When Isabel Miller had a baby, she began making him clothes. A childrenswear designer for Burberry, she put her skills to use in her own home, making Max little hoodies and pants.
The more she created for Max, the more her friends and acquaintances requested kids’ clothes they could buy for their own. “I was like, ‘It’s not really a real business,’” Miller recalled. “Then I said, ‘OK, it’s a real business.’”
Having returned to Massachusetts after living in New York City, the Framingham native recently joined a collective of retailers at 1 Lincoln Street in Newton. Her boutique, Hedgehog Belly, is one of four pop-up shops currently sharing a previously vacant space in a prime location in Newton Highlands. There’s an artisanal home goods purveyor called Puck and Abby, jewelry design by Cristina Garcia, and a line of French sea salts called Louis Sel.
The success of 1 Lincoln Street, which opened during the summer, convinced all four entrepreneurs to extend the experiment through the holidays. Each of the women behind these small businesses is now considering finding a permanent location.
“I want this to help them incubate their concept,” said Allison Yee. She’s the founder of Project: Pop-Up, a fast-growing partnership between retailers, property owners, and Greater Boston municipalities with a mission to drive innovation and local commerce.
In a world of big-box stores and doorstep deliveries, many shoppers are increasingly seeking intimate experiences that might make their purchases and gift-giving more meaningful, said Yee. For seven years she worked for Chestnut Hill-based WS Development, where she launched the company’s retail incubation division.
In 2018, she struck out on her own with UpNext, a “matchmaking” initiative that connects independent brands with brick-and-mortar spaces. That led to the launch this year of Project: Pop-Up, funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Office of Business Development.
Nationally, pop-up shops first took hold in major cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, according to Yee.
“People are excited to discover emerging brands in their neighborhoods,” she said. “I’m thrilled that Greater Boston, my home, is picking up momentum. It’s really coming into its own.” She no longer needs to explain what a “pop-up shop” is.
For several years, landlords on Boston’s Newbury Street have been finding creative solutions for storefront vacancies. Founded in Wellesley, Tracksmith, which sells running gear and apparel, tested the brick-and-mortar model before committing permanently to its Trackhouse location on Newbury Street.
“Or look at Burton,” the snowboard company, said Emily Isenberg, founder of the placemaking consulting agency Isenberg Projects. “They did a pop-up a few years ago, and now they have a long-term space on Newbury Street. We’re starting to see it become a much more normal method.”
Isenberg typically coordinates with major developers to help fill their empty spaces. In 2016, as Harvard University moved deeper into the Allston neighborhood across the Charles River, she oversaw the temporary residency of Barry’s Shop, a uniquely creative pop-up inspired by the pop artist Claes Oldenburg.
Yee is taking her pitch to chambers of commerce in suburban cities and towns, and sometimes directly to the mayor’s office. This fall, Project: Pop-Up has temporary locations in Newton, Needham, and Melrose, where the Melrose Collective includes custom products from artist Jill Paz and Prisca Mbiye’s Roü-Mi Candle.
Mbiye, who grew up in Lawrence, taught herself to make candles (with some help from YouTube videos) a few years ago.
“I’ve always been a big purchaser of candles,” she said. “The Home Goods candle section is my favorite place to be.”
Naming her business Roü-Mi — with a nod to her favorite poet, Rumi — she began selling her wares on Etsy, but found it hard to sustain a business that way. Customers want to smell her candles before buying one, she said.
“They always remember the scent,” she said. “It’s like music for me — if I hear a particular song, I can remember where I was when I first heard it.”
KerriAnne Sejour met Mbiye while both were attending Wheaton College. She went to an opening party in Melrose, then came back for a Halloween-season candle-making workshop, wearing a costume.
“I enjoy finding brands that are Black-owned, women-owned,” she says. “Brands that have a mission behind them and are up-and-coming.”
Recent Melrose transplant Tabitha Crowell stopped by the Melrose space and bought a portrait from Paz for a friend. During the visit, she became intrigued by the third tenant, My Sunday Afternoon, or MYSA, founded by Alli Russell, who sells a collection of “consciously curated goods” and hosts workshops “to support life at a slower pace.”
Crowell, a project manager, signed up for an embroidery class, and she’s trying to get her boyfriend to take a lesson in cookie-icing.
“The environment she creates is so warm and welcoming,” said Crowell. “I’m very into art and Etsy. The downtown area of Melrose is obviously really cute, and their shop is super appealing.”
With a pop-up, Yee said, a small business owner “can get a foot in the door to create something special perhaps closer to home.
“We’re seeing a ton of demand coming from the entrepreneurs to offer their wares closer to home,” Yee said. “And the municipalities are interested in driving more local retail in their neighborhoods. We’re seeing such evolution happening in the downtowns and on the Main Streets.”
Other innovators are building pop-up spaces to help revitalize commercial districts in communities around Boston. Over the summer, Somerville-based CultureHouse hosted events, workshops, and a gallery space in a vacant storefront in Peabody. The Sunday Collective, a sustainable-minded kids’ clothing brand established by the husband-and-wife team of Jae and Chloe Kim, has opened a holiday pop-up shop at The Street, the modern shopping district in Chestnut Hill. Burlington’s Grand View Farm will host a holiday pop-up market on Sunday, Dec. 5, to name one of several such events.
“We think of pop-ups as retail experimentation,” said Yee, who has been approached for consultation by people representing communities as far away as Denver. “It’s a whole new layer that’s a sensory experience. It allows you to play with the concept, bring in different collaborations, and have fun with it.”
While the pandemic clearly contributed to retail instability, Yee said, the pop-up concept is here to stay.
“I think if you’re not going for super-fast convenience, you’re being more thoughtful, more intentional with your purchases. These are local brands that have a story behind them, and you get to interact with the founder. It has so much more significance.”
Before she began importing her French sea salts, Boston resident Karen Pevenstein often frequented the pop-up shops on Newbury Street.
“I like going into the shop and talking to someone,” she says. “It’s cool to talk to people about where the product comes from.”
A self-professed Francophile — working just around the corner from a popular patisserie in Newton Highlands has taken “all her willpower,” she jokes — Pevenstein fell in love with the sea salts hand-harvested by “les paludiers,” or salt-marsh workers, in Brittany. She approached the farmers directly and has become their exclusive US distributor.
These days, she’s typically front and center inside the door at 1 Lincoln, ready to spoon samples of her sea salts into the hands of every curious customer.
“It will literally transform your scrambled or hard-boiled egg,” she says. “It’s that good.”
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.