There was a bright light shining during the post-holiday mall doldrums in St. Louis, Missouri. This midwestern city (full disclosure, my hometown) is constantly reinventing itself. It is a modern-day Phoenix lifting itself again and again out of the ashes of a forgotten, marginalized downtown, which was once the commerce epicenter of a rich history that opened the West to an emerging United States (Think: Lewis & Clark). The majority of St. Louisans live in the western suburbs, a sprawling county that houses the wealthy, country clubs, private schools, shopping centers and the original small towns that residents fled to for relief from the city in the early 19th century.
For decades, the sturdy brick buildings downtown (the waterfront fire in 1849 that destroyed acres of frame homes and businesses resulting in an ordinance requiring all new buildings be built in brick) had fallen into ruin. You can still drive down Olive Boulevard on the weekends and think a bomb must have dropped and eliminated everyone. Union Station has its Paris/London/Singapore version of a Ferris Wheel to attract tourists and residents, but the rest of downtown is still in transition. The shadow of Eero Saarinen’s beautiful stainless steel Gateway Arch (an optimistic symbol of a city that lost its luster) erected in 1965 frames the Old Court House where the Dred Scott case was tried in 1857.
On the surface, this all sounds pretty dismal if you venture east out of the cocooning homes in the western counties. But thank god for the millennials. They are moving back downtown into the historic buildings and Louis Sullivan architectural wonders that are being rehabbed as condos. They are opening vibrant microbreweries in reclaimed former factories. On trend, they are revitalizing a once-proud Mississippi River economic hub. So, while the Galleria in the suburbs was filled with Ugg-outfitted teenagers on holiday vacation strolling the 1.2 million sq. ft of corridors having fun but avoiding the retail stores, there was a vibrant community of shoppers and fans at Bowood in the Central West End.
Two sisters, Katherine McPheeters and Lizzy Rickard. have succeeded in creating a novel community, a tribute to their great grandparents’ farm and nursery in Clarksville, Missouri. Behind the unassuming brick façade of a former 1920s automotive repair/plastics/cabinet manufacturing warehouse, Bowood has been serving a loyal fanbase with an abundance of flowering plants, shrubs and all-things garden for over 13 years. The two sisters are tasteful curators of everything from garden tools to homewares that also nurture the spirit. What’s original here is that the enormous complex of structures housing a store, hothouse, Studio event space, make-up salon, rental apartments and rooftop vegetable garden and hoop house that provides farm-to-fork produce for their Cafe Osage. Most recently, the new Holliday (named after their great grandmother) across the street offers a high level of aesthetically curated essential luxuries.
To put it mildly, Bowood reimagines the whole concept of a mixed-use space. These young entrepreneurs are almost singlehandedly revitalizing a neighborhood. Katherine explains, “The apartment rentals and salon are really family endeavors outside of Bowood. They are investment properties and all came about very organically, all of our growth has been that away. We also want to beautify our part of the Central West End and provide housing and hopefully other spots for retail and offices. We do have another building on the corner of Walton and Washington that we are going to develop, but that is still in the planning phase. ”
To call Bowood a retail space is to miss the point. Katherine and Lizzie have created a real community for a young clientele working on laptops surrounded by plants waiting for an upcoming event or a table in the Café Osage. Katherine says, “Our demographic is pretty broad. I think that is the new way of retail. We’ve kind of created our own lifestyle concept: you can shop for plants, have breakfast or lunch, take a class and find the perfect item for your home. We cater to young college students and 20-somethings buying houseplants and having weekend brunch, new families and homeowners just dipping their toes into a new yard. We welcome groups of friends gathering for lunch and shopping and people with established yards adding to their gardens.”
Blending sustainability with wellbeing – all in the spirit of nurturing body and soul — Bowood events offer an eclectic mix of workshops ranging from designing your own vegetable garden and winter herbal cold and flu relief to modern calligraphy, cactus watercolor study and cooking for your chakras. Katherine explains, “Our classes really try to reflect what our customers want, more plant knowledge, activities for kids and an outlet to make a mess and be creative.” Who wouldn’t want to be part of this affinity tribe? You can take a class, get a makeover, purchase an orchid, find angel wings for your daughter and have a healthy, inventive breakfast or lunch, served up by local star chef, Scott Davis.
Holliday is an inviting, inspirational space filled with a unique mix to stock your life with handmade, handcrafted goods and jewelry, many of which are from local artisans and artists. The selection is design-driven with an eye to affordability and a hand feel with a botanicals theme. Millennial moms can find well designed birthday party accessories and storybook costumes for their kids. Bowood has stylish pots, vases and containers, along with healthy plants, seeds, bulbs, gardening and flower arranging books and curated garden tools to make any indoor garden flourish.
There is an admirable and authentic strategic vision operating here. Bowood Farms is a fourth-generation family farm located high above the Mississippi River in the rolling hills of Clarksville, Missouri. Just like other St. Louis generations of reinvention, the farm has seen many incarnations. The family originally raised cattle, bison, soybeans and wheat. In the 1980s they started a wholesale perennial business. In 2005 they made the decision to shift to retail and grow solely for themselves. They still run a working farm in addition to the nursery. Solidly on point, Bowood Farm’s focus is on environmentally friendly management practices such as; large fields of native grasses and pollinator plants, timber stand improvements, in addition to grain production. Katherine says that “Working with plants can be so rewarding. Yes there are failures, but there are also great successes. I live in a condo and I do have an outdoor space with containers but the landscape at Holliday was really my first foray into creating a garden (with my sister and dad’s help of course!) Last year was so rewarding to see our vision of how we wanted that landscape to look come alive. Also, we choose every plant our farm grows to bring into the shop, so to put some of our favorites front and center and show how beautiful and successful they can be is important to us.”
Bowood is a destination. Located in what appears to be a surrounding wasteland, it is appealing in any season. As the chief gardener says, he is lucky to have a job nurturing plants and passing them along to customers as stewards in their own homes.
It’s easy to get seduced into being prosaic and sentimental when you see a retail experiment that is so fresh and pure. It happens so rarely during this seminal transition between the department store model of yesterday and the enterprising innovations of next-gen retail that are shaping the future. What works so effectively at Bowood is its sophistication that is deceptively simple; authenticity, lack of pretension, friendliness and of being immersed in a garden — indoors and out. You want to be in the cavernous warehouse space to experience an assortment of objects that are basically irresistible. Studies have been done on the healing and aesthetic benefits of being surrounded by plants. Imagine a retail concept that integrates wellbeing into its core mission.
This is a viable model for other creative retailers (maybe not the fourth-generation farm) who want to offer fatigued and jaded shoppers a fresh idea. The charm of Bowood is that it continues to reinvent itself, so every visit makes you feel optimistic and honestly, you want to support the young owners’ mission to make you feel better. We need more of this in our consumer culture on every level!