Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The hyper-specialist shops of Berlin (theguardian.com)
294 points by moreentropy 47 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 166 comments

Several hyper-specialist shops I know in Munich:

- balloon shops seem to do really well because we have several here and every major city seems to have one

- foam shop for when you need to fix your upholstery

- venetian blind store which only sells the vertical kind

- Ketten Wild was a chain shop that only sold chains but chains in all forms and sizes

- la porcelaine blanche's slogan is "only china, only white" and that is what they do

- elk shop for everything elk related - not that we have any elks in Germany but elks are cute

- Schrauben Preisinger sells only screws. They claim they have 30000 different types in their store and this is absolutely credible. A few years ago I was there to get some M1 screws for a project when I witnessed an interesting exchange between another customer and a salesman. The customer had brought a screw with a quite wide thread. It was a straight screw, not tapered and not a wood screw, just with an obviously non-metric thread. He inquired if they had this type of screw in stock. The salesman answered slightly offended that this was a shop for machine screws and they would not sell furniture screws.

Also button shops are super useful. If you lose a button you go there with your piece of clothing and they will find a suitable replacement in no time. I never visited the one in Berlin but the one in Munich saved me good money.

EDIT: I just remembered two more:

- Gummi bear shops are a bit like balloon shops. I don't understand it but there seems to be enough demand to support several of them in a single city.

- Berlin's Ampelmann. Maybe doesn't quite fit into the category because it's more of a tourist curiosity. On the other hand: A shop that only sells stuff related to the graphic design of a symbol on the traffic lights of a defunct state is quite hyper-specialized I guess.

Where do you go when you want to buy name brand spatulas at a fraction of retail cost? Spatula City!


I was wondering when Gandhi II would show up there...

Just thought of two more in Munich:

- Der Lautenladen sells only lutes, Anatolian lutes to be precise.

- Almost next to it is the "Spy Shop". I don't know if real spooks buy there but you can take the name quite literally.

New York used to have a Spy Shop in the 80's. It sold all kinds of tiny cameras and listening devices and things. I never went, but the ads made it seem interesting.

There's still one there. I see them often in tourist/beach cities, presumably because kids are enticed by things like invisible ink (judging from their billboards).

I remember my first visit to Berlin AFTER 1989 (my first time was in the summer of 1989 and one of the things my dad wanted to do was go through checkpoint charlie and spend some time putzing about in East Berlin/Germany and I vaugeley remember noticing the difference in the crossing lights as a difference but that was probably about it...) and in sometime around '92 the little guy was EVERYWHERE. (for context to non-Germans or people who've never spent any time in Berlin/former east German cities the Ampelmann that the parent poster is referring to is the character of the crosswalk "green man walking/Red man stop" lights that was in use in the former East Germany before reunification. it was much more of a personable silhouette than the more diagramatic stick men of the west. see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ampelm%C3%A4nnchen

Schrauben Preisinger is an amazing store.

It's properly old-fashioned in appearance. A small, dark customer area, bounded by a counter staffed by grumpy men of oddly indeterminate age. Backed by rows and rows of ancient-looking wooden shelving, containing literal tons of different bolts (or any kind of threaded fastener).

I once went there because I needed a particular bolt for a 1972 Land Rover engine. Certainly not metric, but I had no idea what kind of thread and precise size it was. The clerk glanced at it, turned briskly, walked to a particular shelf, and picked up the bolt I would need. No looking, no measuring, no scratching of heads, no hesitation. He just eyeballed the bolt size and thread right there. He was correct, too.

I'd love an excuse to go there again, but I sold the Land Rover :-D

Edit: just remembered:

- a shop that sells combs. Yes. Combs.

- a shop that makes bespoke suspenders

- a shop that specialises in sausages from a particular region in Germany (which is far enough from Munich to feel entirely random)

Your description of the store is very accurate. One thing I'd like to add that always fascinated me was their stock ledger. Long after everything was computerized here, they still had this enormous ledger resting on a kind of lectern behind the counter. Every sale was carefully entered in this book. It's a few years since I have been there for the last time so I don't know if it still exits or if they have got a computer eventually.

Even the 75000 inhabitant city I live in has a balloon shop, but also one for brushes. Also in the neighboring city there used to be a shop just for rubber.

I wonder how many of the specialist shops are just a byproduct of a population of highly ambitious fetishists...

My old small town has one...it is still there after years... This city / village has 14.000 people there. No idea how this shop survives. But it seems to work. Or they are tax evasion scams. Who knows.

I imagine the margins for balloon shops incredibly good.

They keep most of their inventory uninflated so storage requirements are not that big and the designs keep a long time, and for non-specialists, it's generally not worth keeping bottled Helium around, so it's a pretty decent business I suppose.

I buy my inflated balloons at the "dollar store", which is a good deal since they are 3.99 or more at the grocery store.

Are you suggesting the prices are inflated?

My ignorant understanding from consuming American pop culture is that Germans have a particular affinity for art in the medium of gummy :) https://youtu.be/T-2VGJPOJVA

Please give more information on the elk shop. I need it... for research (and cant find it on google)

It was located in Frauenstraße near Isartor [1]. If I remember correctly its name was just "Elchladen". Unfortunately I can't find it either, so it probably closed.

[1] https://www.google.com/maps/@48.1343175,11.5814045,19.15z

Thats a shame.

