.Pop-up Retailers Fill EmptySpaces in Downtown San Jose

Artists and established businesses like The Usuals, Empire 7 and othershave opened up smaller shops at the vacant downtown theater

JUST TO GET A REP: Artists and established businesses like The Usual, Empire 7 and others have opened up smaller shops at the vacant downtown theater.

As is often the case in this town, artists and independent businesses are transforming emptiness into grooviness. Last week, the anti-man-about-town slithered into the defunct San Jose Repertory Theater building to inspect the guts of a bold new initiative. Pop-up retailers have now taken over the lobby of the squandered theater to market their wares for the duration of the holiday season.

For example, our favorite nouveau boutique from all the way down the street, The Usuals, now features its product line in the San Jose Rep foyer space, as do our pals from Empire 7 Studios, a rip-roaring gallery in Japantown. Over in what used to be the bar facing Third Street, is now a outlet for San Jose Earthquakes soccer jerseys and paraphernalia, including seven-inch singles of the club’s theme song, “Never Say Die,” by the Old Firm Casuals.

As I prowled around the innards of the place, Marie Millares from The Usuals was busy throwing together racks of clothing, boxes of books and other goods from her shop. Juan Carlos Araujo from Empire 7 was likewise hanging artwork by the artists he represents at the gallery.

Araujo immediately pointed to the empty SJ Rep windows, facing Paseo de San Antonio, and said: “I wish this was like Berlin, where we could just paint these.” I agreed. Berlin is an apropos comparison, since that city’s entire mindset flows around creation and destruction and constant transformation of the surrounding wreckage into something brand new and provocative. Apparently San Jose won’t let these folks paint the windows, just since it might scare off all the visitors from the suburbs who just happen to flood the area for Christmas in the Park.

But we digress. This pilot program—(everything in San Jose is basically a “pilot program” because the city is too afraid of failure)—will honestly do wonders for those visitors this holiday season. In addition to the San Jose Rep building, other spaces with new pop-up retail include the Camera 12 building and certain empty storefronts around the ‘hood. To great success, similar projects have unfolded in other major cities with emptiness in their inner cores.

As a result, maps are available everywhere, with a list of pop-up locations as well as all the current indie retail that’s existed in the neighborhood for years. None of them see these new pop-ups as competition; rather, everyone supports more foot traffic for the holidays, more customers, more people wandering around and experiencing what a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood is supposed to look like, that is, with lots of different, heterogeneous storefronts and a variety of things to experience.

And we’re not forgetting the architectural components. Inside the former San Jose Rep, now deemed the Hammer Theater Center, things look quite awesome. Only the lobby is open, as the rest is boarded up by city-contracted folks Araujo referred to as “badass carpenters.” Which menas you can’t access the seating area, but as far as the foyer goes, it’s an improvement. Once you walk in, it actually looks activated. Killer string art from Tulio Flores seems to span every which direction, from every corner and alcove, like giant 3D rays of hope. It seems like a natural way to take advantage of the inner architectural components of the building, which no one ever did before. As a result, the place no longer feels empty.

“We figured brining Tulio in to do the string art would be perfect since the art is mainly tied to rafters or different staircases and there’s a whole bunch of those types of elements in here,” said Millares, as we sauntered around. “So it was a great way to play with the existing architecture and bring in local art.” Amen.

All in all, the project gives small businesses some needed exposure. This, and visitors to the neighborhood just might become inspired to transform their own local emptiness. “Attempting to bring small business to the forefront in unused, vacant spaces like this is a dream come true,” Millares told me. Because we’re seeing small businesses, small art galleries, burgeoning sports teams use these spaces that could stay vacant and empty forever. So why not use it?”

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

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