During breakfast the other day, I was reading an article in Monocle about the perfect shopping district/town center. According to them, current centers focus too much on chain stores and not enough on community, causing customers to shop online. The article was interesting and included a spiffy fold out of a model shopping district. I enjoyed reading a support of brick-and-mortar stores, but had some doubts as to their specific choices. Had I not spent that afternoon getting coffee and walking around Bristol’s main shopping area, I probably wouldn’t have thought about the article again.
But what can I say, they Monocle was right: our shopping areas need a major overhaul.
I began the afternoon meeting up with a friend over coffee at Cafe Kino in Stokes Croft. Both of us had been there before on separate occasions and loved the bright atmosphere, loose leaf teas and impressive menu. Neither of us had tried the coffee, but as a pair of coffee freaks we made it our mission to do so.
Neither of us lives near Stokes Croft — Bristol’s answer to the once-upon-a-time version of the East Village. The neighborhood is slightly gritty and more urban than other areas in that it has a much higher concentration of street art, ethnic eateries and, of course, cafes. Monocle would probably decide to clean up Gloucester and Cheltenham roads for their perfect shopping district. Despite the grittiness, independent stores and bars give the area a neighborhoody feel.
Good coffee is obviously essential to the perfect town center. Would Cafe Kino fit in?
Cafe Kino’s decor resembles a lightened up third wave cafe in London. There’s some chrome and drifted wood, though the size is indicative of a small town. The room buzzed happily with alternative Bristolians ready to get their Saturday lunch/pastry/caffeine fix. We went and ordered at the bar; a macchiato for me and a latte for my friend. The rickety espresso machine was petite and tucked away in the corner. Already slightly doubtful of the quality, I watched the barista as she made our drinks. I can’t be sure, but I think she have forgotten to wipe down the milk steaming wand.
Our drinks looked like spruced up versions of Starbucks classics. My macchiato had a thick head of airy foam on top, with only a few drops of milk escaping into the coffee itself. The latte was slightly more attractive, but there the foam on top suggested a cappuccino. I should point out that macchiato wasn’t actually on their menu, but after my experience at The Plan in Cardiff, I ordered one anyway.
Disappointed, we snaked our way towards two empty seats in the window to see if the coffee quality matched that of the foam. Fortunately, it rallied, though only a bit. The coffee tasted like what I make at home. It was full bodied, but with a watered down quality to it suggesting it was brewed on a moka as opposed to a proper espresso machine. I drank my entire cup, nearly happy, but I couldn’t help feeling like I could have had a better experience at home. There was nothing noteworthy about the drink. The flavor was a slightly-bitter, but still pleasant coffee aroma. Good, but forgettable.
If you go to Cafe Kino, skip the coffee and stick with the tea. Or sweet potato fries. You can’t go wrong with sweet potato fries.
This lackluster coffee experience left me unsatisfied with my study break. So, once my friend and I parted ways, I headed over to Broadmead, Bristol’s outdoor shopping district.
Theoretically, Broadmead is a nice space. It’s partly off-limits to cars, full of trees and plenty of spaces to sit down and chat. Brick and mortar shops of varying price points and type line the thoroughfare. Yet Broadmead is, for lack of a better word, hell.
Everything that makes independent Stokes Croft pleasant is missing in Broadmead. While Cafe Kino may not have had the highest quality coffee, the atmosphere and passion in the space made it somewhere that people want to go. Most modern shopping areas remove the atmosphere and passion to create a uniform experience that leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth. Broadmead is filled with chain stores and blind consumers, eager to take the lesser quality because they are told that is what is available.
Why can’t there more of an overlap between the two? Why do our independent retailers and larger stores have to be isolated from each other, creating a shopping hierarchy between those who care enough to go out and search for something else and those who simply haven’t discovered it yet? Monocle is correct, our shopping districts and town centers today are broken. How they are fixed will depend on how eager people are to go beyond their conditioned retail sphere and search for something else.
I have faith that we’ll realize what we’re missing.
What’s your ideal shopping district? Do you think that a good atmosphere and spades of passion can make up for a product that isn’t quite perfect?