the accidental entrepreneur. column 1 — on location

‘To be successful in retail, you just have to remember 3 rules: location, location, and location’. I could still remember my teacher’s voice while I was waiting for the first customer to step in my store. It was close to 8 p.m., the store closing time…

a few weeks ago, I had suddenly decided to open a small select store in a dead end street in the residential district of Tin Hau in Hong Kong, amongst garages. This decision was very impulsive. I had just started a distribution business for the Italian notebook brand Moleskine and I was looking for a showroom. One of my friends recommended this location, I loved the quiet feeling, the big windows and the beautiful banyan tree right in front of the shop. The space was far too big for a showroom and an office for my assistant and I, so I made up my mind : I will open a store !

my friend helped me with the store decoration, clean and minimal, based on our tastes and also the equally minimal budget. I set up a few trips and contacted a few of my favourite brands. We displayed a few products elegantly on second hand vintage furniture. I had a good feeling about the store, it really gave me a similar vibe as a few of my favourite stores I had stumbled upon during my trips to Paris and Tokyo.

Once the excitement of the opening party passed, here I was now, desperately waiting for customer during very long days. I was really starting to doubt myself and my rash idea to open a store without any kind of retail background. The street was nice and quiet but the only passerbys were residents on their way to work or back home (inconveniently before or after my store opening hours).

After a few days spent whining, I tried to think of the few positive aspects of my supposedly horrible location:

  • first the rent was dirt-cheap , which I would later learn, is a complete anomaly in Hong Kong. I did not have much pressure to cover my rent, which allowed me to create kapok as my dream project: no compromises, no need to present ‘overly commercial’ brands to break even.
  • The space was actually very bright, open in a green quiet street. If I could get people to come, they would likely want to stay, or dare I dream, come back. Compared to Hong Kong hectic, noisy atmosphere, the store was the perfect environment to take a break and be receptive to new ideas, new designs
  • To be surrounded by garages doesn’t seem ideal for a select store, but I felt it could give an edgier feel to kapok. Also, I had a lucky break when I discovered that the garages were specializing in repairing rather fancy cars. I set up a coffee machine and welcomed customers waiting for their cars to be fixed, and who started to become my customers. I must say this was totally unplanned but this stroke of luck was very welcome.
  • Finally, I had space, the ultimate luxury in Hong Kong. The store had three big white walls and was a perfect square with a small back-office. It really looked like a perfect white cube, a.k.a. a perfect art gallery. My artist friends quickly noticed that and, naturally, I started organizing events and exhibitions in kapok.

The first exhibition was a really amazing show organized by my friends Samantha and Adrian. ‘sleepover psychedelia’ was a group show about DIY culture in teenage suburban America. It was full of life and Adrian even built a fort right in the middle of the store. The opening party was full of life and energy. People were overflowing in the empty street, a perfect location for a block part. it was the first time I felt I was doing the right thing with the store.

This was the first of many exhibitions and parties. These parties became synonym with kapok, drew very diverse crowds to the store. They really put kapok on the ‘cool map’ and were seen as a smart marketing strategy by some. Even though it was unplanned, I had learned to make the most of that strange location.

Finally I discovered the ultimate benefit of being a bit away from the obvious retail locations. In a world where it’s so easy to shop anytime from the comfort of your home, or where you can go to a mall that will not close before midnight, kapok required more effort. A bit of treck to find well-designed beautiful objects that you cannot find anything else, would give more satisfaction than anything more ‘convenient’. And receiving a gift from kapok meant that someone made a certain effort to pick something for you…

Everything seemed to go well and kapok in Tin Hau was slowly starting to get better and better. Until I picked up an envelope under my door one morning. I opened it without paying attention until I found a notice asking me to leave the locations within a month. The beautiful walk-up building I had grown to love was going to be demolished soon…

(to be continued… first published in gq taiwan… find more on kapok at www.ka-pok.com)