The recent announcement of Amazon HQ coming to Crystal City sometime between now and whenever people stop asking if Crystal City will finally become “cool” (hint: it’s not yes) reaffirmed something you’d hear at parties from people who wanted to give you their “takes” on D.C.: the city isn’t transient anymore. More and more people stick around after their job on the Hill/internship/relationship ends, transforming a city once known for being a career pit stop to one with a population of nearly 700,000 people, and a daytime population (i.e. people coming into the city from the greater metropolitan area) of 1 million. Since 2010, the city’s population has grown by 15.3%, compared to a national average of 5.5%.
All of this is to say we have people. And what do people with a median household income of $77,686 love to do? Shop. Since 2001, over seven million square feet of retail space have been built in the city and another 1.5 million square feet are currently under construction. Walking around the city, especially around areas in contact with Union Market, you’re struck by a landscape quickly expanding to meet the demands of a population with a median age of 35.3; a landscape of development trying to nail a “vibe” for a city that’s only now comfortable being a destination rather than a checkbox.
Which begs the question: If you’re a retailer, especially a smaller retailer, how do you offer something rooted in “independent flavor” that goes beyond a stale need-want relationship, while staying afloat in a sea of growing rent prices? Sabah, located at Union Market, may offer a clue. Launched in 2013, Sabah is a re-imagined improvement on a leather shoe from one of the oldest, most long-standing and well-reputed shoemakers in Turkey. What began as a singular love affair with a pair of shoes gifted to Mickey Ashmore by his Turkish ex-girlfriend’s grandmother, has now become a fascinating example of how to sell a niche product without ever making their customers feel like customers.
“They felt amazing on my feet, a kind of unique, simple and relaxed comfort I had never felt in a pair of shoes before. And they kept getting more comfortable with every wear,” Ashmore says as he recalls first pair. “I liked wearing something that was different, an independent choice. I had never seen shoes like that before. So it was just all new – the feel and the style.”
Ashmore’s approach to Sabah is an an approach running counter to traditional brick and mortars and the money-me-money-now arena of online commerce. It is an approach rooted in the unique mystique of Sabah’s original location, Sabah House in East Village. Recently closed, the Sabah House was Ashmore’s actual residence that turned into a communal hangout party spot where Ashmore also sold Sabahs. Simply through circumstance, Ashmore created the blueprint for how Sabah would “retail.”
“Sabah House East Village was special because it was my home, primarily, and was run like a home with a small shop inside of it. Also, we had almost no random foot traffic,” Ashmore remembers. “Everyone was visiting by destination. So once you were inside, it had such a special energy made up by the warmth of the space, our hospitable and personal approach to running Sabah, and the fact visitors & customers felt like and were friends who had just dropped by to say hi.”
Speaking with Ashmore, the novel idea of creating a retail space that isn’t a retail space at all is one of those “why didn’t I think of that” ideas. Creating spaces in Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, and Washington D.C. that allow people the space to congregate to talk, enjoy a drink, paint, and whatever else, speaks to a growing desire amongst consumers to “feel” something as they hand over their money. According to D.C.’s Economic Strategy, local retailers are devoting more effort to creating environments that invite consumers to enjoy “omnichannel experiences.” The city is even ensuring existing regulations do not “hinder new retail ideas.”
“As we open more stores, I want to maintain the integrity of the space and Sabah experience – personal, direct, destination and real,” Ashmore says. “A place where people want to stay a while. We do that by where we open up and the space we create but mostly by the people who run our spaces, giving them autonomy and a mandate to make the store into their own just like I did with my house.”
Sabah’s pop-up in Union Market emphasizes the communal verve driving Ashmore’s strategy. A small space that stands out in the eclectic floor space of Union Market, Sabah is often a purveyor of much more than shoes. Depending on when you go, Sabah could be a makeshift bar with wine and fine mezcal, or a host of a dance party sprawling out beyond its space. None of this ever feels gimmicky or like it’s catering to an idea of what people want instead of being that idea.
“We love being in Union Market because it’s given us a chance to meet and interact with a lot of folks in DC in a very different way than our other Sabah Houses. The Stand at Union Market is truly a retail shop first,” Ashmore says. “Now that we’ve built such a great customer base in D.C., I want to find a new home that allows us to spread our wings a little bit more – entertain, provide more hospitality, a place our customers like to visit and stay a while, where we can host events and do our thing.”
In a changing city with a changing character, the mundane topic of D.C. retail livens up with possibly. While unique in its own right, Sabah is by no means alone in D.C.; it’s not even alone in Union Market. Places like Politics & Prose and Shelter offer similar personable experiences, but lack the singular energy Ashmore pushes through Sabah. Sabah’s D.C. pop-up shop is an introduction to that energy, and a preview of a brand ingraining itself with a demographic hungry for curated retail experiences.