And btw, did you know moose/elk were first described on paper by Julius Ceasar during his "trip" to Germania? He thought they have no joints in their legs and sleep propped up against trees.

Just a little moose fact for you. I wish this store was still open.

Edit since I want to share this; other moose-related businesses I've been to in Europe:

- Moose Coffee chain in north England (excellent)

- Moose Garden in Sweden where you can live with the moose.

My wife saw this one on the internet and really wanted to visit - unfortunately we are in Australia.

Bones for Dogs, a butcher just for raw meat to feed your dog.


>elk shop for everything elk related - not that we have any elks in Germany but elks are cute

This sentiment right here is why more people are killed by Elk every year in Canada than bears.

This statement is actually wrong since Germany has a population of about 10-20 elk (and more are migrating from Poland). But yes, last year we also had a car crash with an elk in Brandenburg but only the animal and its unborn died.

That wouldn't have occurred to to me, but you are right. I've heard about bears and wolves, but now we have elk too.

> la porcelaine blanche

Not only is their slogan descriptive, the name alone suggests as much as well.

I’ve been to the Ampelmann shop and have a shirt! Yay me

there is a few more: Glass Shop: only sells things made out of glass. I love it. https://www.bottles.de/index.html There are a few shops that sells only keys and safes. There are 2 stores that sells only clothes to ballet

For many many years there was a shop on Victoria street in Edinburgh that appeared to sell nothing but brooms and large balls of string - it was even mentioned in Complicity by Iain Banks.

Here are some pics of it:


Edit: Sad to say that I passed that shop for many years going to uni in the Grassmarket (both as a student and working there) and never went in!

Wow this web site is like we're back in 1996. Love it. Reminded me how simple was the web back then.

Very usable and simple web design with obvious blue links and clearly defined content areas. Everything but the header/footer navigation is great, including the logical street-based interior navigation.

The HTML source is a mix of old / new HTML, which shows the author has been updating by hand for years and improved their skill (slightly).

1996 with an added cookie warning :)

"Toilet brushes re-bristled" - never knew that was done, and glad that's not my job.

With enough cleaning solvents and disinfectants, any object can be made safe again. There are people who dive into literal sewage retention ponds full of human waste in full SCUBA gear every day to work (clearing obstructions). After reading about that, squeamishness was never an issue for me. As long as it isn't some kind of chemical/biological/radiological warfare agent type substance, or a compound that makes chemists run from a room, I'm fine with it now.

That said, I'm absolutely delighted that toilet brushes can be rebristled, and sad that it seems there isn't any place in the US that does this. It irks me that when a brush is retired, a gigantic chunk of plastic heads into the landfill. I have yet to find a low-impact scrubbing solution, and rebristling with some organic-origin bristle that breaks down amending the soil would be ideal. I'd pay 2-3X the cost of a normal throwaway plastic brush to mail in a brush head and get back a rebristled brush head, and wonder if the rebristling could be automated.

It irks me that when a brush is retired, a gigantic chunk of plastic heads into the landfill.

I feel this way about toothbrushes. They've gotten very expensive and seem to be designed to last only a month or two.

I picked up a couple of eco-friendly ones in the supermarket recently. They're made of bamboo. They're also crap. Now I'm back on the plastic toothbrush treadmill.

I keep my old toothbrushes for cleaning various things so at least I can re-use them. Bicycle chains, baseboards, bathroom tiles, etc.

Yeah, I do that for cleaning grout. But the amount of grout to clean in my house is dwarfed by my used toothbrush supply. I wish they could at least be recycled.

There are other uses for old toothbrushes [1], but I'm with you: I want the only parts that get tossed be the bristles themselves, ideally as a soil amendment (not as plastic nanoparticles that end up inside our food chain). It is very annoying plastics are used for only a tiny fraction of their lifecycles, and spend most of their lifecycle polluting our raw resources.

Interestingly, there is a company that rebristles antique brushes and also sells toothbrushes [2]. No idea if they rebristle toothbrushes.

Blizzident [3] sells an interesting product for $340, rebristles for $90, and you have to spend up to $200 to get a dental impression because the Blizzident is custom fit to each user [4]. Verified experience seems sparse on the ground [5], [6], and actual controlled study seems non-existent.

[1] https://experthometips.com/22-uses-for-used-toothbrush

[2] https://kentbrushes.com/bodycare/handmade-toothbrushes

[3] http://www.blizzident.com

[4] https://newatlas.com/blizzident-toothbrush/29264/

[5] https://www.reddit.com/r/Dentistry/comments/aco59q/product_r...

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15JlKqoU4cI

If you start putting used toilet brushes in the post, I will no longer accept any mail. Are you not confusing biodegradable with repair? Wooden brushes with bamboo bristles or something instead of poo post?

You do know that all sorts of unpleasant things are sent through the post, correct? A neighbor of ours when I was growing up literally shipped bull semen, that was a large part of their business.

And sewage is regularly sent through the mail as well, many municipal sewage-treatment plants ship samples to specialized labs for analysis. Toilet-brushes are far from the most disgusting things sent through the mail, and unless you clean your toilet without flushing any waste in the bowl first they aren't even that dirty. Considering the prevalence of sanitizing toilet cleaner, it wouldn't surprise me if the average brush is cleaner than the door handles of a public restroom.

In many countries medical feces samples as sent back to a lab. I'm sure end users are careless and messy when they send them too!

