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The Art & Science of Shopping: Souvenirs

The storefront caught my eye at first more because of its understatement, inspiring the need to know what was contained within the boxes.

My travels took me to Buenos Aires last spring—I know, poor me—and during the trip I managed to squeeze in an early excursion to the Paloma area prior to my evening departure. I have to say, even my unfortunate exhausted companions felt it was worth all the walking. While there, we stumbled upon a non-descript shop—there was no noticeable sign to identify the store. The storefront had only two small shoebox-sized windows displaying examples of the handcrafted wares being sold within. Less being more in this case, and being the shopper that I am, that was a big enough hook for me.

The proprietor’s name was Isaac Katz, and I only discovered that when he later handed me his card. He couldn’t speak English, but he didn’t have to because his work spoke volumes. The shop was tiny, about 10’ x 15’, and the interior was overwhelmed by the long workbench that occupied what in most retail stores would be considered the natural location of a feature wall. Isaac sat behind this workbench, toiling away on a new piece of jewelry he was carefully crafting. He was, in short, the feature. With one of the short walls taken up by the entry into the shop, only two walls were left to display his collection. The pieces were amazing—decorative adornments ranging from cuff links (my friend Jorge’s weakness) to rings (my personal weakness – and don’t you love it when there’s something for everyone?) and all manner of jewelry in between—all inspired by nature and each piece one of a kind and made in that very shop by Isaac.

I fell in love with all of it, and although the pieces were reasonably priced, I felt restraint must carry the day. I was immediately drawn to a piece that simply framed a beautiful piece of malachite, where the stone was sliced through a section of the node, resembling a green bull’s eye. Still perusing the collection, but pretty much sold on the malachite piece, another ring caught my eye that was very architectural, with a rectangular (and slightly rhomboid) volume extruded upward perpendicular to the length of the finger, and topped by a cast of a flattened sweet gum fruit. As I looked at this very cool ring, Isaac held up one of those spiky balls in its natural state to show me what the top of the ring was made from, and my childhood came flooding back to me. I have to confess, I had to Google “spiky balls that fall from trees” to discover what these things are called, as I ever knew their name. But we all know them and made things out of them in grade school, and god forbid you stepped on one with bare feet. Thus the purchase was secured. Isaac took both rings from me, sat at his workbench, and engraved his signature onto the band of each ring. Now THIS was what I call souvenirs.

Isaac Katz signing my rings and Jorge’s cuff links. Note the sweet gum fruit, aka “spiky balls that fall from trees” in the foreground on Issac’s workbench.

The word souvenir is a wonderful word. I took French in high school, and became quite enamored with this word that is actually a verb meaning “to remember”. I find I make purchases I consider to be souvenirs quite often, probably because I travel quite often for my job. I try to carve out a little time for myself on these journeys to discover the city I find myself in. As an architect, the need to seek out architectural gems is an occupational hazard. So I found myself in Juneau (yes, Alaska) not too long after the Buenos Aires trip, and had the first afternoon free to explore the capital of the 49th State of the Union. Sounds much more dramatic than it was, but I do have to admit that the scenery was breathtaking and the people were amazingly friendly.

I went downtown and started to canvass the shopping situation. I was made aware by a few of the shop keepers that there were two distinct shopping areas in this small zone: the shops that were owned and operated by the locals, which were situated in the town fabric, and the shops down by the Port, which were owned by large companies and were only open during the tourist season. Being a shopping purist, I stuck with the locals. I whiled away quite a bit of time in quite a few of the shops I went into. There was a wonderful used bookstore on the outskirts of the shopping district owned by a sweet elderly woman. She was rather engaged in printer problems when I entered, mentioning something about her taxes and the bookkeeping, but spared the time to pull out some recent acquisitions on Native American art after I told her of my visit to the State Museum there in town earlier in the day. Reluctantly I left the shop knowing my time there was limited. I have to admit I felt a bit transported into that show from the ‘90’s, Northern Exposure, and was hoping that moose would come wandering down the street.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with another shopkeeper as he showed me several of his creations, explaining to me how he procures the fossilized walrus teeth that he uses in the pieces. I saved the best for last however: a relatively large shop (compared to its neighbors) that, based on the items crammed in its storefront windows, promised to contain a most excellent assemblage of souvenir choices ranging from artsy tchotchkes (another great word) to jewelry (of course). I entered, trying to take it all in. The place was filled with more merchandise per square foot than freckles on a redhead. But it was all very cool, and worthy of the careful study required. I found several worthy souvenir candidates, but then I spied what I knew was the winner. I asked the salesperson to take this fabulous ring out of the case—it was an enormous ammonite with a high gloss finish. As I tried it on, an exceptionally short woman appeared over my shoulder declaring “Isn’t it fabulous? It’s my favorite!” While I had to agree, I kept wondering who this woman was? At first I thought perhaps she was another customer, but it turned out she owned the shop. She shared with me that she had recently purchased the ring on a buying trip and exuberantly started to bring out a few of the others she had purchased on that same trip. Then we proceeded to try on all the pieces like little girls playing dress up, swapping pieces with each other and seeing how many we could get on one hand. Eventually I had to leave and of course the ammonite ring left with me.

Downtown Juneau, Alaska - looking down the street that links the local retailers and the tourist trade at the Port.

Great customer service boils down to engagement. There’s investment on both sides, but initiated by the host of the party (so to speak), creating a relationship of sorts for a brief moment in time. It satisfies the most basic of human needs: to be connected with others. It’s an emotional experience, as simple as having a friend to talk to while on travel and far away from home. I feel like I have friends all over the globe and definitely a soul sister in Juneau, Alaska. When a retailer can achieve that level of engagement, a sale will ensue every time.

Kathleen Jordan
Kathleen Jordan is a principal in Gensler’s New York office, and a leader of our retail practice with over 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Kathleen has led a broad range of retail design projects as both an outside consultant and as an in-house designer. She has led projects from merchandising and design development all the way through construction documentation and administration, and many of her projects have earned national and international design awards. Contact her at kathleen_jordan@gensler.com.

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