She is the store

Excuse me miss, but are you knitting?

If you are one of thousands of young women who has heard that question recently, you know that knitting isn't just for grandmas anymore. Knitting was declared "the new yoga" at the start of the millennium, and more and more young people are taking up this calming, creative craft.

Everywhere you look, the knitting wave continues to grow. My trendsetting city has yarn shops in practically every neighborhood, and when my friend and I started a local knitting group last year, we had no idea it would grow to over 250 members.

But I find a slight gap between the hip chick making a scarf on the train, and the place where she buys her yarn. Many knitting stores are, for lack of a better word, uncool. They display thick cabled sweaters and pea-green shawls. They are run by disconnected women who make up in yarn skills what they lack in people skills. They have punny names like Knitche, Have Ewe Any Wool? and We'll Keep You In Stitches. It's a decidedly frumpy retail landscape.

However, a few knitting stores have started to get it, and I'd like to highlight one that rises to the top. It's a small boutique near my house, and it's called Nina. "Nina," you ask, "what kind of a name is that?"

Well, the best way to describe Nina is through a parallel example. The Apple Store is often praised in this way: "It looks like the whole store was designed by one person." Friends, meet Nina.

Nina is a store designed by one woman. While I don't know this woman personally, after spending some time in her shop, I feel as though I've been to her home, met her family, looked through her closet and heard her life story. I feel like I know her inside and out. This is because she seems to have touched each nook and cranny, made each careful decision and essentially put herself into every element of the space.

Nina's personal style is unique and enviable. Her often-homeknit outfits simultaneously defy and create trends - sweaters with flared sleeves and intricate color patterns, matching wristwarmers and wraps. And Nina seems almost ageless. She often wears her long hair down. Her modern glasses are green. She's soft-spoken and sweet and yet, at the same time, very very cool.

And this personal style spills out into every detail of the space. Oversized needles frame the front window, a space made warm by a modern couch and enormous low-hanging lamp. Nina herself is small, and these proportions make you feel a bit like a child, or perhaps Alice in Wonderland. Blond tile floors practically match Nina's own hair. The clean walls and minimal wood shelves make each brightly colored ball of yarn pop that much more. And each product itself seems hand-selected, each blue the newest shade, each alpaca yarn the softest blend. From the lovely bamboo needles, to the pristine white iMac, to the graphically elegant shopping bags, every inch of Nina looks like, well, Nina.

The coherency found in this store is remarkable; everywhere you look, you see the vision of one person. But how might this translate to the larger world? Knitting retail is fragmented and inadequate. Could Nina expand her empire? Could she open even one more store?

My answer is, I hope not. In an industry where the product is so personal, the decision so tied to creative expression, having the owner's physical presence can make or break all the good design in the world. If Nina herself weren't there, I would have said "Nice shop," bought some yarn, and left. I think that without Nina at the counter to say hello, advise on gauging and suggest projects, as well as knit and model her own creations, the cool vibe would die down pretty quickly.

Then, to turn the issue around, could larger chains ever be like Nina? We've all heard of "brand nazis" and design language so tight no air gets through. Some stores come close to this level of cohesion, mostly brand spaces like Apple and Nike. But standards become more malleable with each successive person who uses them, and rules are bent, then broken, with each new store. Furthermore, you can't have your company's top retail designer also work the register at all your stores. Sadly, the laws of physics won't allow it.

Now admittedly, I don't want to share Nina. I want her to keep her store in my neighborhood and sell her cool yarn to me. She's helped knitting become chic, and I'm grateful.

But I also think if Nina wanted to expand her horizons, new stores wouldn't be her best bet. Perhaps she should open a retail consulting business, helping people find their own personal style and translating it into their store designs. She may be good at knitting, but she's good at retail too.

And so, Nina's shop remains unique. I will continue to shop there for the product, but also for the person. You can take the store out of Nina, but don't you dare take Nina out of her store.


hillary said...

okay, 2 things, real quick (i have to get to work)...

1 - just a random note to you: there's a cool-looking store up by my house called knit 1, you should check it out.

2 - i think one of the things to consider is product and product use. nina sells basically one product/type of products and it is for consumption/use. it seems to me that this situation is condusive to the type of environment that she has created. that level of interaction and recommendation.

apple might sort of work like that because it is one brand and sells tools, for use. i think that nike, puma, and adidas all sort of try to do this, but for me, fashion is way different. i think that that new adidas store on rush (or state, whatever) is obnoxious. it's trying to create cool with having a really small space and a particular vibe. it feels really museum-y and cold to me.

i think, traditionally, small bookstores have done this type of thing best. i think that because owners can give recommendations, will let you browse the books, and generally want to spread knowledge to people, that it has succeeded. i think stores that have TRIED it, like small boutiques and home stores, just end up feeling weird and empty.

now i'm babbling. i'm distracted. :)

Marketing Mommy said...

There's yet another not-drab-and-dowdy knitting shop in the Chicago area: Chix with Stix in Forest Park. Not only is their space light and inviting, their samples are cool and inspiring *and* they have a play area for small fry. And the women who own it? Totally relatable.

Anonymous said...

Knitche frumpy? I'm sure you're kidding (or you haven't been there lately). Nina is indeed nice-looking, but quite limited. I'll take the Downers Grove store any day.

sara said...

Hi Anonymous,

In my post, I said that some knitting store names were punny, and listed a few to make my point. Knitche was one of them. The name is a play on words, after all.

However, I then said that the whole knitting-store landscape was generally frumpy. While I have not been to Knitche, I've been to a bunch of other yarn shops and have found many of them to be less-than-chic in their store layout, decor, fixtures, music, displays, and personnel. It was a generalization, not meant at any specific store. There are obviously exceptions.

I'm sure the store Knitche has a great selection. I agree with you that Nina has a limited selection - it's a small store in a crowded urban area. But the post was about store design, not product selection.

If I'm ever in Downer's Grove, I'd happily check out Knitche. I apologize if you thought I was implying that store was frumpy. That's not what I meant.

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