Flagship stores dot the major shopping thoroughfares of the big cities of the world. Often they are distinguished as much by their size as by their distinctiveness -- they are monolithic versions of their mall-based cousins.
Yes, they may have a feature or two -- a massive digital screen here, a café there -- that separates the flagship, but essentially this is super-size retail and it is the scale that is impressive. Even Apple's "significant stores" (their term for flagship) are as much about sheer size as they are about uniqueness. (Although no doubt both the architecture and finishes in an average Apple flagship are superior to the norm.)
So when I stumbled on a truly unique flagship on a recent trip to California, I was both delighted and charmed. Nestled in a reclaimed lumberyard at the entrance to the town of Mill Valley, outside San Francisco, is a store called "The Guideboat Co."
Created by the founder of Restoration Hardware, Stephen Gordon, with the assistance of YouTube entrepreneur Chad Hurley, Guideboat is truly one-of-a-kind and a labor of love. The store builds a retail environment around the guideboat, a sleek and elegant fixed-seat rowboat, born in the 19th century on the glassy lakes of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.
Gordon had fond memories of guideboats from his childhood in the Adirondacks, and acquired a rare 1892 J. H. Rushton vessel a few years ago. From this purchase grew the idea for the store - which offers three handmade boats for sale (including a replica of the Rushton guideboat), as well as an eclectic selection of hand-picked product, from Kirby's decking paint to Quoddy Maine Made deck shoes (that may never actually grace the deck of a boat.) The boats themselves are minor works of art, cherry-trimmed and finished with marine bronze fittings.
To spend an hour at Guideboat is to revel in retail at its quirky best - stories well told and merchandise presented so beautifully (and edited so brilliantly) that you lust after every item. Suddenly a US Navy blanket and a Washed Duck Chore Boat are seen not as oddities but must-haves. It's about "living the life"; an experience, as Gordon puts it, "wholly immersed in the Adirondack culture" that inspired him.
To complete the experience, at the side of the store is the "Adirondack Room," a mini-museum with a handful of authentic guideboats on display.
Even though Guideboat harks back to the past, it is in many ways the very model of a modern retailer. While the flagship store presents the fully realized Guideboat vision, an online store services the world.
Whether Guideboat is really retail genius or a rich man's indulgence, who knows? But if great retail is all about pure passion and exquisite execution, there is a lot to be learned from Guideboat - the world's most unique flagship and the worthy anchor of the Mill Valley Lumberyard.