Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wearing Symbols of Our Longing for Realness

There are other types consumption other than just destination travel that signals how deeply rooted the quest for sense of place is in many of us.

One of the examples I will touch on in this essay is with direct mail catalogues for apparel and accessories including why those that seize on authenticity aren’t just a trend.

Thumb through one from Orvis, J.L. Powell or Territory Ahead the next time it arrives, and look at how carefully the backdrops reflect the “realness” of places in hopes that it rubs off on the products.

It is why when some lose this connection with realness and roots when they fall under private equity owners and then have to scramble to get it back such as has periodically seemed to happen over the years with Eddie Bauer, Lands End and Woolrich, even L.L. Bean and Plow & Hearth.

Drifting away from roots and authenticity is usually first manifest online not because the design and functionality isn’t good but because the sites begin to take on a generic quality.

This is far too evident in my former field of community destination marketing.  Even those depicting communities that still retain aspects of sense of place are not immune.

In fact, the drift of marketing materials toward generic may be a sort of graphical “Freudian slip,” unconsciously betraying the deterioration of the “there” there in a particular community.

Research shows that even the so-called “selfie-generation” holds authenticity as one of the top five attributes for brands of any type.  This is inspiring some historic brands to return to its roots with its 1816 catalogue.

The founder of a newer entry in that apparel and gear market is Guideboat Co. and he comes by his sense of authenticity honestly.

Steven Gordon also founded Restoration Hardware when he was restoring an old Queen Anne Victorian house in Eureka, California more than three decades ago.

The inspiration emerged as he started collecting source material for authentic items such as door knobs and then began finding similar emblems of authenticity for other folks.

In 1980, Gordon opened the first Restoration Hardware store in Eureka’s Old Town District which is where I saw it during a stop while driving up along the Pacific route linking the old Spanish missions in September 2001, the day before 9/11.

But I was learning about the company in reverse, spotting the store first along 23rd Avenue in the village-like Northwest District of Portland, Oregon where my daughter lived during the mid to late 1990s.

The year after that 2001 road trip up U.S. Route 101 is when one opened where I live in Durham, North Carolina at The Streets at Southpoint, and by then the chain was a long way from its Eureka roots.

In 2005, Gordon left the company for others to run.  In his words, he missed the trenches but I think he was also beginning to miss the link to authenticity.

Lacking the authenticity sensibilities of Starbucks, Restoration Hardware closed that first store in 2008 just before I retired, stating ironically that customers could find alternatives in the suburbs.

The company’s stores were rapidly becoming high-end design studios for authenticity “wanna-bees.”

For a time after he left RH, Gordon ran Sundance, a lifestyle direct mail catalogue that had been started in 1989 by actor/director Robert Redford and named for the mountain resort he developed using sense of place principles up Provo Canyon from BYU.

I would still like to find a photographic essay book I saw in Salt Lake City while visiting to attend my daughter’s college graduation.  It was centered around quotes from Norman Maclean’s sense-of-place masterpiece, A River Runs Through It.

But ever since it was taken public a decade after Redford imbued its sensibilities, the catalogue has strayed far, far away from that sense of authenticity.

There are some things private equity firms just can’t grasp.

One of them seems to be the importance of sense of rootedness and authenticity that research shows is appealing to at least 7-in-10 consumers and preferred as a backdrop by the remainder.

So unable to sustain or transfer sensibilities that come natural to him, some say from his background growing up in the Adirondacks, Gordon started from scratch last year, literally going back to his roots as an entrepreneur with an uncanny grasp of sense of place.

He started Guideboat Co., first by restoring two 19th century buildings including an original mercantile store and an old hardware store followed by a direct mail counterpart filled with sense of place images.

Business associations such as chambers of commerce often struggle to understand sense of place which is the forte of community marketing counterparts with that as a focus.

As one exec in Eureka noted when stunned by shuttering of the first Restoration Hardware, for many the demise of sense of place is an inevitable “national trend” 

But sense of place or being authentic and real, is not a trend.  Americans have been longing for rootedness and heritage since the day we first steps on these shores more than 500 years ago.

The idea of clothing that looks vintage or pre-worn goes back to the 1950s, a fashion so prevalent that it is sure to be a source of heartburn for archeologists one day as they seek to discern what is really authentic from our yearning for authenticity.

DMOs still clinging to sense of place in the communities they promote understand that marketing a brand is important but in the words of Starbucks’ relentless CEO Howard Schultz, “it is authenticity that makes them last.”

When we first cranked up community marketing for Durham more than 25 years ago, one of the most popular publications we distributed via the front desks in corporations and other local businesses as a means to encourage visitor circulation was the Downtown Durham Walking Tour.

The most common comment we heard back from surveys was that it was cool because the urban village-like character and scale of downtown made it seem so familiar to visitors.

In essence it evoked where they grew up or felt they had grown up.

That it was all deserted and boarded up back then is urban myth.

The fact is, it wasn’t.  Festivals frequently filled the streets on weekends.  Durham Bulls games filled the old DAP.  Thousands walked the streets to and from businesses and agencies each day.

One side of Main Street rivaled Brightleaf Square for nightlife, and people who worked four miles away at RTP were already populating second story lofts.

There were numerous artist studios Downtown including one for an artist named Tim O. Walker who decorated store fronts below his downtown Durham loft with modernistic furniture designs before leaving for Miami where he took restoration and custom cabinetry to the level of sculpture.

Another had been converted into a boutique theater that was packed for micro productions such as Greater Tuna, a la the way performers used storefronts down Mason Street in San Francisco at the time.

A brewery and a ravioli factory were building on Durham’s already emerging local foods movement.

But two of the most popular downtown businesses back then were places like that first Restoration Hardware, and drew crowds of hobby restorationists from as far as several surrounding states.

Rick Morgan has a similar operation here now called The Reuse Warehouse taking to an entirely new level what his parents who own Morgan Imports, did for decades on the side.

Steven Gordon would feel right at home there but there isn’t room now for that kind of business in Downtown Durham as it sheds its realness in exchange for higher property values.

Developers who fancy themselves as resurrectionists don’t have the restorationist sensibilities of the Morgan’s.  City planners and permit issuers would be well advised to have Richard vet all downtown projects for sense of place and authenticity.

He grew up just across the tracks from where Morgan Imports is today in the historic Durham Laundry complex.  After attending Duke, he served in Vietnam.

When he got home in 1969 he established a gift shop like the ones he had seen on leave in Okinawa.  It was in the former Stephenson-Wilson Pontiac Dealership which was on Morgan St. where the entrance to parking for Brightleaf Square is now.

The building burned and the store became an anchor in Brightleaf, which had been created in 1980 from two historic tobacco warehouses, before the Morgan’s renovated for adaptive reuse first the old Laundry and the building where Parker & Otis is now.

The first time I met him, he took me to see a stash of “heart of pine” flooring he had rescued from warehouses being demolished.

Richard also represents the heart Durham’s sense of place and someone Stephen Gordon would feel right at home with.

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