You've probably not heard of the Australian Government's free bowel cancer screening program then, mailed out to everyone aged 50-74:


I have a European toilet (one that is not filled to the brim with water) and I clean it by putting bleach in the bowl and leaving it overnight. I then put the toilet brush inside the drain pipe submerging it in the water/bleach mixture. By doing this I can use a single brush for years with it being brand new.

Also, when you flush and wipe the skidmarks from the bowl, use the flowing water to immediately clean the brush. Don't put it away with poo in the bristles.

Everyone talks about how advanced the Japanese toilets are. I think the Japanese are focussing on the wrong aspect - I would prefer efforts were put into toilets cleaning themselves rather than backsides.

> I clean it by putting bleach in the bowl

But if your neighbors flush vinegar down the toilet, it will react into chlorine in the sewer.

I thought it was ammonia and bleach that should never be mixed.

Isn't bleach used in a lot of laundry cleaning already, so it's a bit inevitable that bleach & vinegar would end up in the sewer system?

What does vinegar + bleach do exactly? It sounds like something I don't want to try at home.

A mix of sodium acetate, oxygen, and chlorine gas results. The first two items aren't an issue, but the third... Let's just advise against mixing anything with bleach unless you have a pressing need to recreate WWI chemical warfare in your bathroom

It's a good thing. Bleach by itself is an inefficient disinfectant. You need a lot, which is wasteful. Adding a bit of vinegar to change the pH will make the chlorine much more available for disinfecting.

I used to keep a bottle pre-mixed. It won't last very long though, so mixing before use is better.

There was also a Christmas store on the royal mile. Not sure if it still exists.

Yep, still there. I picked up a nice tree ornament last month :)

I would assume that the decline of specialist shops is strongly correlated with rising rents for storefront properties. But with online shopping on the rise, maybe landlords (outside shopping malls and after some years to pass through the stages of grief) can accept that there just isn’t that much money in rents for storefronts anymore, and that specialist shops thereby can continue to exist.

Of course, the risk is that they will just tear it all down and convert it into lofts, office complexes or something instead, leaving nothing except lofts, office complexes and huge malls.

Old stock city quarters are almost universally mixed use here, commercial on the ground level and residential above. Living on ground level, with people passing by right in front of your window isn't exactly popular so those shops are increasingly staying empty and it's not just a result of the internet, but also the move of daily goods from small shops to supermarkets (of being size, smaller ones usually still available within walking distance). Unfortunately, some shops get converted to residential (it's higher rent now that the old guard of shops has mostly disappeared), others to small offices, but the most interesting are those extremely specialist ones that can only exist backed by online distribution. And it's not even limited to big places like Berlin. Realistically, a specialist store would be considered out of range if it is not in the surrounding quarters of either work or home, unless need is really pressing, so theres a bit of diminishing returns going on between larger city size and viability of specialist stores.

In Nuremberg, a city much smaller than Berlin I had a model rocket shop (strictly model rockets, absolutely no branching out into RC planes or fireworks) in walking distance, and one specialising into some specific subset off fishing lures, in a region completely lacking any fishing culture (the carp farms that are the traditional fish supply are harvested with partial draining and nets). A sub-kilometer move later, in a quarter developed mostly with residential ground floors, nothing like this exists. Still some empty shop fronts, but maybe your enough to drive commercial rents down to the point where "exotic online specialist with occasional walk-in business" becomes viable.

I don’t know about in Germany, but the huge malls are going the way of the dodo in the US.

I briefly worked for a retail company a couple years ago that was getting amazing sweetheart deals on short-term leases in malls because the mall owners almost literally could not give away the space. They are desperate to host just about anything in order to make their mall look less like a ghost town.

People say this, but both of the malls I've been to in the past few years (one in Bellevue, WA and one in Chandler, AZ) have been completely packed almost every time. Is it really still true that malls are going away?

A-class malls are still doing well. The mall you're referring to in Bellevue, where I have also been, is a class-A mall.

Class-A malls tend to be in busier, higher wealth, sometimes more urban areas, have best in class furnishings, and have tier-1 national tenants, with many of those tenants catering to more of a premium/luxury consumer.

Most B-class or C-class malls, however, are dying.

I believe it’s actually the smaller malls and malls near smaller towns that are dying from oversupply. The giant warehouse style stripmalls have hurt the small malls in the exurbs. Big malls in big cities seem to still be expanding.

Berlin just opened its 61st mall (all in the order of 20+ shops) a few month back, so at least in the centre they are going strong.

I read in the economist the US has nine times the square footage of shopping malls compared to the UK.

My guess would be that the close of small shops is due more to sales lost to online shopping than the natural rise of rent costs.

Hyper-specialization is everywhere if you ever step into any Asian country.

Indians even have last names based on their hyper-specialized occupation. I was in Thailand and I saw a tiny shop whose only job was to take old torn notes and exchange it for a new one by charging a small flat fee. I had an Indian friend that told me that specializations in old cities was also geographically organized. One part of street would only sell pressure cookers while another side would sell watering cans.

> I had an Indian friend that told me that specializations in old cities was also geographically organized. One part of street would only sell pressure cookers while another side would sell watering cans.

That’s how London used to be, which is why the area around St Paul’s has roads like “Leather Lane”, “Milk Street”, and “Poultry”.

I found Kowloon to be like this when I was visiting Hong Kong a few years ago. One that stands out in my mind was turning a corner and being on a street that seemed to sell nothing but pet turtles and fish.

