Experiential Retail’s Latest ActCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | How a Williamsburg concept store is forging ahead, one pop-up at a time. Published: August 18, 2020
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Gone are the days of breezing into a store “just to look around.” Restrictions on non-essential retail have been lifted (or at least loosened) across the country, but shopping is still a complicated – and often fraught – endeavour. This week, I spoke with Drew Kaufmann of Million Goods, an experiential retail concept that combines Japanese streetwear, Brooklyn-brewed sake, and hi-fi DJ sets. Designed expressly for an intimate, in-person experience – Kaufmann wants to foster the feeling of being in your living room – the brand hit pause during the height of lockdown. Now back in a new pop-up space for the next two months, Kaufmann is devising ways to honor his original idea for these not-so-cozy times. Read on to see how he’s making it work.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the inciting impulse behind Million Goods?
The idea came together when I went to Japan immediately after graduating from college. I had always wanted to go — Japanese designers are my favorite. I expected to be hanging out in the Comme des Garçons and Issey Miyake stores, but when I got there, I kept gravitating to the streetwear and youth-centric brands. I remember sitting in one of the shops pretending that it was my apartment. They had incense burners with Donald Trump's face on it that said, “Cash over chaos” and tee shirts that said, “This machine kills racists.” Everything about the shop spoke to this lifestyle of somebody who went and hung out at punk shows in Tokyo and then went back to their apartment and drank beers with friends until the sun came up. And that's why I wanted to sit there, just to pretend that that was my own lifestyle. I was working in fashion at the time, so I never bought things full price [since] I knew when things would go on sale. But when I went to Tokyo, I would go into these stores and be like, I have to have something. Every time I walked out with a tee shirt as a souvenir because I appreciated the experience so much.
What happened when your trip ended?
I was working in the buying office at Bird in Williamsburg. I brought back all these tee shirts to New York, and I remember wearing one to the office and somebody said, “Nice shirt. Where'd you get that?” I was like, “I actually don't think you can get it in New York.” I realized that there's a demand for these Japanese streetwear brands, but not a whole lot of knowledge or supply. I thought, There might be something here.
How did you come up with the idea for a sake bar and hi-fi listening lounge?
I had a desire to get a glass of sake after work and was like, Man, the only places in Williamsburg [with sake] are sushi restaurants, and I don't want to go and not order food and just sit there by myself and drink sake. There are some good sake bars in Manhattan, but in Brooklyn, there's nothing sake-focused. At the same time, I was deejaying quite a bit. A lot of the music I was into was chiller and more ambient than dance floor tracks. But every time I was asked to DJ, it'd be in a dance floor setting. I looked at New York's landscape as a whole and realized there weren’t any places that allowed DJs to play music that wasn't designed to fill a dance floor. And that was when I figured all these elements went hand-in-hand.
You launched in November as a pop-up at Etiquette in Brooklyn. What were your first few months like before the pandemic hit?
We’d serve coffee in the morning, and then in the afternoon, people would sit and have a glass of sake, hang out, shop a little bit, look through the records. There was always music playing. For music, we’re not too dogmatic about anything… We just tell [DJs], “Play the music that you've been sitting on and that you don't normally get to play. If you have a great ambient track, play that. If you have a great reggae track, play that.” And then as the sun set, we'd form a clearing in front of the DJ booth and push the clothes to the side to make it more of a party. More people would be drinking and dancing, and the music would play louder. We definitely unbutton at night and the focus turns towards the music, but if you still want to shop at night, you're welcome to. Coronavirus, obviously, has changed all that.
What does it look like now?
We're popping up in a new space for two months, but because we can't have indoor bars and DJ performances and drinking, we are just doing retail right now. I've told people that all I want Million Goods to feel like is their living room and that they can come and hang out and connect over these shared interests. And it's exactly what the scientists and doctors say you're not supposed to do. My impulse is to welcome people in. Under different circumstances, I want to tell them, “Take a seat, have a drink, let's hang out.” But right now we've limited it to four people at a time. I mean, it's definitely not ideal. We've had to get creative, trying to make sure that we have all three pillars of our brand, but the times aren't super conducive. [Starting this week,] we're partnering with a restaurant down the street, Gertie, for a sidewalk bar, so we'll have a DJ playing records for people sitting outside and drinking from a sake menu. [Editorial note: the sidewalk bar opens Friday, August 21st with music starting at 6pm.]
Inside the current pop-up space at Figure Ground / Photography by Million Goods/Figure Ground
Do you envision Million Goods as a roaming pop-up for the long haul, or is the goal to eventually have a fixed location?
The goal is to have a fixed location, but we've pushed that back due to coronavirus. When lockdown hit, we decided to go on hiatus. We told our customers, “Go support the bars and restaurants that are in more of a predicament. If you still want a tee shirt, we're happy to sell it to you, but we'll be alright.” I mean, we have a few overhead costs, but we don't pay rent. We knew we were going to take a big hit, but we also knew we would bounce back. Our friends [in the small business community] didn't have that same guarantee when they're signed to a lease. Our messaging was, “Go support the businesses that have to pay rent every month.”
With Million Goods, you set in motion a very sensory, almost exclusively live experience. What does this protracted period of social distance mean for the brand?
It's certainly a challenge. If there's anything that this pandemic has proven, it's that we can't satisfy all our wants and needs online and that it's still massively important to have physical spaces and that we crave them in general. New York has found this happy medium in which we're doing very well with the virus, we're staying safe. I understand that for the greater good, we can't be having parties. But just to be able to invite people back in to look at some clothes or browse some records and have a quick chat is enough for me, especially since we spent so much time under pure lockdown. I'm really happy to be able to offer that and tell our community that we'll be back again, and when we do, we can't wait to shake your hand or give you a hug. But right now, bear with us, you can really only shop and have a conversation.
Have you considered any sort of virtual programming?
We've considered it. So much of what virtual music has become is just like, a DJ live streams with a camera focused on their face, and it’s not that exciting. If I were to come up with an idea that offered something different than that, I definitely would do it.
How confident do you feel about someday returning to your pre-pandemic business model?
I truly believe people will come together again and that there will be a point, probably post-vaccine, where we're not afraid to hug and shake hands. What I am scared about is, I think there's going to be a pretty massive exodus out of New York, especially among the artist class that we count as our friends, family, and community. Already, five to 10 friends have decided to leave during the pandemic. And I think there's a big chunk of people that won't end up coming back. I think we'll still exist and find a way to nurture our community, but it may be smaller. And that may be for the better, since we do pride ourselves on providing an intimate space. But it is a little worrying. It is sad to watch so many of our friends leave town. I mean, I'll send a few text messages to see if anybody wants to meet for a coffee outside or whatever. And once I get three or four nos, I'm like, Have I reached out to all my friends? So yeah, that's what scares me the most. But New York will come back. I truly believe it. It's a question of when and how.
How to help:
- Follow on Instagram, Facebook, and SoundCloud
- Visit the sidewalk bar this Friday, August 21st starting at 6pm (programming will continue biweekly on Fridays)
Until next time,