The energy at Mixed Greens crackled on December’s First Thursday in its temporary holiday home at the northwest corner of 9th and Idaho streets in Downtown Boise.
Throughout the night, the 5,000-square-foot space bustled with people of all ages as they shopped the trove of locally made gift items, stopped to visit as they ran into friends, sampled Payette Brewing’s holiday beers and ate Japanese dumplings from Genki Takoyaki food cart.
“This is definitely the place to be,” said Lisa Cooper, holding several things she wanted to buy.
Mixed Greens was one of two pop-up shops in Downtown on Dec. 1. Buy Idaho created a one-night shop at 9th and Jefferson streets, in the former Lata for the Home furniture store that closed earlier this year. Mixed Greens owners Chris and Molly Gray created a holiday pop-up version of their eclectic gift shop, which normally is in the middle of the 9th Street block, in the former D.L. Evans Bank space at 213 N. 9th St.
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Pop-ups are trending in the Treasure Valley. They encompass food and libraries in addition to retail markets. They feed on the invigorating dynamic of change that can enliven an urban space for a short time — and disappear.
When a former bank becomes a vital retail hub for a few months, that can change how people perceive the space, said Boise State University assistant professor of public service Amanda Ashley, who has been researching pop-ups for the past few years.
“Pop-ups have the novelty of a surprise and temporariness,” she said. “The phenomenon is creating a new literacy about how we think about using a place.”
So for the rest of the month, the former bank’s offices will brim with silk scarves and handbags, holiday ornaments and scented candles, soaps and other locally made items. Though Mixed Greens plans to move back to its space at 237 N. 9th St., this is an experiment to see whether a larger storefront makes sense for the business, the Grays said. And so far it’s successful.
Because they have more room, they converted one office into an artist pop-up shop, with a different artist each day. On Dec. 1, jewelry artist Jamison Rae brought an expanded selection of her necklaces, earrings and more for her pop-up-within-a-pop-up inside Mixed Greens. The Grays will have pop-up artists through Dec. 18.
“It’s just a cool thing,” Chris Gray said. “Before we could only give the artists a 4-foot table. Now they can bring whatever they want. It’s a chance for them to get more of their merchandise out there and it brings a new set of people into the shop, so it’s good for everyone.”
Like most trends, the pop-up idea is evolving as the term becomes an ever-widening umbrella that can cover a diversity of events. In fact, right now it feels a bit like “pop-up season.” Last month Wintry Market inhabited the El Korah Shrine at 12th and Idaho streets with more than 60 makers; this weekend the “Hip Holiday Market” will pop up inside the Flying M Coffeegarage in Nampa with 32 vendors.
“It’s like a little mini-mall,” said Flying M assistant manager Chris Bryan.
This weekend, artist Candy Renee Wilson will turn her Boise Bench home into a pop-up boutique with about 30 artisan crafters.
But the pop-up thing is something deeper than just the latest business strategy, Ashley said. It dovetails into a national movement called “placemaking,” a way to create civic identity. It works through fertile and fluid scenes that involve a variety of artists, trendsetters, culinarians, community leaders and others who create an ecology of talent that can give rise to good ideas, which in turn come to define a place.
Pop-ups are an easy tool for everyday people to use to express their concerns, desires and ideas about urban spaces, Ashley said.
“In an age when so much of our civic discourse is in traditional venues, pop-ups offer a chance for people to congregate and express their particular idea of what we want our community to look like,” she said.
What’s a pop-up?
The word harkens to the 1860s and has been associated with everything from baseball and storybooks to toaster pastries and computer ads that should be blocked. As a creative movement, its roots reach back to the municipal arts movement of the 1890s that sought to beautify the urban environment. “Aesthetics with a purpose,” Ashley said.
Today’s word has come back into play with a definition that is more of a moving target than a fixed idea.
It’s not a totally new idea. Artists and theater companies have been taking over vacant storefronts for decades. Boise Contemporary Theater did its first production in a basement retail space on 8th Street in 1996. However, in this context, it is an experimental business model for retail, food and art entrepreneurs to create shops, restaurants and art installations. It has expanded to include mobile culture such as food trucks and library trailers, and to simply inhabit an open urban space, such as a parking spot, with something other than a car.
The trend started about five years ago in cities such as San Francisco and New York, where, as the economy recovered, entrepreneurs opened temporary and experimental businesses in vacant urban spaces. It caught on in smaller cities, and in 2013 South by Southwest held a “Pop (Up) Culture” panel discussion that focused on pop-ups as filling the gap between traditional brick-and-mortar and online retail.
It’s been growing in Boise since 2010, with projects such as the Boise Underground Market and the city’s Sesqui-Shop, a pop-up storefront that became a cultural hub during Boise’s Sesquicentennial Celebration in 2012-13. The space at 1008 Main St. became a place for historical displays, dance performances, poetry readings, art installations and pop-up shops.
