Dreamy as a… Doorknob?
Hello and welcome back!
It’s Christina here, and I want to take this first newsletter of the year to look back, before we look forward. And I mean wayyyyyy back.
In January, I worked remotely from Portugal and took every opportunity to explore Lisbon and Porto’s shops. My favorite? A 100-year-old doorknob store.
And as a storied store, it was only one of many.
What can such age-old shops teach us about the future of commerce, culture, community and ultimately ourselves? We explore these question below.
So please settle in, and let me prove that the phrase ‘dull as a doorknob’ has never been more wrong.
Let me set the scene.
It was a cold January afternoon, during a tourist off-season compounded by Covid-19 restrictions. My partner Graham and I were strolling the quiet streets, when we heard happy voices and saw an inviting glow emanating from the windows. ‘Shall we?’ And we crossed the threshold into a hive of congeniality and commerce.
Hinges, handles and hooks lined the walls. Antique keys and locks of all shapes and sizes were nested in neat boxes. Every imaginable drawer pull and doorknob was on display. It’s was just like a candy shop… except for metal work home accessories.
There must have been a dozen people, mostly locals placing orders, perusing boxes and chatting about customization options. There was even a little cafe in the back where a couple were enjoying a glass of port while waiting for a new skeleton key to be cut.
It had been a long time since I’d seen a shop this busy. It seemed so bizarrely niche; what was it’s secret? Why was this old school hardware shop buzzing?
As it turns out, the shop was not an isolated case. Many of the shops in Portugal are steeped in more than 100+ years of history, remaining vibrant and active community anchors today.
There’s even an organization called ‘Lojas Com História’ — or ‘Stores with History’ — that catalogs and promotes a wide range of classic spaces from bookshops to stationaires, florists to tobacconists, haberdasheries to herbalists. Its mission is to safeguard the city’s cultural heritage while also stimulating new commercial activity both locally and through tourism. (There is a fantastic, interactive website which you can explore here.)
But my question remained. In an era that constantly craves the latest, why are these spaces still compelling? When we can when we can presumably find more value, options and convenience online, how do these places survive?
It seems to me that there are several answers.
First, we love places that transport us to another era, that awaken our imagination to history while giving us an appreciation for our lives today. Many age-old shops feel like walking into a living museum, a space steeped in untold stories.
Second, we crave experiences that help put our lives with a broader social or cultural context. We have a built-in desire to be associated with things — communities, causes, institutions — that are bigger than ourselves.
Third, there is a timely (and massively) renewed sense of pride of shopping more slowly and sustainably — and in rework and repair. In many ways, seeking out and supporting traditional artisans is its own status symbol for locals and tourists alike.
So by virtue of patronizing ‘stores with history’, we feel that we are contributing a small page to the continuation of their long story — and in turn — the experience becomes a part of ours. It’s cathedral thinking, but for commerce.
Take for example Caza das Vellas (pictured below) and imagine stepping into a candle shop that has existed since long before the invention of electricity.
You call to mind a lifetime when street lights were lit by hand. You think of the craftsmanship honed over a literal century, the wax sustainably harvested from nearby farms. There’s a sense of awe in how far we’ve collectively come, yet a comfort in knowing that some things remain constant.
And later, when you light these candles at a dinner party, you recapture some of that history and romance — and have a unique story to tell your guests as well.
An IKEA tealight can’t hold a candle to that.
Back at my favorite little hardware store, I confess I bought a shimmery marble drawer pull and two modern ‘hand’ hooks — despite having zero need for them.
Why? Because of this sense of story — theirs and mine.
How many purchases are like this? We collect souvenirs of our experiences even when you are not at a souvenir shop. My drawer pulls are now mementos and an everyday reminder of our trip. I smile each time I see them and think ‘I was here. We were there.’
Did it matter that only a week later I see the same drawer pull served up on an Instagram ad?
Not really. I was surprised, but I didn’t for a minute consider purchasing another. After all, I have the originals, while those see counterfeit.
The experience reminds me of the scene from The Little Prince when he encounters a field of roses that challenges his perception of his own rose back at home.
“Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered.”
We love certain things and places simply because we have, individually and collectively, already spent so long investing in loving them.
So whether you’re selling doorknobs, candles or roses, I’m left with this thought. Beloved shops stand the test of time because of their stories, and how they invite us to write and rewrite ourselves into their pages, over and over again.
This conversation originally appeared in my newsletter, Cream of the Shop, which celebrates the most innovative and exciting retail projects happening today. If you’d like to read more or stay in touch, please sign up here.