By Regina M. Connell.
Think curator, and you think museum, or maybe gallery. You don’t think store, and yet that’s exactly what happens in stores…some stores, at least.
But isn’t what goes on in a store just merchandising, a collection of items brought together to sell (at as big a profit as possible)? Yes of course. But really interesting stores are actually curated: they tell a story, there’s a theme, there’s a consciousness that transcends “I like it” or “the numbers work” and “the data says customers will like it”.
There are only a few great stores that we consider truly curated. Stores like the famous Colette in Paris; Mint and Few and Far in London; 10 Corso Como in Milan; Ochre and in New York; OK in LA. Quirky, indie-minded San Francisco has a reasonably large share of curated retail…like General Store. All these stores get lots of ink as “destination” retail and “taste makers” but these stores are more than that. They tell stories, open up worlds, and make you look at things differently.
General Store’s on Judah Street in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset, a sloooowly up and coming neighborhood just a few blocks from the usually fog-bound beach and Pacific beyond. It’s far removed from the other indie strips in San Francisco, like the funky, vibrant Mission, the cooly hip Hayes Valley or the tonier-every-day Fillmore Street.
The co-owner, Serena Mitnik Miller is a Hawaii-raised, UC Santa Cruz-trained artist–and in her own way, an activist. She curates the store to tell stories, create connections between people and ideas, and inspire customers to bring a little more beauty and soul into the mundane, the everyday.
The story she’s telling is primarily about the neighborhood: the beachy, independent, rebellious outcropping of a design (and self-) conscious city, resolutely proud of its persistent fog and wind, proud of its lack of self-consciousness.
You feel it, from the indie magazines and quirky, curated set of design, art and lifestyle books in the “living room” at the front of her store…to thoughtful housewares (beautiful brooms and brushes, tableware, objects for the desk) in the middle…and the clothes–new and vintage–at the back.
There’s a practicality, reflecting the working class roots of the neighborhood, and of course that look: faded, organic, thoughtfully designed, yet with pops of strong graphics that announce a design orientation. Nary a hard edge in sight.
It even extends into the garden out back (filled with hardy succulents and one of the more covetable tables you’ve ever seen).
The other story Serena’s telling is about people, the creative spirit, and how this spirit–and its results–can creep up on you when you least expect it. “A lot of it is about telling the stories of people who quietly go through their lives, making and doing,” says Serena. “I believe in that.”
Her collection focuses on handmade pieces by Insider/Outsider artists (backpacks by Joshu and Vela, jewelry by Annie Costello, clothing by The Podolls, ceramic speakers by Joey Roth, geodesic planters by Kelly Lamb, prints by Claire Nereim) and makers she’s gotten to know–including many from the neighborhood. One maker delivers things to her by bike.
Another set of makers whose work she includes are very small, old-school producers (France’s St. James and Bensimon, for example) who’ve been making their products for decades, if not centuries. Serena also chooses charming pieces (particularly in wood) from small producers in Germany and Japan.
The craft of curation, General Store-style, is the purely democratic mix. Serena’s aunt’s hand knit booties sit–perfectly comfortably thank you very much–next to handmade shoes made by cult shoe designer Beatrice Valenzuela. It makes you think: why not?
How did you decide whose work to carry? It started with people I knew…the Wood Shop guys, Joanne who does some sewing, Jen who does textiles, that kind of thing. I found out about a neighbor who knits hats, and a neighbor’s dad who does wood work. Then I started meeting other people whose work I fell in love with. It just kept going from there.
What’s your focus as the “curator” at General Store? I’m trying to representing the full idea of living better–from so many different perspectives, whether it’s the object or the ability to create things that others appreciate.
I’m very much into the idea of objects as art. Where each of these things can be incorporated into so many parts of your life. Everything is useful but beautiful as an object.
How do you decide what to take, what not to? I am seeking to be wowed. There’s so much stuff out that that bums me out. Much of it comes from the stories of the makers, or whether I couldn’t have thought of anything better…..that’s a wow moment. The hanging geodesic planters. You get a feeling. But I also fall in love with the story of the maker…Some people you just meet and fall in love with. And you see their things around you.
How do you balance the curating and the selling? Of course I have to think about things like price point and whether it will sell. But with much of what I have, I just believe in it so much, even if it takes a couple of months….
What’s the best part of what you do? Hearing people get excited, of course. Everyone walks in and loves the vibe, and it takes time to focus. But then you see them settle in, and start to have fun.