Wow. Did you happen to take pictures? If you do, please share as any photographic insight into Kowloon walled city is highly sought after!

Kowloon and Kowloon walled city are not the same thing. Kowloon walled city was long gone when I made that trip.

Parts of Manhattan are still that way. There's a potted plant street, a fabric street...

For a US example of this, see the Patel Motel Cartel (https://www.nytimes.com/1999/07/04/magazine/a-patel-motel-ca...)

This is why I love Taiwan, so many interesting shops.

Small store size, walkable streets and alleyways, cheap rent, not many rules about what you can do. People will take care of the rest.

The legendary Sodabottleopenerwala - possibly apocryphal.

I live in Paris and you can find highly specialized shops too. Some shops only sell about three types of fabric, some others will sell only buttons, a certain type of leather or a special type of ink. I love getting in those shops and meeting the people who are really passionate about their visibly small yet huge niche. It always get wonderful once you start looking at the details.

FWIW, there is likely to be a button shop wherever you got enough seamstresses, tailors, dressmakers and fashion industry.

Buttons are really something you have to see and touch in person.

As a child, my mother used to take me with her to "Parker Buttons" in downtown Pittsburgh. I remember plunging my arms elbows-deep into containers of shiny black buttons. Nothing else like it in the world.

Those Button Men can be pretty intense!


Mr. Lossoff always reminds me of another Button Man, Ted Selker, inventor of the distinguished "Joy Button".


>Instead of shutting up shop, Ghouneim relocated to humdrum Wittenau, a suburb of Berlin, and got some tape artists to decorate the facade of the new building. Footfall has naturally decreased, but 80% of his business comes from online sales and regular industrial clients, for whom Klebeband’s four employees cut and colour match tape of all varieties to order.

Sounds like they realize that people going "Have you heard of the store that only sells stickytape?" is great buzz marketing generator.

I assume they'd need space to store the tape to sell to their online and industrial clients, so why not stack it up next to a counter and make a little side cash from the consumer market?

(I also have noticed in Germany they're much more cash-friendly, so I can totally see more people in DE preferring to go to a store and pay cash than submit PII like credit card and home address to purchase some sticky tape)

Cash-friendly and bank unfriendly. I lived in Germany for a year and I haven't had to finish a branch so many times in my life as that year.

In Cambridge (UK), on an out-of-the-way side street, for many years there was a shop called "Roll On Blank Tape".

I never understood how they could possibly do enough business to stay _in_ business, and always suspected that if you asked in just the right way they might sell you some ... not-blank tapes.

Boringly, the available evidence suggests that actually it's just that the person who ran the shop was really interested in cassette tape and didn't mind not making any money to speak of.

Just thinking about Cambridge shops made me sad about the terrible loss of Brian Jordan's music shop http://www.brianjordanmusic.co.uk/closure.asp

I imagine the premises for a lot of these types of businesses must be inherited. You can probably make enough to live pretty ok from a small business like this, especially if you aren't the sole bread-winner for your family.

From what I’ve seen and heard, that place closed some time between 1999 and 2008, although the shopfront remains unchanged even now. I last went past it in March, dog walking with a friend — and he used to buy tapes there.

Like, just audio cassette or all types of blank magnetic tape, or blank tape in general? Like masking-, sello-, elephant-tapes?

Just audio cassettes, though they weren't too pure to also sell blank minidiscs and the like.

I used to live around the corner: I always wondered about that.

I do miss Norfolk Street Bakery though (which I hope is still going).

Also, reminded me of the old CB1 cafe, which labelled itself "UK's oldest internet cafe", which amusingly hadn't updated their website since 2005: http://www.cb1.com/

Another specialist Berlin shop to the list (modelmaking/art materials and tools) and very famous amoung architects:


My sister works there. It's a very nice store, but I wouldn't describe it as hyper specialized. Maybe more of a general stationery/art supplies store, but with a lot of extra depth in some areas (architectural supplies etc).

I also find hyper-specialist shops in america wherever there is still cheap land enough for it. When I used to live in Buffalo, there were small shops- one specifically for new agey "gypsy" clothing, one for bath soap made in house, one for herbs for witchcraft, one that specialized in stones. I really enjoyed those places and miss them now how I live in NYC (although NYC has its own quirks- big gay ice cream is great!)

New York City has tons of these too; they’re just generally not well-advertised since they many of them cater to a specific market. There are a few button stores in New York, mostly in the Garment District, but also on the upper east side. There are stores selling all kinds of obscure art supplies, kitchen equipment, and lab gear too.

To be fair, I’m not sure exactly where you’d buy a currywurst cushion, but there’s a shop selling bones and stuff near NYU, if you someday decide that your living in room needs more of a Natural History Museum vibe.

There used to be a bone store in Berkeley, called The Bone Room. They're online-only now, though, after the death of their founder and presumably also rising rents. (https://www.boneroom.com/about--contact.html)

The difference is that you'll find specialists in Germany even where land isn't super cheap. I remember really enjoying Stuttgart a few years ago because I hadn't seen any supermarkets. I'm sure there's a Lidl and whatnot but instead we stopped by a green grocer, bakery, and butcher for dinner.

In Berlin I'm not surprised there's a meat furniture store.

When I lived in Seattle there was a kilt store.

Chicago had a button store in the last ten years or so, but it is gone. It became a Barneys New York.

