SUBSCRIBE

IDEAS | MARK PETERS

The charming evanescence of the pop-up

CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF

Alice Kaanta relaxed in a pop-up Play Cube while exploring HUBweek on City Hall Plaza.

By Mark Peters  

Pop-ups are turning up everywhere. A near-rhyme with an explosive, Jack-in-the-box sound, “pop-up” describes a temporary business activity — often located in a hip urban neighborhood — that tries to generate consumer interest by stressing its own evanescence.

“Dimore Studio and JJ Martin Open a Stylish Pop-Up Shop in Milan,” declared a recent Architectural Digest headline, and the business in question was typical of the genre: a high-end, time-limited store scheduled around a special occasion — in this case, Milan Fashion Week. But the idea has gained broader acceptance in less rarefied circumstances. “Charleston Horticultural Society holds pop-up nursery this Saturday,” the City Paper in Charleston, S.C., reported.In Oregon, the Corvallis Gazette-Times touted “Pop-up networking at Business Extravaganza.”

Advertisement

In the Boston area, the term has been stretched to describe new events by long-established companies: a pop-up brunch at Flour Bakery in Cambridge, a beer tasting pop-up at Marty’s Fine Wines in Newton, and a rooftop pop-up lounge at Taj Boston. The word “pop-up” gives these events a visceral charge and can’t-miss vibe.

Laura Fryer, an Atlanta-based expert on pop-ups, says the word “conveys that something is temporary and has energy — pop-ups come and go.”

The standard model for bar and restaurant pop-ups, she says, is when a mixologist or chef takes over a space for a specific period. It could be an existing restaurant — but also a gallery, a school, a chapel, or some other destination not traditionally used for food service. Calling it a pop-up creates urgency: If you don’t go now, you might miss out.

The phrase “pop up” goes back centuries. “Good motions pop up in my mind,” wrote Samuel Richardson in his 1748 book “Clarissa.” An 1880 article from the Ohio Democrat describes the most delicious sense of the term: “Pop-Ups — Two eggs, well beaten; two teacups of milk, and flour enough to make a thin batter; [etc.]” The term “pop-up toasters,” meanwhile, has been with us at least since the 1930s. Pop-up is also a three-sport term, referring to an easily catchable ball in baseball, an impressive move in surfing, and a type of buoyant bait in fishing.

Most of us were probably introduced to the concept of pop-ups as children, via the ever-popular pop-up book, which has been around since at least the 1920s. Another sense of the term arose in the 1990s via VH-1’s “Pop Up Video,” a show that enhanced music videos with frequent pop-up bubbles full of facts and trivia. And then there’s the much-maligned pop-up ad; while it may be the curse of the Internet era, programmers have been discussing pop-up windows since the 1980s.

Advertisement

The currently trendy sense of a pop-up is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a shop or other business which opens quickly in a temporary location and is intended to operate for a short period of time.” The earliest known use, from the Ottawa Citizen in 1993, indicates the first pop-ups might have been more about salvaging past business errors than exploring new markets: “There are also more pop-up stores, often filled with ‘distress merchandise’ from bankruptcies, which appear in November and evaporate by New Year’s Day.” There’s a whiff of unease about today’s pop-ups, too. Sometimes, these stores arise in places where the landlord can’t find a permanent tenant.

Still, much as a pop-up book makes reading more of an adventure for kids, a pop-up event can make consumers feel like they’re making memories rather than just spending money. How long the trend will last is anyone’s guess. Surprise only works when it’s, well, a surprise.

Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.