This week, I attended the National Retail Federation (NRF) trade show in New York. It’s a big event that swallows up the cavernous Jacob Javits Convention Center with hundreds of booths, meeting rooms and dining areas. The show features somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 speakers in a variety of session topics that are a mixed bag.
Some of the sessions are snoozers, but a few blow you away with some new information or a great speaker or phenomenal brand. This morning, I experienced the latter.
Before today, my only connection with the word “Shinola” was the phrase, “You don’t know shit from shinola,” meant to illustrated the stupidity of the targeted individual. Shinola was a brand of shoe polish that was made in American in the 20th century, but has long been out of business.
This morning, I was introduced to a new company called Shinloa, and it was quite by accident.
The sessions at the NRF show are in a variety of venues that run from smallish to gargantuan, and the ones that were in the smallish rooms filled up quickly, leaving frustrated attendees walking away if they didn’t get there at least 15 minutes early. That happened to me at a session, today, and having time to kill, I wandered into one of the large venues to sit down and figure out how to improvise something productive with the hour I had to wait before my next appointment.
The venue I walked into had some guy up on the stage talking about make-tailing, which seemed to be the kind of retail that comes from small, mom-and-pop operations who hand make a product and sell it through either a local brick-and-mortar store or perhaps over the internet through an owned website or something like etsy.
The speaker went on to showcase some American cities with vibrant make-tail economies: New Orleans, Portland, Pittsburgh and Detroit were featured prominently. At the conclusion of his bit, he brought up a guy named Heath Carr, the Chief Operating Officer of a company called Shinola, based in Detroit.
While all of this was going on, I was only half-listening as I studied the event schedule and floor plan, figuring what to do. Having decided to stay put, I got my ear buds out and decided to watch a Casey Neistat vlog or two while I waited for the top of the hour (my feet were killing me).
But as I held my earbuds up to my ear, this Heath Carr guy started talking about Shinola’s passion for American manufacturing. This caught my attention because I can’t remember the last time I heard an American businessman say anything remotely like that. Carr went on to say that Shinola also has a passion for the American worker and that the company was created to create jobs.
After that last bit, the earbuds went back into my backpack and I moved up closer to the front of the auditorium to better see the slides that accompanied Carr’s talk.
I learned that Shinola was dreamed up in Dallas, Texas, by Bedrock Manufacturing, but moved to Detroit in 2012, setting up shop on the fifth floor of a building that was once a GM research facility. Because no watch movements are manufactured in the United States, Shinola hired its first team of assemblers, almost entirely made up of locals who’d once worked in the auto industry, and had then trained by Swiss artisans.
Each line of watches has a unique name, and a Steve Jobs-like attention to detail is imbued in every detail. Carr pointed out that they are just as proud of the backs of their watches as they are of the faces. I jumped online and saw that Shinola’s watches sell in the $500 range look great.
Carr posed the question they are frequently asked – “Why go to Detroit to make watches?” His answer was basically, “Why not?” He went on to point out Detroit’s rich tradition of manufacturing, a nostalgia which feeds into the company’s avowed love of manufacturing.
In Shinola’s advertising, they feature their assemblers and profess a desire to one day hear it said that Geneva is the Detroit of Switzerland, meaning Detroit would become so well known for producing great watches that it would eclipse the current champ. We’ll see.
From there, Carr described their bicycle manufacturing operation, a subject near and dear to my heart. For this, they’ve partnered with Richard Schwinn, of THAT Schwinn family, who manufactures frames and forks for Shinola at his Waterford, Wisconsin facility.
The frames, like the watches, are designed with a nostalgic bent, which also happens to be in line with what hipsters are riding these days – those old 1950’s style cruisers that just about every middle-class American kid had his photo taken with at one point.
The bicycles are beautifully made, with a meticulous eye for detail in the styling and construction of the frames, and, especially, in the outfitting of the bikes with seats, fenders and other accessories that are as beautiful as they are functional.
There was a Shinola bicycle at the trade show, and I made a beeline to it after the session to ogle it and admire the craftsmanship.
Shinola does other things as well: leather goods, journals, pens & pencils. They are growing their line of products, positioning themselves as a luxury lifestyle brand.
Their stores are as obsessively curated and designed as the products, with Carr saying that no two will be the same, proving it with a slide show of the coolest looking stores you’re likely to see this year.
Serendipity is a wonderful thing, and I’m so glad I stumbled into that session to rest my tired feet. Heath Carr made my day by introducing me to his wonderful brand. In fact, I ended up cutting out of the show early enough for me to take a cab down to TriBeCa and pay a visit to their New York location.
The Manhattan Shinola is located at 177 Franklin Street, just a few blocks north of the World Trade Center, and is actually fronted by a small coffee shop. You walk in the front door, which looks like a shop front out of the early 1900’s, and you’re greeted by the smell of coffee and the sight of a barista and a few chairs to sit and relax.
Walk to the “back” of the coffee shop, and you’re soon standing in the middle of the small showroom of Shinola, a place that is beautifully decorated with a patina that is straight out of The Godfather.
Watches and bicycles and journals and leather goods and a few articles of clothing are beautifully displayed among other items not for sale (I’m assuming), like a book on Eames design or a coffee table book about Muhammad Ali (to commemorate a special run of products commemorating American heroes).
The associates were gracious and invited me to take photos as I browsed, which I did as each in turn told me about the store and the company.
In the end, I purchased two Moleskine-type journals and a pencil like the kind construction workers use that had the Shinola logo embossed on it in black. As I paid for my purchase, the associate assisting me offered me free embossing of my journals (they doe this for all paper and leather products). I chose the size and color of the type and watched as he set up and antique looking machine and personalized my journals as I watched.
It’s rare when a retail brand captivates my imagination and interest (there are so few who even try), but Shinola has made a fan of me, and I can’t wait to visit their Minneapolis location when I’m up there next week.