11.02.2006

Theater in the bathroom

A few weeks ago, I visited an old, obscure fabric store. I'm talking really old, and really obscure. Textile Discount Outlet is an enormous warehouse building, hidden on a side street in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. With such a generic name, we couldn't even find it online. Calling 411 was useless. Until we stumbled upon it, the place seemed to simply not exist. That's probably because to pay it a visit, we had to essentially go back in time.

The store was amazing to behold. Fabric and fabric and fabric and zippers and fabric and buttons and fabric and lace and fabric and pillows and yarn and fabric. A four-story behemoth of crafting materials, project ideas, and dust.

And it sure was dusty. The age of the place seeped into every nook and cranny. You were torn between wanting to dive headfirst into bolts of cotton, and wanting to run home and take a shower. But it wasn't dirty, just weathered with age. I chose to dive headfirst.


Later, as I stood in line to have my fabric cut, I noticed the distinctly rhythmic pattern of the shoppers and employees. And it dawned on me - this place was probably once a factory, and in some ways, it still was. We were an assembly line of buyers and cutters and measurers, standing on both sides of our conveyor belt on the factory floor. It was organized chaos and it felt very, very industrial.

But alas, the daydream had to pause, because I had to use the bathroom. I got the key from the elderly cashier, and found my way through cavernous alleys of fabric to the women's restroom, which was hidden in a side hallway next to a utility closet. It was a cave inside a cave.

And stepping into that bathroom, my daydream came back in full effect. There was a tall set of rusty lockers taking up the full wall in front of me. My imagination could not be contained.

I pictured women, women from the postwar era, women from the city of Chicago. Women workers entering the building at the break of dawn, starting their morning shift at the factory. Walking into the bathroom and turning on the single dim light. Changing their shoes, tying their hair back, getting ready for the day. Talking about the boss, talking about the men, talking about their kids. Finishing up and putting their few personal items in the lockers.

I didn't dare open a locker, because I knew my vision would disappear. I couldn't bear to see a new Snickers bar or some Herbal Essences hairspray. Instead, I pictured hairnets and wooden combs, old nylons and faded lipsticks. I didn't want to enter the lockers because I preferred the ones in my imagination.

This, to me, was nothing short of theatrical. I may have an overactive imagination, but these lockers transported me back in time, to the lives and rhythms and rituals of the people who once used them. They didn't appear to be in use, but rather just relics of a former life.

While I highly doubt that Textile Discount Outlet had dramatic intentions, and has probably been meaning to toss those old lockers for years now, their effect was both simple and powerful. They gave me a sense of context.

And I wonder how that sense might be replicated. The restroom is a perfect space for a little immersion, a little storytelling. It's more private and reflective than the main event. It's a place worthy of consideration, as we all know from the recent Bathroom Blogfest, and I wonder how other places of business might use it to establish a connection with their guests.

Theaters are a great example. After seeing a movie, we all rush to the bathroom. Same for intermission at a play. Why not make these restrooms more reminiscent of the stars? Dressing-room lights around the mirrors, makeup chairs, powder puffs, maybe some wigs and costumes. Elements of glamour that remind us of the "backstage experience."

Or how about restaurants? At best, we are greeted by a luxe masterpiece of steel and marble. But how might we feel more connected to this particular place? Maybe we see photos of the restaurant when it first opened. Maybe recipes are painted on the walls. Maybe we meet the local produce suppliers. Or learn how the owners came up with the name. Or see the chefs' aprons.

Seeing an operation's underbelly, and learning what goes on "behind the scenes," is a great way to feel closer to a business. It's also a way to provide context, to tie your offering to the people behind it and the larger world around it. The dairy farmer to a grocery store, the garage tinkerer to an electronics store. And while few businesses would want their warehouses and employee breakrooms exposed to the world, transparency is becoming of greater and greater value to consumers. It can be a point of differentiation and a way to stimulate buzz. Plus, if you start with the bathroom, it's a low-investment way to do something memorable.

The lockers were the final piece of my daydream at Textile Discount Outlet. I felt that the place had firm roots planted in the city, and its format of honesty was enough to make me a returning customer. Because being genuine inspires trust, and you don't get much more genuine that.

6 comments:

hillary said...

1. that fabric place looks AWESOME.

2. there's this deli in ann arbor, zingerman's, and on the way to the bathroom (and IN the bathroom, i think) is all of this info about their company and products. there's a bulletin board, too. it's one of those company's that feels very real and trusted.

bulletin board: http://flickr.com/photos/edward-vielmetti/7080133/

zingerman's website: http://zingermans.com/

3. i love the movie theatre idea - that's just dead-on. people always have to go to the bathroom and continuing the experience there is a great idea.

el moco said...

could you please give me an address for this place

sara said...

Hey el moco,

You can find Textile Discount Outlet here.

It's on the south side of Chicago. Hope you enjoy it!

Sara

Anonymous said...

Does the store carry higher end and/or designer fabric? Thanks for your help.

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Anonymous said...

I've always disliked textile stores. They all have this feeling of oldness about them, like you're entering a place perpetually stuck in 1979. The massive selection of fabrics, the age of which seems to be impossible to pinpoint. Was this bolt of cloth made in the 70s or was it made last year? Impossible to tell.