Some businesses prosper despite their poor design

At Stadler-Kahn , which calls itself "an exalted 5 and dime," every aesthetic detail has been carefully considered. TOM GRALISH / Staff
At Stadler-Kahn , which calls itself "an exalted 5 and dime," every aesthetic detail has been carefully considered. TOM GRALISH / Staff
Posted: November 10, 2012

When Shake Shack took over the space Dom's Shoe Repair Service had occupied since 1994, Dom's owner Leandro Montalto found a storefront down the street.

The Roxborough native made very few modifications to the former dry cleaner's space. He ripped up wall-to-wall carpeting in favor of laminate hardwood flooring, and changed the color of the faux-wood wainscoting from blue to white. Why? "It's a little more appealing," Montalto says, shrugging.

It's fair to say he put less thought into designing interactions with his customers than Shake Shack did. There, the order-taker asks your name before handing you a buzzer so when you go to pick up your food, the server can thank you personally. It's a small detail, but memorable. At Dom's, it's unclear which of two counters to approach upon entering, and there's nowhere comfortable to sit while waiting, shoeless, for shoes to be shined.

Montalto's approach is in direct opposition to trends in the growing field of service design, where companies spend a pretty penny for firms to examine interactions with consumers and make these touch points meaningful and memorable. Starbucks hired San Francisco-based Dubberly Design Office to mastermind its customers' paths from entrance to exit. You may walk in of your own free will, but once inside, your every move has been choreographed. Starbucks is selling a latte wrapped in an experience. (More on that experience later.)

Montalto is going into his third decade of business, and he just opened a third location. It's a success attributable to a reasonably priced job well done in an industry that has little, if any, online competition. But another reason may be the aggressive non-slickness of his operation. Its hallmarks are a lack of intention regarding the customer experience - almost flagrantly anti-design.

Every city, especially ones like Philadelphia where grit outweighs gentrification, has businesses like these. Stepping through their front doors feels like stepping back into an era before design permeated everything. People usually think of dives in terms of restaurants and bars, like Center City's Little Pete's and Oscar's Tavern, but there are plenty of dive stores. Many of the fabric shops on Fabric Row qualify. So do Harry's Occult Shop on South Street and the Book Trader on North Second. How do they survive?

There is a model called the Experience Cycle that explains the thinking behind Starbucks' barista language: At first a new customer is confused by the strange words on the menu (grande? venti? macchiato?). But the process is designed so he will hear the order three times: once from the customer ahead of him, once as called out by the clerk to the barista, and a third time as repeated by the barista. That's just enough for the typical newbie to get it. Soon he starts to own it. He has fun with it and even makes fun of it. He feels like one of the survivors, one of the gang.

There's a similar but somewhat altered framework at work at a dive: Disoriented by a chaotic measure of disorder, the customer perseveres and prevails despite the store's questionable appearance, the shopkeeper's brusque or odd manner, the inefficient process. When the reward is a well-shined or repaired shoe, the experience is seen anew through a scrim of charm. The customer feels smart and empowered.

Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term "third place" in his 1989 classic, The Great Good Place. He was writing about stores, cafes, salons, and other places between home and work where people socialize and build community. There are plenty of those in Philadelphia, too.

One is Stadler-Kahn, which opened this summer in the small, subterranean space below Joseph Fox Bookshop on Sansom Street. Owner Alexander Stadler is an illustrator of children's books, a designer of textiles, and an earnest conversationalist with a talent for repartee. Never mind that every aesthetic detail in his space is well-considered. (Stadler painted the walls "mouse," to make his merchandise glow à la Christian Dior's Paris flagship, where the walls and sales assistants are similarly cloaked in a neutral pearl gray.) His shop is designed for him to interact with customers.

As at most independents, the interactions are more randomly occurring than prearranged. Since he picks every item himself, he provides backstories and context while customers are browsing. Stadler features local artists and designers, and presides over sangria and sweets every Thursday evening to encourage customers to mingle. Stadler-Kahn is as "third place" as a five and dime can be.

Dives, or anti-design establishments, build community, too, but it happens outside their four walls. Against a growing backdrop of slick, designed spaces and "experiences," the continued patronage of a dive becomes something to share. One Yelp user actually upped her rating of Dom's from three stars to four because "the place is right out of a storybook." She even provides several gritty details, adding, "Maybe it's authentic, maybe it's not, but I think it's awesome."

I mostly think it's awesome, too. Any entrepreneur great at what he does deserves success, regardless of his knack for architecting visual merchandising. And at a time when we are starting to expect manipulation by design, a diverse mix of chains and independents is vital for a city to maintain its character. Surely some storefront makeovers are in order, to encourage sidewalk appeal - and a more well-designed city. But there is always a place for one or two Dom's, arguably more than yet another neighborhood Starbucks.

Caroline Tiger is a design writer in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter at @carolinetiger.

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