Roaming through the Nevada desert a few years ago (Tonopah area, I can't remember exactly where) I came across a small town with a book store that sold nothing but old 1940's-1970's cowboy paperbacks. $1 each. I bought 50.

> he worked part-time to build and sell his own ant terrariums, which he calls “formicariums”, from the insect’s Latin name.

That's not just what he calls it, that's the official name for them.

Nothing too surprising really. The largest the density of people living in the same place, the more very niche businesses find enough folks to generate a livelihood out of it. The only reason why such shops tend to disappear is when rents become too high - but then nowadays they have the opportunity to go online instead. Tokyo has lots of hyper-specialist shops in different areas of the city, too.

While it's basically more of a cafe, I really like that a Brownie-specialized place opened here in Kyiv, Ukraine (called "Veterano Brownie", a concept they took from "Veterano Pizza", where only war veterans or forced migrants are hired). Always nice to see that something that you previously perceived as a treat of one type can be developed into a whole mini-company with lots of care and a variety of forms and tastes.

This doesn't really make sense to me.

On the internet hyper-specialisation is obvious since space is virtually unlimited. But in real life, I mean, real estate is limited so why wouldn't darwinian market forces make a shop with product diversity + epsilon out compete a shop with a more niche spectrum of products, until only walmart and such remains?

Many reasons.

First, WalMart doesn't have everything. Only a few people in any city are interested in buying specialty items, it doesn't make sense to WalMart to stock that everywhere when some stores will never have a sale. A specialty store brings in customers from all over the city.

A human who knows one product well is very useful. WalMart salesmen don't know their product. Going to a specialist who knows the product well makes sense because you can get advice. Also, WalMart as limited space: the specialist shop will often have the exact thing you need, while WalMart will have at best something similar, for real niche items you can't even get a substitute.

For the above to work you need a large enough population. The small hyper-specialist shop only works when there are enough people who will buy from it. Small towns in the middle of nowhere have a specialist store selling only farm equipment, you won't find that in the middle of a big city (you will on the edge). A big city will have specialist stores to support the industry (and hobbyists) in that town.

When the item needs to be custom fit you need a store. WalMart can fit glasses, but they don't know anything about pens. I bet many of you didn't know that some pens are custom adjusted to the user - there are enough people who like expensive pens to support pen shop in some cities. Likewise golf clubs, bowling balls...

> For the above to work you need a large enough population

I think you also need a sanely designed city with effective public transport. For example, Atlanta or Charlotte have millions of people, including hobbyists and artists and enthusiasts, but I don't think many of the shops in the linked article would survive in a strip mall.

Not true on path counts.

You don't need a sane design, you need a large enough population. Walmart needs to be every few miles because if they aren't people will go to a competitor who is closer. For specialty stores though there is no competition. Customers often will drive for over an hour to get there and put up with a really bad location because that is the only choice.

I have seen such stores in strip malls - not the new ones, but the old almost dead ones often find a new lease on life by renting to specialty stores that bring in people from all over.

Gail K fabrics in Atlanta. 2 locations and you can find any type of fabric under the sun. Just so little competition.

>in real life, I mean, real estate is limited so why wouldn't darwinian market forces make a shop with product diversity + epsilon out compete a shop with a more niche spectrum of products

But can the employees advise me on which to buy?

I'll sometimes pay a premium to go to a specialty store, so I can speak to an expert.

(Ex: if I was going to buy a vaporizer, I'd probably go to a vape shop rather than spend days reading on the pros and cons of various models)

Product differentiation is much easier in person since you see & can touch the product. Plus having a specialist available to speak with regarding your needs is often valuable.

With online purchases, you're limited to pictures, price, technical specs to make decisions.

There is no Walmart in Berlin; nor any similarly sized super markets. The closest thing would be Lidl and Aldi but they tend to be much smaller.

One feature of Berlin is that it is very spread out and people mostly don't use cars to get around. It has a center technically but it's not where people live or shop. All the action is in the dozens of neighborhoods and micro neighborhoods around this. You can walk for two hours without leaving what most people would consider the downtown area or reasonably close to it. These micro-neighborhoods is where you find loads of small restaurants, bars, art galleries, and indeed weird, specialized stores and pop up stores. There are many thousands of these all over Berlin.

Part of the reason is simply that there's a lot of space for small stores all over building. Most apartment blocks have space on the ground floor. That type of space does not make sense for bigger chains since the locations are wrong and the spaces are too small. So if you want to open a small store for whatever, you can without spending too much money. Most of these efforts are short lived for obvious reasons but some of them succeed or at least survive.

Given that Berlin is crawling with tourists, foreign students, entrepreneurs, artists, etc. pretty much any time of the year, there's plenty of business for small quirky stores selling whatever. You don't attract tourists by being a bland boring franchise in Berlin. Star Bucks tried to open up a branch near where I live. They pretty much got laughed away and got replaced by a Poke bowl takeaway within a year. Just not a thing when you have several of the top coffee bars within a 3 minute walk.

Post internet, retail is increasingly specialized. You get all the staples online. Amazon is huge in Germany and Amazon Prime is operating in Berlin with their full set of services (including groceries).

I'm pretty sure that what you described is happening. It's just that the process has not yet been completed. I don't think these shops are "the future of retail" like it says in the article.

What another comment said about showrooms makes a lot of sense. Also there are some fringe businesses that will never go online. Portrait photography businesses come to mind. Pharmacies are a thing where I live, because subsidized prescription only drugs can only be sold there.

