Now that we’ve gotten to know each other a bit, I’m going to share a secret with you. But let’s keep it between you and me.
I’m going to tell you about my favorite store in the world. Because it illustrates one of the more subtle elements of luxury, and what it takes to provide a true luxury experience.
True luxury is not always about high polish, or high prices, or even high intellectual engagement – sometimes it doesn’t even involve shoes (I know it comes as a surprise to some that I would say such a thing). Sometimes luxury is about an intuitive understanding of what is meaningful for a consumer: what will inspire; what will evoke memory; what will create intimacy; what will make a product or an experience feel as if it was created uniquely for this consumer and yet somehow also provides them with a connection to a meaningful community of like-minded others; what feels purposeful; what will spark joy.
It’s about touching the heart and the soul, and not really so much at all about getting into someone’s head, although that’s a part of it.
A brilliant merchant knows how to do this, even in a small space off the beaten path. Here’s a real-life example of what I mean: my favorite store in the world.
You know how, if you’re lucky, sometimes in life you meet people who just “get” you? Who share your sense of humor, and taste, and also your politics and your sense of what is just and fair in the world? And sometimes they’re even good-looking? Well, I met a store like that. It’s called Portobello Road, and it’s in the town of Edgartown, Massachusetts, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
My family vacations on the island each summer, and so over time, this store and I have developed a history. Like many old friendships, I cannot actually remember the first time we met. I just know that over the years, this store has become for me a hideaway, a treasure chest, a font of inspiration and a fabulous source of Christmas gifts (yes, I am that person who does their Christmas shopping while on summer holiday).
How to describe it? In its logo, Portobello Road declares itself a seller of Found Objects, Curiosities, Etcetera. It sits on a little street one block off of Edgartown Harbor, flanked by ice cream and pizza shops, and in its window are all manner of framed posters and oversized wooden signs, all vintage, all full of humor and whimsy (one says “Moonlight Motel — Color TVs in every room” — with a ‘50’s-era smiling crescent moon illustration. That kind of thing.)
I adore this store.
On a hot summer day, it beckons you in with the promise of coolness and space to dream. On a rainy day, it feels small and cozy, literally a refuge from the storm. Fair weather or foul, a deep sense of contentment will settle in about sixty seconds after you cross the doorstep.
Once inside, you will find a riot of vintage signs, wall art, coffee mugs, miscellany trays, stationary, scented candles, witty greeting cards for every conceivable occasion, and books, books, everywhere books. Books about travel, art, architecture, design, novels, non-fiction, kids’ books, gorgeous books of photography, books that are long out of print, books you meant to read but didn’t, books you never knew existed, a perfect book for your best friend, for your mom, for your child, for you alone.
I once chased all over Manhattan looking for a book of photographs that I wanted to give my husband as a gift. I hit every Barnes & Noble in the city, plus a couple of independent bookstores. No luck. Not in stock, can’t be ordered. This summer, as I browsed the aisles of Portobello Road, there was the book, waiting patiently on a shelf at eye level, the last copy in the store. Of course. It had been there all along.
That’s how it is, with me and this store. I go in needing nothing, looking for nothing in particular, and knowing with great certainty that there is something waiting for me there, and all I have to do is look closely and I’ll find it. If that’s not luxury, I don’t know what is.
There is always lovely romantic music playing, Harry Connick singing Cole Porter, that sort of thing. There is always a warm golden light, the sales staff is uniformly well-informed, friendly and chic, and everyone seems to leave there in a happy mood. It could be 1960, it could be 1990, it could be now, it could be some lovely moment in the future, all swirling around you in a kaleidoscope of color and light.
Halloween is one of my favorite holidays and at Portobello Road, I found a triptych of old New Yorker Magazine covers from Halloweens past, matted and framed in a charmingly retro manner. They look like something that you’d find in your favorite auntie’s attic. Now they grace my hallway. My favorite of the three is a sketch of a witch, straightening her hat in the mirror as she prepares to head out into the night sky. Her broomstick waits eagerly in the corner of the frame, and the full moon peeks through the window. It’s from Halloween 1967, and it conveys the exact infectious feeling of anticipation, mischievousness and sweetness that accompanies trick-or-treating.
How did this store know how much that image would mean to me?
The proprietor is a delightful man who also runs a neighboring store called The League of Gentlemen. It’s a men’s store, and in its front window, in this summer of political turmoil and shockingly hateful rhetoric, the owner has written on the glass with white greasepaint quotes from Rodney King, Muhammed Ali and Reggie Jackson – their words are proud and poignant, sassy and wry, and they appeal to an innate sense of decency and fellowship. On the walls of this store, I have seen the owner hang framed black-and-white photos from the civil rights movement, and Ivy League pennants, and vintage football jerseys, and all manner of ephemera, most of it not even for sale. Once, I tried to buy one of the photos and he kindly informed me that it was there to be seen, not to be sold. Then he gave me the name of the photographer so that I could try to get a copy of my own.
At Portobello Road, the social justice is salted through the store with a lighter hand, but it’s there for anyone who chooses to see it: the little sketch of a white man with a goatee and a navy beret with the caption “Black Lives Matter,” the book of vintage Gordon Parks photos, the plethora of non-fiction books about race, and poverty, and getting out of your comfort zone.
There are many wonderful stores in the world. Not always in the places you might expect. I have fallen in love with general stores in small towns in Vermont and New Hampshire, with charming bookstores in hideaways in Colorado and South Carolina, with a chocolate shop in a narrow alleyway in Paris, with the LV store in Singapore, and of course with the glittering iconic department stores of Manhattan.
But this is my favorite store in the world – a place I would describe as pure luxury, despite its modest trappings. It speaks to me at a level beyond commerce, and that is the height of marketing, I think – a visit has become not about getting and spending, but about a personal journey.
I hope you have a store like this in your life. If you do, we’d love to hear about it.