In Boise, the scene is hyper-local, and the key is that the event is purposefully temporary — from a few months to one night only — and it goes beyond the idea of just selling something. Pop-ups are about an experience and connection to community.
Boise entrepreneur Dave Yasuda always thought it would be fun to own a restaurant.
“I like to cook and it’s entertaining to think I’d open a restaurant some day, but I’d never do it,” Yasuda said. “For one thing I’d like to retire with actual money saved, but the whole food truck, pop-up thing is a way a lot of restaurants get started, or for someone like me it’s a chance to dabble.”
Yasuda is partnering with Woodland Empire Ale Craft owners Rob and Keely Landerman and Manfred’s Catering owner Jason Farber to create pop-up ramen dinners, a culinary experience that Yasuda feels Boise is missing.
“Ramen is its own thing,” Yasuda said. “In Japan every region has its own style. I travel a lot and everyplace I go there’s good ramen. We don’t have a noodle house in Boise. It’s not just Top Ramen. There’s this whole culture around it. It’s fun introducing people to it, but what’s more fun is finding people who already are familiar. They’re so excited.”
The team will hold “Ramen 3” on Dec. 14 at Woodland Ale Craft, 1114 W. Front St. Each one has sold out in a matter of hours. The latest one sold the first wave of $30 tickets last week. Yasuda will release 20 more on Monday.
Usually the word gets out through social media, which is a huge component to the pop-up culture. “At first it was pretty much just our friends,” Yasuda said. “I can get 100 people on my list. Then people start sharing it and there are a lot of people who show up that I’ve never met before. So it’s totally social media driven.”
Yasuda doesn’t intend to open a noodle house, but he does want to do more and different types of culinary pop-ups in other locations.
Brewer Keely Landerman creates special beers for these multicourse ramen dinners. Yasuda and Farber prepare the food in Manfred’s kitchen that is next door to the brewery. It wouldn’t work without one of those components.
These kinds of partnerships are a big element to pop-ups, Ashley said. In her studies of the trend in Boise, Baltimore, Maryland and Austin, Texas, she found that few pop-ups are are organized by a single entity.
“It’s about partnership structures,” Ashley said. “It’s not just DIY guerrilla urbanists, the sexy part we talk about. It’s partnership driven and the result is often based on what those partnerships look like.”
Other types of pop-ups can be the result of public/private partnerships, such as the Idaho Walk Bike Alliance’s “Park(ing) Day” installations on 8th Street in September. “Park(ing) Day” is an international movement in which artists, designers and others transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks.
Executive director Cynthia Gibson partnered with North End Organic Nursery and Uber; got permission from Capital City Development Corporation; and obtained a permit from the city and purchased two $20 parking hoods (little yellow covers on meters) to create a pop-up park in two parking spaces on 8th Street on Sept. 16.
“We talked about space and the fact that roads belong to all of us,” Gibson said. “The roads can be used for more than parking our cars.”
The fact that it was just for one day added a special quality to the event, she said.
“We liked that element of surprise,” Gibson said. “It’s here, then it’s gone. That’s what gets people talking. You offer an experience and it starts a conversation.”
In 2017, Gibson plans to go bigger with the idea, creating “parklets” in spaces throughout the Treasure Valley in the spring and taking over more of 8th Street on the next “Park(ing) Day.”
Joining the mainstream
As pop-ups become more common and the concepts they bring gain traction, the trend is becoming part of Boise’s culture.
Before Saint Lawrence Gridiron owner Brian Garrett opened his storefront restaurant at 705 W. Bannock St., he started with a food truck and did pop-up dinners at Pengilly’s Saloon and other spots. Those prix fixe-dining experiences have evolved into the restaurant’s current Sunday Supper Club, a sort of in-house pop-up that offers a dining experience outside the regular menu.
“It’s an opportunity to get weird with food,” Garrett said. “We can experiment with different proteins and flavor profiles, and we can push the boundaries of standard fare dining. The Treasure Valley doesn’t have the population to support a lot of cutting-edge culinary trends, but you can do them for a really cool dining experience.”
Modern Art, a one-night event that turned the rooms and other spaces at The Modern Hotel and Bar into art galleries and installations, started as a pop-up event. It became an annual event for nine years, making it more of a festival, Ashley said.
“There are aspects of the Treefort Music Fest that are pop-up,” she says. “Every time they add a fort to the mix it’s a pop-up.”
The Boise Public Library is raising funds to create a pop-up library that could go to events throughout the city, said Executive Director Kevin Booe.
“Pop-up libraries are catching fire around the country,” he said.
It’s different than a mobile library that brings a general selection of books to communities. The pop-up would bring specifically programmed books and other media to schools, parks, neighborhood festival and other events.
The whole idea brings the element of flux to the civic planning mix, Ashley said.
“Life is about change, so why are we always trying to permanize everything?” she said. “You want the right mix, and pop-ups offer a chance for people to pilot new ideas, and of course, over time things become institutionalized. You want some things to stick. That’s what innovation is.”