is they make business to begin with.

      I’ll have to check out that Excalibur link…and haunted? Perfect week to read about that!

      And thanks, Jill! I’ll be writing that second part just about as soon as I’m finished writing this comment!

  6. Amanda

    Awesome post Eric! =)

    I find myself somewhere in the middle on the subject of caring about the atmosphere of stores; mostly because I don’t do very much shopping for fun. I am usually just buying necessities, so lack of atmosphere and decor doesn’t bother me. But at the same time, when on rare occasion, I am out shopping for an afternoon, I do like the stores with lots of personality. They make things interesting! I like Moxie, in downtown DeKalb. They are in a late 1800’s-early 1900’s building, and besides having the walls painted, it’s pretty well still original, old wood floors and all. That place makes me want to wander around and look for hours.

    • Eric

      Thanks! Never been to downtown DeKalb! Moxie, eh? Neat joint. It’s not hard to imagine someone might wander around for hours, because, well, there’s surely merchandise in that store to look at. I make make it through the door and only halfway down the first aisle if I’d an hour to spend there.

      Old-school, “Main St. USA” style downtown areas I’m a big sucker for. Morris is a favorite (they’ve a killer diner there, Weitz’s, with the best homemade mashed potatoes and gravy). I’m ever around DeKalb, I’ll have to look that place up.

      • Amanda

        Yeah DeKalb actually has quite a few unique places to shop and eat downtown! I’d check it out for sure! A neat place to eat (that’s also in an old department store): That’s just a block or so down from Moxie–best onion rings around! =)

        • Amanda

          Sycamore (the town just North of DeKalb) has a ton of neat old buildings downtown too…..Most of them are still pretty original. This weekend they are having their annual pumpkinfest! That’s really something to check out if you were ever in that area too!

          • amy

            Moxie looks like such a cool store Amanda! Looking at their website, it looks exactly like my kind of place. And I’m all about awesome onion rings!! Next time I make a trip to the Hy-Vee in DeKalb I’ll have to stop by these places 🙂

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