It was 1983. Joseph Marver was packing up his stagnant inventory of women’s clothing for his Spirit Women’s Discount Apparel store and restocking his shelves with Halloween costumes to open the first Spirit Halloween — inaugurating the temporary costume shop. Now his company is hailed as the “pioneer” of a reportedly $50 billion industry: the pop-up shop.
“It’s not a new phenomenon, but because retail is changing so much, pop-up shops are that new high-touch way of getting in front of your customer, client or consumer,” said Arati Sharma, director of marketing at Shopify, in an interview with the American Marketing Association.
In many ways, this was the idea spearheading Thursday’s “Out of the Subway” pop-up gallery — a collaboration between Sonic, a local telecommunications company and internet service provider based in Santa Rosa, and Bay Area artist Bud Snow. Yet very little about the hyperlocal event felt driven by the larger zeitgeist of rapidly changing industry trends in commerce, let alone the multibillion-dollar pop-up industry.
Outside All Gold, a 450-square-foot screen printing shop in Berkeley, a small part of the sidewalk was lined with faux-grass turf tiles for games of cornhole. An impromptu living room — two cushioned seats, a TV stand and a monitor connected to a laptop — spilled onto the road, with the first game of the NBA finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers on screen. By the back door, Katrina Herman, the shop’s founder, quietly pressed tote bags with Snow’s artwork to give away to visitors.
Roughly half of the store was reserved for gallery space. About 15 frames of Snow’s vibrant artwork — most of which featured bubbly and sinuous clown-like figures — surrounded the viewers, as well as a handful of fabric pieces, free merchandise and those ubiquitous yellow cans of yerba mate. Each untitled piece alluded to the main theme of the sparse and simple gallery and one of Sonic’s main concerns: net neutrality.
The message was conspicuous in many of Snow’s displayed pieces. In one piece, animated laptops with smiling emoticons and wings levitate in black space as tri-colored rainbows pass behind the devices — a likely nod to the Wi-Fi signal, given the “Sonic x Bud Snow” label on the piece’s border. In other pieces, brightly colored humanoid figures are attached by similar Wi-Fi signal-like fibers or morphed into singular forms.
“I care about the public space in physical space, but I also care about the public space online and our social atmosphere online and having access, and free access at that,” said Snow in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I don’t always work with corporations — it’s not really my shtick. I’m more into grass-roots things, but I see Sonic as a grass-roots company.”
Whether Sonic deserves this status is debatable — in 2015, the internet service provider partnered with AT&T, the world’s third-largest telecommunications provider, making Sonic largely susceptible to AT&T’s policies.
But for better or worse, “Out of the Subway” toed the line between pop-up gallery and pop-up ad. Sonic’s name was imprinted on several of the artworks — or, depending on how you saw it, mini-billboards — reminding the viewers exactly who was sponsoring the art they saw.
Multiple frames of Snow’s work simply rested on the floor, only propped up by the white walls of the store. The lax nature of the curation suggested that the art wasn’t necessarily the event’s focus, it was just one part of the whole — just as important as the Warriors game or the KoJa Kitchen food truck by the storefront.
Therein lies the likely purpose of the mini-gallery. On the brochure, one of the subtitles for “Out of the Subway” included “Community Celebration.” And to the company’s credit, everything from the art to the refreshments was based in the local area — the former providing a pop-up platform for the latter, establishing a symbiotic relationship model for local businesses and local artists.