Afew months ago, killing time in downtown San Francisco, I popped into a new shop on the outskirts of Union Square, a public plaza flanked by department stores and staid hotels. Re:Store was on a short retail strip mostly populated by legacy brands such as Chanel and Hermès. It markets itself as an “experience” and a “collaborative community” (inevitably it has been described as “WeWork for brands”). It is an example of what venture capitalists might call “bricks-and-mortar 2.0”: the adaptation of commercial real estate to the trend for online retail. It stocks products made solely by “direct-to-consumer companies” – which anyone under the age of 50 would call Instagram brands.
On the ground floor of Re:Store is Lacquerbar, a nail salon that defines itself as “Holographic Nails with a Feminist AF Mission.” (A sign encourages customers to “Pick your polish, art, & bubbly”, and then “Sit back and talk about Michelle Obama running for president”.) The back wall is papered with sticky notes from visitors. (“Dollhouse for millennials!”; “So thankful to be me!”) On the top floor, which is divided between retail and co-working spaces, I saw a bookshelf laden with titles such as “Shoe Dog”, “#Girlboss” and “Colorstrology”.
I felt as if I had stumbled into a gift shop full of souvenirs of the internet. There were gravity blankets and leather earrings, serums and fancy workwear. Re:Store emphasises the word “curation” in its marketing materials (the concept, which has created a lucrative mystery out of the old-fashioned act of shopping, is a hallmark of Instagram). But the unhierarchical arrangement of the collection – affordable gift items sit next to thousand-dollar leather handbags – has a flattening effect. The shop felt out of time. Perhaps I was just in the future.
I perused a display from Unbound, a sexual wellness company: silicone hand restraints, a bubblegum-pink paddle and switch, and a tidy row of vibrators that looked like flying saucers. Upstairs, wares from Steamery, a Stockholm-based purveyor of sleek, pastel-coloured clothes steamers looked much like the sex toys downstairs. The only common factor was the aesthetic. Everything seemed optimised for small-format photographs.
In recent years, my Instagram feed has had a particular look, shaped by the platform’s design constraints. Products are pastel, rounded and straightforward, colourful but inoffensive. The copy is cheerful and earnest. The fonts are serif. In Re:Store, this monochrome, geometric simplicity was everywhere.
As a 32-year-old woman with disposable income, I am served a lot of Instagram ads for beautiful non-necessities and well-packaged generics. I’ve occasionally bought products, though I don’t know if this was a function of genuine desire or the algorithm feeding me so many images of an item that I’ve developed an affinity to it. In Re:Store I could not escape the feeling of being cannily marketed to. Picking up a beautiful, $130 clothes steamer, I wondered who, exactly, was the target market for such an item. The sort of person who would own one, I reasoned, was not someone who ironed their clothes themselves. Still, I found myself vaguely wanting it.
On the third level, by the co-working space, an associate with a nose ring and perfect eyebrows saw me looking at offerings from Wooden Spoon, a herbal-remedy company, and sidled up. Moontime Magic, she said, picking up a pretty black vial, was particularly nice during one’s period. I started to say that I didn’t get a period, because I have an intrauterine device that looks like an alien parasite… Then I paused, suspicious of the sudden impulse to overshare – an impulse that must surely have been provoked by my visit to what was, essentially, a real-world version of an online platform. I busied myself with packages of herbs and wondered whether anything in the store was approved by the FDA.
There is a recurring joke that people once went online to escape the real world; now, they turn to the real world to escape the internet. Walking into Re:Store, I felt as if I had escaped the internet for the real world, only to find myself in a real-world internet.
The pattern of online-only brands moving into physical space is common enough. Direct-to-consumer companies such as Allbirds, an environmentally friendly shoe company, and Glossier, a cosmetics brand, have opened flagship stores in New York, LA and San Francisco. Re:Store, by contrast, tends to stock smaller, less established brands. These firms pay Re:Store for placement (usually $550-850). Re:Store also takes a 20% commission. Aside from displaying new brands, the shop enables consumers to test products before committing and removes the hassle of return shipping. Being able to touch something, a Re:Store sales associate told me, is a major selling point. (It’s almost like those medieval merchants were onto something.)
The effect is something like a bazaar, and novelty is always around the corner. “The turnaround of different brands…is like an in-real-life scrolling through a feed,” the same sales associate said. When I asked how she came to work for Re:Store, the answer shouldn’t have surprised me: she found it on Instagram.
After winding my way through the store, I bought a small roll-on tube of cannabis-scented perfume from a tablet on a pedestal, and felt nostalgic for the stuffy New York City department stores of my youth. Then I felt foolish and old for being wistful for waiting in line, and for being an adult woman who wanted to smell like a controlled substance. But still I yearned for a different sort of space, somewhere with a sense of history that didn’t feel as if it could disappear overnight.
Outside workers were busy erecting a Christmas tree and ice-skating rink in Union Square. I noticed a shopfront across the street, marked with the logo of a direct-to-consumer women’s clothing brand. “Hi,” read a note on the door, “You look like you love a good reset”. Above it was another sign. It read: “For lease”.•