Managing editor Kitania Folk asked questions of three of the many contributors to the forthcoming Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire (McSweeney’s, January 2020). This book tells the story of how 826 Valencia, and dozens of centers like it, got built — and why. Thank you to Deborah Bullivant of Grimm & Co, Jonas Kellner of the Woodland Creature Outfitters Ltd, and Scott Seeley of 826NYC and The Writers Block for offering us a peek at how you created your offbeat, incredible, unnecessarily beautiful spaces.
Deborah Bullivant is an educationalist, creative and social entrepreneur who built Grimm & Co on a bedrock of robust research that set out the design and philosophy blueprint for a successful Yorkshire writing center, based in Rotherham for children and young people.
KITANIA FOLK: How did you think of the theme for Grimm & Co.’s storefront?
DEBORAH BULLIVANT: The inspiration for the Apothecary to the Magical did not come from the fictional world of humans at all. The apothecary primarily provides a fantastical front for the story destination. We wanted to create an immersive theatrical experience for all of our customers and provide excellent customer service for magical beings and the odd human. We created the Apothecary to the Magical, where immortals and beings of the magical persuasion can purchase all their ready-made ingredients and potions — including Extract of Genius; Success Stimulant; and Human Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
KF: What vision did you have for the role that Grimm & Co. would play in the community of Rotherham, England?
DB: I wanted our center to be on the doorstep of the people who needed it the most. It would serve children and young people from across the county of Yorkshire and Humberside but just a skip away from the marginalized areas where children have the greatest challenges to deal with every day. The center would provide an exciting destination that allows children to shake off the chaos of the world they live in. An exciting space to ignite and nurture imaginations. The suspension of disbelief gives licence to use the imagination and reimagine their worlds, and with this, their own narratives within the world.
KF: From the outside in, it seems that you were quite successful in including creative folks of varying backgrounds to help bring Grimm & Co. come to life. How were you able to accomplish this and how would you encourage others to do the same?
DB: Grimm & Co’s brand, authenticity, creativity is totally due to a host of key organizations and volunteers from within the community, the artists’ networks, and the business world around us who grasped the importance of the story. From our wonderful writer, Jeremy Dyson, to the designers, Side by Side, right on through to the volunteers — we all rolled up our sleeves and volunteered to make the space become the best it could be, because this community deserves it! The icing on the cake is keeping it real — the story is believed by every member of staff and every volunteer to ensure every visitor receives the experience of Graham Grimm’s Apothecary to the Magical!
Jonas Kellner is an architect at WRNS Studio and has 20 years of experience in the design of a spectrum of projects including spaces for education and commercial use. He designed the third home for 826 Valencia in the Mission Bay, including its storefront, The Woodland Creature Outfitters, Ltd. Jonas also designed the second 826 Valencia location in the Tenderloin and its storefront, King Carl’s Emporium.
KITANIA FOLK: How did the idea for The Woodland Creature Outfitters, Ltd. come to be?
JONAS KELLNER: The original concept started as an enchanted forest — and we had no name for the store. The enchanted forest came from a desire to present a new concept, and work within a framework that enabled 826 to reuse some products from the other San Francisco stores. Plus Dave kept bringing up a lumberjack store. As designers, we like the idea of the enchanted forest as a place where the heroine has to journey through, overcome obstacles and through that journey become enlightened. We found this to be a great metaphor for the learning that takes place in the center. As the design for the enchanted forest developed, we knew we needed a catchy and ironic name for the store beyond “forest supplies.” Office and 826 staff ran with this idea until it grew into the tongue twister that it is today, complete with Ltd for emphasis.
KF: Did the center’s whimsical storefront require you shift your mindset at all during the design process?
JK: Not at all. Our design started as an enchanted forest so everything in the store emerged organically out of that starting point. From our very first design charrette, we had lots of great ideas and the hard part was narrowing down which ideas were feasible (cave, mushrooms, trees) and which were not (real swamps, actual unicorns, and a flowing river through the store).