But apart from that I wonder what will happen to all the smaller sales rooms in the inner cities?

>The majority of Antstore’s sales take place via the company’s website

I think they kind of act as showrooms for online sales.

Tourism is a relevant reason.

In Dublin, there was a shop that mostly just sold yeast until recently: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property...

It always looked closed; I walked past it for a decade or so every day without realising that it was still in business.

And then there’s the top floor of Stephens Green shopping center, which mostly just contains very strange specialised shops, with no visible customers.

Not only is it a trope, UHF satirized this over twenty years ago. Spatula City!


That's the image on the TV Tropes page.

This reminds me of when I was in Shenzhen's Huaqiangbei area --- it's mostly electronics, but you can find plenty of shops selling only varieties of one type of product.

With online retail, brick-and-mortar retail is no longer useful just for aggregating things into a location that you can go to buy them, except for things that can't be shipped for cost or time reasons.

So the value of brick and mortar retail becomes the ability to get you exactly what you need, and this often involves human expertise which by its nature specializes.

The button store on the Upper East Side in New York City has a lady there who just hands you the button you need. You show her your jacket where the button got caught in a cab door, and she doesn't even have to hunt -- she walks to one of her thousands of teeny drawers, and pulls out your exact button or something pretty damn close. In the article, the scotch tape guy knows exactly what scotch tape you need, and that's the reason for his store existing. He could as easily have an office where he then orders you the tape online for drone delivery.

FTA: "This is Antstore, the world’s first specialist ant shop, a business with around two dozen employees, a glass-cutting workshop, plastic and plaster modelling studios and a full-time social media manager."

This sounds like a Monty Python sketch brought to life.

I don't know if its still there, but west Philadelphia (somewhere around 49th St.) had a Carrot Cake store. They made the best carrot cake I've ever had, and made nothing else.

I've been past a specialist umbrella shop [0] in London hundreds of times and it has always intrigued me, though I have never been inside. I'm not quite sure it's in the same vein as the other speciality shops people are listing here though, since it has been there for almost 200 years and clearly targets the more discerning customer with high quality and bespoke items.

[0] https://www.james-smith.co.uk/

Surely the obvious question is: is the high street shop really a justified expense? Surely all the sales are online? The more specialized the shop, the less one can hope to fulfill ones sales volume from people in physical cruising distance. The article doesn’t seem to address this, except for acknowledging that most sales are online.

In theory it does not make a lot sense. In practice, I am amazed at how much crap most online webshops are.

In a shop I can browse through the wares much easier. I can examine them, look at the size and specs, feel the weight and texture, get ideas.

More often than not, crucial specs of the product I am looking at are not available. Dimensions and weights are often missing, I often can't look at more than 5 or 6 articles at the time.

Webshops are great when you know exactly what you need. They are hell if your need is "4 or 5 buttons that would look good on that fabric"

Just trying to find things like washers online had been a nightmare for me before -- how can they list the external diameter and not internal, how can they not say what material it is, or the thickness!??

I ended up trawling a few local plumbing supply stores and was really surprised how few washers they had, about the fourth store had a few random open boxes they let me rummage through and we agreed a price. It was unexpectedly difficult.

I've found similar problems getting screws I want (for a ceramics kiln). Gave up and used the best thing I could find in Screwfix (which aren't that good).

A lot of these shops also have excellent customer service.

The guy with a million kinds of tape can help you find a product that does X and Y, but won’t Z and matches your color scheme, the ukulele shop owner might recommend one that fits you or your style.

You could probably call around and get similar advice, but the places offering this kind of advice aren’t going to have free overnight shipping either.

The answer is probably that shop owners would rather work in a shop that satisfies online orders than in a warehouse.

The physical shopping radius for a specialty shop is also a lot larger than a generic store.

If you have the store to find mid-century burnished widgets at, people might regularly come from a hundred or more miles away when they really need just the right sort of widget, and when they do -- if your stock lives up to the hype -- they will tend to be big customers, buying a lot (since they weren't casually dropping in), being fairly price insensitive (since they have few alternatives for what they need), and repeat customers (since you seldom end up needing a specialty item once).

You might still need an online storefront, or you might take phone orders from your regulars, but the clientele of a specialty shop is radically different than the clientele of a generic shop, which relies more on people wandering by and which competes with ten other stores a mile away, and the big box store off the highway.

I think this is exactly it - these stores are now perfect fusion of small online store and small offline store. If you order something online the owner picks it off the shelf and puts it in an envelope - and the online shop can drive traffic to the physical one.

On the contrary, I think many of these particular shops shown in the article can only work as brick-and-mortar. Think about the button guy. He's probably a one-man show. How is he going to enter 10,000s of SKUs in a webshop, and maintain accurate stock numbers?

If you're in an area where the postman (or any delivery service) sucks, online shopping becomes a hassle.

The sitre of the meat textile shop is pretty interesting: https://aufschnitt.net/

This is a classic case of what happens when key parts of doing business have a low-cost and low barrier to entry. Diversity and interestingness take hold.

Yes, there is a balloon shop around the corner. They don't have anything except balloons, but they go deep.

The headline asks: Are the hyper-specialist shops of Berlin the future of retail?


No. The Internet is.

> Are the hyper-specialist shops of Berlin the future of retail? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge%27s_law_of_headline...

