I’d known about the Los Angeles design shop Specific Merchandise for nearly a year before I figured out that its name was a play on the idea of the general store. “I wanted to have a huge range of things, but when I started thinking about it, I liked the idea of flipping that and being specific rather than general,” says Brooks Hudson Thomas, the former Blackman Cruz manager who set out his own shingle at the beginning of last year on a stretch of Beverly Boulevard that includes Lawson-Fenning, L.A. Eyeworks, and the former digs of TenOverSix. “One model I had in mind was a museum shop, but sort of trying to kick its ass. The other was stores like Moss, Matter, and The Future Perfect, which also have that blurry store/gallery vibe.” It’s a shop model that’s only recently begun to take hold in Los Angeles with stores like TenOverSix and Iko Iko, and Thomas isn’t totally sure if people are catching on. “I think the context I show things in can be confusing to people,” he says. “I change over the stock a lot, and it goes from being quilts to chairs to paintings. A lot of times people will say, ‘Hey, what happened to that little shop?’”
Thomas has a master’s in painting from UCLA, and it’s true the store is both more cerebral and more conceptual than your average L.A. design shop. (The name also makes reference to the Donald Judd essay “Specific Objects” and a conversational trope from a Lawrence Weiner film called Water in Milk Exists — “basically a porn with studio assistants having sex and talking about philosophy,” Thomas says. “There is this funny part where these kids are having sex and one of them says, ‘Is this general or is it specific?’And I was like, ‘Oh! That’s it!’”) Last year, Thomas redid the shop six times, clearing out the space and replacing it wholesale with new exhibitions every few months. “I didn’t realize when I first opened that it would end up being run like a gallery where I would really change over everything depending on what I was finding and what it needed to be shown with,” he says. “But when I started talking to people I wanted to work with, like Workstead in Brooklyn or Todosomething in Los Angeles, it became more attractive to them when it became a featured exhibition with a party. And I suddenly realized, “Oh, I can run this like a gallery. I can consign things.”
Thomas spent much of his original capital acquiring vintage inventory that now lives on a 1stdibs page, but he soon found that the vintage — a market that’s oversaturated enough in Los Angeles without the addition of sites like Etsy — wasn’t selling for the most part, and that his other focus — work made by artists or designers or architects he knew from L.A. or found through scouting — was beginning to interest him more in any case. And so an aesthetic began to evolve — one that mixed the old and new, that focused on color and mixed materials, and that clearly stemmed from the passion of a guy who appreciates finding beauty in the high and low. (The offerings range from four-figure French wirework lamps to tiny packets of classical literature that come stuffed in cigarette boxes and cost under 20 bucks.) “One reason I personally run my shop this way is that I’m not really interested in having something if someone else has it, in part because a lot of my friends are shopkeepers and I don’t want to compete with them,” says Thomas.
The odd retail model has had its drawbacks, though, and Thomas plans this year to be a bit less ambitious in terms of turnover. He’s also contemplating a move to a collective space on La Cienega. Before he abandons the quirky narrow footprint he occupies on Beverly, we take you on a tour to find out more.
When Philadelphia adman Steven Grasse talks about his 20 years at the helm of Gyro Worldwide, the successful agency he shuttered in 2008, his assessment is as blunt as you might expect from the man who invented Bikini Bandits, a video series about strippers, guns, and hot rods: “I was the asshole who did the Camel ads,” he says. “At Gyro, we had this ‘I’ll fuck anything that moves’ philosophy.” That all changed in 2008, when he sold Sailor Jerry — the rum brand he created before going on to help develop Hendrick's Gin — to William Grant & Sons for “more money than I ever made in advertising,” he says. Grasse quickly changed the name of his agency to Quaker City Mercantile, and transformed its mission completely. “Now we only work on brands that we create and own or with clients I truly like personally,” he says. The most personal of those projects is Art in the Age, the Old City store and liquor brand Grasse began working on the day he sold Sailor Jerry.
“I was so dim,” says Greg Krum. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and Krum, best known around New York as retail director of the wonderfully quirky Shop at Cooper-Hewitt, is puttering around the sun-drenched kitchen of a renovated 1890s townhouse he shares with two roommates in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He’s trying to recall the origins of his other career: that of a photographer about to mount his first solo show this May at New York’s Jen Bekman gallery. “Growing up, I was always attracted to making art, but I didn’t think I could do it because I couldn’t draw. I was like, ‘Okay. That’s out.’ Then I finally realized it’s not about that. It’s about living a life of ideas.”
Inside Kristin Dickson’s store Iko Iko in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, there are polka dot shirts and wooden knitting needles, zig-zag coathooks and Mexican moccasins, ceramic urns and jars of jam. There are selections from Dickson’s crystal and vintage-book collections — the latter with titles like “On Weaving” or “On Fiberworks” — plus pieces from her boyfriend Shin Okuda’s furniture line Waka Waka. And as of this month, these items were joined by a haul of objects from a three-week trip the couple took to Okuda’s native Japan, where the fare spanned vintage textiles to traditional trivets to novelties like toothpaste and black Q-tips. It’s a credit to the pair’s curating talents that the shop nevertheless feels like the product of a coherent vision. “I focus on work that balances high design with craft and traditional processes,” says Dickson. “I want it to be a fun exploration of textures, cultural artifacts, utilitarian objects, and beautiful curiosities.”