KF: What was the most unexpected thing that happened during the design and buildout of the Mission Bay Center?
JK: There was so much we learned and discovered along the way, it’s hard to pick just one. Working with all of the artists was a real treat and challenge. They often ran with our initial designs and took them to places even greater than we imagined. My favorite unexpected moment is a really small moment. I was surprised by the communication and coordination between some of the artists on site working on different things. For instance, colors and animals from the mural on the back wall showed up in the cave. That was never planned but was really wonderful. Also — “826” appears in the back-wall mural. The sort of telling a story that exists within itself is really fascinating.
Scott Seeley co-founded 826NYC in Brooklyn, New York in 2004. More recently, he is the founder of The Writer’s Block in Las Vegas, NV in 2014.
KITANIA FOLK: How did what you learned co-founding 826NYC affect how you went about planning and opening The Writer’s Block?
SCOTT SEELEY: We were a lot younger when we started 826NYC and I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t have a ton of business experience at the time. As Executive Director of 826NYC for ten years, I learned a good deal about how, and how not, to run a business. And as much fun as coming up with all the creative stuff for projects like these can be, I knew, going into the planning of The Writer’s Block (WB), that I needed to spend a good deal of time up front putting together a solid business plan.
I spent the better part of a year building and revising the business plan for WB — not only drawing on what I learned working at 826 but doing lots and lots — and lots — of homework as well. Unlike 826NYC, WB is a for-profit business. So I also knew that if we wanted to be able to provide the same programming 826 does, free-of-charge, that the store not only needed to break even but make enough money to fund those programs. I definitely don’t discount the critical importance of all the creative aspects of both spaces, but I really wanted to open WB with a strong understanding of how we were going to sustain ourselves financially.
KF: Creativity? Perseverance? What qualities are most needed to open spaces like the ones you did?
SS: I’m guessing this is true of most businesses, but having a great team was absolutely critical to opening both 826NYC and WB. The original 826NYC team was a sort of off-shoot of the first McSweeney’s store we had opened in Brooklyn four years prior, so a lot of the initial folks that helped put the Superhero Store, etc. together had already been working together for several years. WB’s start-up crew was much smaller – largely myself, my husband / co-owner and the former store manager of the Superhero Store, who moved out to Vegas with us for a year and a half to help get it up and running.
Related, I also think it’s important, especially on the creative side of things, to have someone, or a small few, acting as a director(s). Which is not to say, creative input from everyone is not important — it is absolutely necessary — but at the end of the day, someone needs to have a specific plan and vision for the business. The style, look, feel, etc. of the storefront, in particular, can get a bit muddy when there are too many cooks in the kitchen.
KF: What exactly is an Artificial Bird Sanctuary and how does that theme interact with the bookstore and youth writing center?
SS: When we were planning WB, we actually went in intentionally not wanting a specific theme. I love the Superhero Store dearly, but after ten years, I felt constrained — or maybe just a bit tired — of the theme, so I wanted a space that could follow whatever creative whims I had from one year to the next. Not dissimilar, in a way, to the original McSweeney’s store.
Then the artificial birds started rolling in. Originally, we had just ordered a few, but they were so amazing – and there are so many varieties – they just kind of took over. Along with a ten-foot by fifteen-foot birdcage, which is the first thing you see when you enter our space, our store is filled with rafters that are now inhabited by many, many, many artificial birds, which have individual, one-of-a-kind biographies (birdographies) hanging from a tag attached to one of their legs. Customers can select a bird from anywhere in the store (eg. Steve, the parrot) and, after a small fee and a short adoption ceremony, take them home. There are also a few larger interactive birds, such as the King Pigeon, that live permanently in the store. In his case, customers write to him asking for advice and return a week later to receive his response. And we’re currently about to introduce a psychic peacock who will give customers their horoscope and two flamingo sisters that will regale them with stories of old Vegas.
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Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire
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