Although in this case I would say YES, that specialist shops are needed to combat Amazon being non specialist.

Yeah, the communists have destroyed this in the eastern part of Europe nearly perfectly

EDIT: Why am I getting downvoted for a factual, accepted, well researched and well known statement?

Wording. Your comment feels more like vitriol than fact statement, regardless of being correct.

It’s an interesting point. Is there a perceptible difference for Berliners between E/W shop types?

Several of the shops mentioned in the article are in Kreuzberg which was in the west before the wall came down but now has more in common with other eastern districts like Friererichshain or Neukolln than ones like Charlottenburg in the west. These kind of quirky workshop shops or independent shops are more common in those eastern districts I think than in the west now, which has more of the usual sorts of big high street chains.

Kreuzberg was also one of the poorest parts of West Berlin and is now home to all the hipsters (and uses East German Ampelmännchen if memory serves).

> with other eastern districts like Friererichshain or Neukolln

Neukölln was in West Berlin, although it’s geographically to the (south-)east of the city.

>Your comment feels more like vitriol than fact statement, regardless of being correct.

It's just about the shortest, blandest way to make that statement. That it's borderline "vitriol" or considered offensive to say X did Y when that is fact (or as close to fact as you can get with a subjective matter like this, nobody is going to say that communism was good for Eastern Europe) says something about culture here in 2019.

> That it's borderline "vitriol" or considered offensive says something about culture here in 2019.

I'm literally writing this comment from mobile while standing in a crowd near anti-communist protest in Prague. I can't really wrap my mind around this culture change.

People are very tired of the mildest bit of social democrat market intervention being denounced as "communism". Like "Nazi" it's a word that has been overused into uselessness, so it gets reflexively downvoted. Besides, communism in the original sense is realistically dead. The Berlin Wall has been down for almost 30 years. So people complaining about it in the present come across as McCarthyite.

(I think your original comment would have gone down better if it had been clearer about the past tense - that communism did destroy a lot of small businesses, but this is not an ongoing thing)

I used have because these businesses remain to be dead, there are not new ones in their place, only a group of shady businessmen that own all the properties and rents them to scam shops. I think that is an important distinction. Today no businesses would be destroyed by them of course, but there is also no business to destroy.

It makes no sense. That's why I'm calling attention to the absurdity of it.

Why is there an anti-communist protest in Prague?

Because there is a pro-communist protest

You mean there is a labour day march?

The event's meaning is not the same on this side of the curtain. All but mandatory attendance (sometimes with people literally checking names off a list), officials' speeches and military parades tend to sour the mood somewhat, and, from what I can tell, that memory lingers still. These days, many people just use it as an extra day off.

They don't call it that and don't behave like that, so no. They have anti-NATO, anti-USA and pro-Russia banners (and one pro-China). But there was a march earlier, at another place. I believe the anti-communists were there as well.

May 1st is Labor Day in most of the world.

I was born in a communist country, you don't need to tell me. There was Labor day march elsewhere, as I wrote in the previous comment. This was a protest. They did not move and actually did call themselves a protest, not march (if you asked about that, they pointed you to the march that was elsewhere and also at another time later in the day).

> you don't need to tell me

All right, but I was saying so from the perspective and for the potential benefit of US readers, who celebrate Labor Day in the fall.

As for your other point, at least here in Switzerland, the delineation between "march" and "protest" is not so clear, and May Day usually features both.

> All right, but I was saying so from the perspective and for the potential benefit of US readers, who celebrate Labor Day in the fall.

I had no idea about that and misinterpreted your comment. Sorry about that.

Yeah usually it's not so clearly separated here as well, but this year they made a separate protest, probably because of the EUP elections.

In my post-Soviet city that doesn't seem to be the case. I know of a shop that just sells car batteries - literally nothing else. They have maybe 30 products in stock, and can order it if you need something else. I don't think they have a web store.

It doesn't seem that factual, accepted and well-researched when this article directly contradicts your statement:

> In such a skewed retail landscape, many small shops found they could compete by specialising in goods neglected by generalist department stores, especially since retail space was cheap and in plentiful supply behind the Iron Curtain.

So while you may be right, you may also be wrong. Maybe it's not as black&white as you make it out to be.

I think you are misunderstanding the article. Going to the east, these specialised shops directed by the communists, put in place of previous, private ones, have in no way anything to do with the small family businesses you're trying to compare them with. They often literally shot the whole owner family. Everything of this is documented and taught in primary schools all around eastern Europe.

All the small businesses in Prague city centre were destroyed, today it's dominated by various minishops with Russian matrioshkas and other scam shit and Vietnamese (they rent it, not their fault) marketplaces selling fake weed and overpriced chips, drinks and cola, and of course by scam exchange places. This used to be space full of small coffee shops, restaurants, specialised family businesses etc in the 1920's. My home city Hradec Kralove (100k citizens) has nearly completely empty wider city centre - since the revolution, no one even wants to do business there. All small business owners were killed or killed by proxy (uranium mines, all of this uranium was then "given" to/taken by the Russians for free), their property confiscated and never recovered (to whom anyways).

Do you, or does anyone, know enough to give an example of a specialist shop in the East; a button seller, say; that existed prior to the Berlin Wall, that was "destroyed" and what system took it's place to fill the particular need? Like, people still needed fabric and buttons??

Did all single goods-type shops close, like butchers, bakers, etc.. How was supply managed?

