The high street has been shaken. How do you rebuild with resilient community anchors? The answer: have independent shops run by owners with passion and commitment. We profile six.
Jo Saul and Samara Walbohm founded Type Books in Toronto in 2005. “When we started out, Amazon was on the rise and so was Indigo [Canada’s largest book retailer],” says Saul. “And neighbourhood bookshops were disappearing.”
Some 15 years later, Type has three locations across the city, the latest of which opened in 2018. “Our bookshops are a collaborative project,” says Saul. “We have incredible staff who help us choose the books. But our selection is also influenced by the people who come in and talk to us.”
With initiatives such as literacy programmes for children, book readings and signings, and exhibitions of work by local artists, Type has established itself as a bricks-and-mortar operation above all. Its most recent innovation is the “mystery bag” of books, which costs ca$100 (€66). “In those bags we’re able to do what we love, which is to put the right books in people’s hands,” says Saul.
“You can’t have chaos in a droguería,” says Ramón Segarra Rovira, owner of Drogueria Rovira, a hardware shop in Barcelona’s Sant Gervasi neighbourhood. Stepping into the narrow space, the importance of this rule becomes apparent. His shop stocks almost 30,000 household items, all neatly arranged on floor-to-ceiling shelves.
Droguerias traditionally specialised in goods such as perfumes, cleaning products, paints and varnishes. With the arrival of home-improvement retailers, they became rare but Drogueria Rovira has survived for more than 100 years thanks to its extensive inventory.
In 1910, Segarra Rovira’s great-grandfather, a young apothecary from the village of Sant Celoni, moved to the city to set up a business that would stay in his family for the next four generations. Through the decades, Drogueria Rovira has maintained its reputation as a humble neighbourhood business but Segarra Rovira has decided to up the ante by travelling to international design fairs to source the best new products.
He believes that the team’s expertise is the main reason the business is still going: most of his employees have worked in the trade for at least 20 years. “We’re not just selling a product; we provide a service,” he says. “Word of mouth is the best publicity.”
Bike enthusiasts often look to Italy for well-designed rides and residents in Milan are fortunate to have a first-rate maker on their doorstep in the form of Rossignoli. In business since 1900, the family-run outfit (now in its fifth generation), started life as a classic bottega, a small workshop that sold sturdy bicycles made on site.
Today patrons queue below the old-school signage in the Brera district to order the in-house models, which are still welded, painted and assembled by craftspeople living in Milan. Despite offering bikes by the likes of Bianchi and Tokyobike, some 80 per cent of Rossignoli’s business revolves around its own creations, including the Classica from 1946 and the more recent Garibaldi 71. “We adhere to the principles of Italian industrial design: the bike has to be beautiful, functional and offered at an accessible price,” says owner Matia Bonato. “For us, a bike is not a jewel; it’s an instrument that has to be used day in, day out.”
Cyclists across Europe order from Bonato’s shop but he’s most attentive to Brera residents – offering, for example, self-service pumps for passers-by to top up their tyres. “We are a neighbourhood shop,” says Bonato. “We do repairs – even on models that aren’t our own – and assemble bikes, offer rentals and sell kit. It’s a complete package.”
Gynelle Leon left her career as a compliance analyst to pursue a fascination with flowers. She had started doing weekend work at an east-London florist and soon realised that an increasing number of people were after indoor plants. That’s when she decided to open her own space, which would focus on succulents in beautiful ceramic pots. “I had a large cactus collection at home and I loved it because I used to travel quite a bit and they were very low maintenance,” she says.
Leon found that her clientele, who wanted to fill their small apartments with greenery, were time-strapped too. That’s what has made her shop, Prick, a success since it opened in 2016 with a launch party for neighbours and businesses.
It’s an idea that Leon has since replicated with “cactus and chill” summer events: evenings when the shop doors are kept open for those who live nearby. “We realised that there would be people who lived next door to each other but didn’t know each other,” she says.
Some customers are so regular that they have ended up becoming Leon’s friends. “People come back time after time – and it’s not just for the plants,” she says. “It’s a nice feeling: we have this ‘family’ and we all love plants. I just really like the fact that this is more than a shop: we cultivate relationships.”
Barbershops are more than places where people go to get a haircut. Take Cut Salon Ban, a five-seat offering run by a team of four in Tokyo’s Tomigaya district. People know this institution for its curtain sign and smiley staff who greet passers-by. “A lot of customers come through word of mouth,” says owner Tsutomu Nagai.
Many of those customers live locally but the salon’s reach extends beyond Tokyo too. Some hail from the beach towns of Zushi and Hayama, while others take time out for a snip during work trips from the US and Europe.
Nagai had worked in the barbershop for nine years before taking over the business in the early 2000s. Today he impresses customers, from retirees to children, with his sharp scissor skills and heavenly hot-towel treatments. “We go through tonnes of hot towels,” he says. “There is a lot of washing and drying.”
That high level of hospitality has helped to transform Cut Salon Ban into a hub for the community. Nagai and his team often set up a blackboard in front of the shop with a handwritten schedule of events taking place in nearby Yoyogi Park; they also print it out and distribute it as a diy newspaper. “There is no merit for us but we do these things,” says Nagai. “We want to be of service to the people.”
Keld Pedersen has been running a high-quality corner shop called Kihoskh in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro since the 1980s. Alongside pantry essentials, he sold bread rolls that he made on site – but he was never fully satisfied with the results that he turned out from the small oven. In 2013 a nearby bakery was put up for sale and Pedersen pounced. He opened Brød with the aim to “set a new standard for bread”, providing what Kihoskh could not.
Fast-forward seven years and Brød ranks among Copenhagen’s top bakeries. Its crunchy sourdough, traditional Danish pastries and decadent ice cream have made it a go-to spot.
While Denmark was in lockdown, Pedersen had a revelation. “We discovered how important a part of the community we actually are,” he says. Concerned for the future of small businesses, customers heeded the plea to støt lokalt (support local). “The same people were coming for breakfast, then for ice cream in the afternoon.” By the evening customers often returned for a bottle of Danish rosé too.
Now, Pedersen is promoting new ice-cream flavours and rhubarb tarts. But serving the community goes beyond launching products. “You can have a million types of bread but it’s important to start with the people,” he says. “A shop can’t just be defined by what it sells.”
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Images: Mark Arrigo, Ian Patterson, Iris Humm, Jan Søndergaard, Kohei Take, Elisabetta Claudio