In the last three months, the New York-based sculptor — whose unyielding tongue-in-cheek career narrative touches on handicraft, luxury and nihilism, often while riffing on brands like Chanel and Hermès — mounted exhibits at Jeffrey Deitch and the Noguchi Museum. In March, his 10-foot-tall My Melody bronze sold at Christie’s for more than double its conservative estimate — fetching $221,000.
So when asked by his studio landlord to use the Centre Street building’s storefront as a community-building exercise, the artist naturally veered toward a project that involved selling things. In October, he reappropriated a previous installation façade to embark on Bodega 245 — a concept shop-as-sculpture that would cull denizens of downtown’s art, fashion and food industries.
The plywood and polycarbonate structure — now on view at the Brooklyn Museum as part of Sachs’ “Boombox Retrospective” there, through Aug. 14 — stocks products of high quality and zeitgeist-y repute. Marshmallow Fluff and Maruchan Ramen sit beside gourmet granola and Mark Gonzales clay sculptures, with products ranging from $1 to $3,000.
The bodega is stocked with tools to fix “nearly anything,” and is retrofitted with an espresso machine — slinging cortados by Peddler Coffee. For $20, passersby can have their photo taken for a “Swiss Passport” — providing them access to Tom Sachs’ special public engagements. To foster community and add interest, the structure plays home to a rotation of artist residencies that have included Bellport, New York’s Auto Body and Donda’s Heron Preston and Virgil Abloh.
Now with bona fide New York retailing experience under his belt, Sachs feels a need to caution the rest of the industry on the pitfalls of modern commercialism and poorly bred American consumption habits. It is his feeling that New York retail is all too monotonous and that “the chickens have come home to roost.”
But with some careful tweaks, he feels that retail could serve a purpose other than a simple, if frustrating, materialistic exchange.
“The thing that retailers always miss out on is that you are doing community service. The first rule of retail is that you are there to serve your customers. Sometimes that is giving them what they ask for. Sometimes it’s telling them what they want,” he explained.
Such laurels have proven to work for him — with his bodega far outpacing projections. “Our sales of Zagnut bars and cat food have gone through the roof,” the artist reports of the bodega’s success. He declined to reveal sales figures for the retail venture.
Upon initially meeting WWD at an event organized by the Whitney Museum, the artist voiced concern over the commercial homogenization of many New York neighborhoods, including the Whitney’s surrounding Meatpacking District, as well as the onetime artists’ enclave, SoHo.
According to Sachs, high commercial rents are initiating a sharp cultural downfall in New York: With so much money paid to real estate, little is left to properly pay attentive personnel, mull innovation and provide a generally enjoyable experience.
“Retailers in New York are forced to pay rents that are too high, so they can’t really afford to provide a quality of service that matches the experience. It’s difficult to get people who are dedicated as salespeople to work in a store…the educated consumer, someone who spends 10 minutes online before more than likely knows more about the product than the person whose job it is to be selling and that is super frustrating because they are thwarters,” he told WWD at the Brooklyn Museum.
According to Cushman & Wakefield, ground-floor asking retail rents in SoHo during the first quarter were 147 percent higher than they were nine years earlier, rising to nearly $600 a square foot. Meanwhile, availability rates have increased to 25 percent from 10 percent in that time.
“The beauty of SoHo at the end of the Eighties — it was centuries of development and there was this magical moment — a decade — where you had industry working side-by-side with retail, with galleries, good restaurants. So you had this incredible mix, you had artists there so there was a community,” said Sachs.
Steven Soutendijk, an adviser for Cushman & Wakefield, acknowledged New York retail’s dearth of individuality even as he defended the city’s shopping environment. “I would say that tourists can get a lot of the same product [as they can at home], but it is a totally different shopping experience because of the restaurants, because of the culture, because of SoHo architecture. But yes, they can get Michael Kors on The Bund in Shanghai.”
Sachs feels that New York retail’s inefficiencies and blandness should serve as a wake-up call. He pointed to the loss of Meatpacking establishments like Hogs & Heifers as evidence that the market is sliding into a drab rut. In the past year, independent New York boutiques like the West Village’s Geminola, Meatpacking District’s Owen and SoHo’s Pearl River Mart have also bitten the dust.
“It’s hard because New York is becoming a less interesting place as smaller businesses are evaporating — there is no place to get your shoes fixed, no place to buy a beer in the middle of the night, none of the services that make cities great — it’s become a shopping mall and it’s frustrating because there is no balance. And I don’t just think it’s New York. It’s not like I can solve these problems by just moving to Philadelphia.”
Humor, he feels, is key to an enticing product offering. Says Sachs of his bodega’s services: “We make ‘Swiss Passports’ better and cheaper than any other unauthorized passport maker — I think if you look at the black market, $20 for a handmade Swiss passport is a pretty big deal.”
Sachs feels that such carefully considered quality — particularly at an accessible price — is hard to come by. He nodded to the mid-Seventies shift in the American production model — toward that of “planned obsolescence” — as a true downfall in the retailing experience. It is schlock, not saveur that is presently loaded onto store shelves, he believes.
“That’s when the GDP [gross domestic product] of the U.S. changed from a producing economy to a consumer economy…1974 people look at that time in cars, used goods, art supplies, filmmaking as a shift and we are now at this point globally where everyone, even European companies, is making things to be replaced — disposable goods, planned obsolescence.”
Sachs’ interest in Japanese culture — reckoned in his matcha tea ceremony at the Noguchi Museum — has also informed his retailing perspectives. Bodega 245’s woodland shanty facade and miniature size are not out of line with an experimental Kōenji shopping stall.
“I think [the Japanese] have got it right in the long run to stick to what you are doing and make great things. I’m no economist, but I know what works for a small community and a small island and I think to compete in the global marketplace must be devastating to them. I think that’s the advantage that the artist has — because the artist lives outside normal economic models, like the Japanese live outside normal economic models, we can afford to produce something of this quality and intensity even if people don’t want it, because when you start building things for the consumer you are pandering and making stuff that is not long-term viable, just meant to be replaced.
“The main thing I could encourage retailers that are struggling are to stick to the things that people love and be a source of eternal awesomeness instead of trying to catch up with the other guy and innovating constantly because innovation for its own sake is what’s destroyed the economy of this country — continuing to build on tradition incrementally is what makes Japanese culture so great, because it’s slow and when you innovate incrementally you improve. It’s a strategy that, for American consumers, will only last one generation — you can’t sustain that burn forever.”