Presumably those killed refused to give up ownership to the state?

All forms of private business were forbidden in the Soviet Union. Punishment: 5 years of imprisonment and confiscation of property.

Individual state-owned butcheries were managed by regional centers, which belonged to the ministry of meat and dairy industry. They planned how many pigs would be grown, how they would be distributed among butcheries, etc.

Everything was at the mercy of central planning. If they planned for less than the actual demand (a very common occurrence), then there'd be no meat left by the time the last 40-50-60% got to a butchery.

Personal contacts were very valuable. People in the know could tell you in advance when the next shipment of meat would arrive, or even hide it away for you in a backroom.

Over decades, a huge acquaintance-based shadow economy formed. Positions like butchers and store managers became some of the most desirable jobs in the society, since they effectively decided who got to eat meat (in return for similar favors) and who didn't.

Since there were no real elections and no competition, there was no way for an average citizen to express dissatisfaction neither politically nor economically.

And it was like this with pretty much everything. Even toilet paper was something that had to be hoarded, because its supply was unpredictable. Being a woman was especially difficult as central planners assigned very low priority to female hygenic products.

If you complained enough to get noticed, there were psychiatric hospitals waiting for you because one had to be mentally ill to believe in the superiority of free-market capitalism.

> Presumably those killed refused to give up ownership to the state?

Those killed were killed not because they refused to give ownership (the communists usually just sent people to uranium mines in that case, or later to prison), but because they were undesirable.

Coming from commie part of Europe I feel ya. I've recently saw documentary about Japanese family that makes same product for third generation, this would not be possible here as communists didn't allowed private business, people get separated from soil during collectivization and the link got broken. It will take many years to get restored, if ever...

If you have a family running a bakery, then you have a communist revolution, surely you still want the family to run the bakery? Under federal planning, for example, you just now supply them without charge and receive the needed goods; ensuring the family have what they need. It doesn't seem it's a necessity of communism, rather a specific thing that happened in this case?

Communist’s perhaps biggest point was that the means of production (a bakery in this case) should belong to „the people”, which in practice meant the state.

Yes, perhaps I wasn't clear; you still need people in the bakery - or a bakery - to make the bread, assuming you want people to eat. So, the best people to do it are those with experience as bakers. There seems no reason why in short term you wouldn't use the existing means of production, and the existing skilled people. Obviously the ownership changes.

Your last clause, is the kicker, just as it is now in Western Democracies, the State is supposed to be "the people" here now too, but in both cases it instead appears to be some small cadre of an in-group instead. However, none of that seems particularly pertinent to whether you keep using a bakery and the bakers you have when you transition from private to collective ownership.

Consider an example, Woolworths - a general store in UK and elsewhere - collapsed and in some locations the workers bought it for themselves to run as a collective. The same people did the same jobs, largely, immediately after the change just that the profits [and liabilities] were shared amongst them instead of belonging only to the owners.

> So, the best people to do it are those with experience as bakers. There seems no reason why in short term you wouldn't use the existing means of production, and the existing skilled people.

That is not what happened. What happened is that Stalin ordered to kill them. It was paranoia on top of other things (breaking the nation was not ment just as a side effect). They reorganized the society very quickly once they could start organizing people into agricultural communes (JZD in Czech) and steal everything (literally) from them in the process. Of course we know how well it worked.

If only I wasn't so boring; some interesting retail spaces have opened up in my area.

Is anyone else failing to see a legitimate need for sticky tape in tens of different colours? What about the shopping experience of the future, when such shops are destined to be the "future of retail"? Suddenly you are now spending an hour choosing between balloons of different shapes and colours or the perfectly matching button for your shirt. It's an illusion of choice, fueling pointless production of variations of the same thing and targeting your attention and time.

What do you mean "a legitimate need"?

Why do people need paint in more than one or two colors? Why do people need multiple styles of clothes, beyond a "summer uniform" and "winter uniform"? Why do people bother to maintain both vi and emacs when only one is necessary?

Most of the time, any tape will do, but sometimes you want the perfect paisley to complement your wrapping paper choice. Since most people don't care most of the time, most stores that sell tape won't have more than one or two kinds, so you go to a specialty retailer to find the unusual stuff for unusual circumstances.

I’d imagine this line of thinking is what Apple hopes for, people burdened with the luxury of choice who just want someone to tell them what they want.

Color is not the only variable here, there are many variables in picking a tape for a job. Of course usually just plain tape will do, but the article gave a very good example:

“Imagine you are a stage technician and you need to tape a lamp that gets very hot to a pillar,” Ghouneim says. “If you go to [DIY store chain] Bauhaus, they wouldn’t know what to do. But I can tell you that you need a polyester film with a special type of silicon glue that can stand up to 300 degrees. I have sticky tapes in my store that mere mortals would never dare to dream of.

My experience of such stores is just the opposite. When I don't care what kind of <something> I get, I just go to the supermarket or buy whatever is cheap on ebay. The choice takes a couple of minutes.

When I go to a specialist store, which I do every so often, my choice has been made before I walk in. That's why I'm there; because I already know what I want, and I know that I can't find what I want in the supermarket or by trawling eBay. I'm just hoping the specialist store has it or can get it. I spend less time choosing in the specialist store.

Adhesive tape is an incredibly sophisticated and versatile product. Yes, there are silly products (emoji duct tape) but there are also an immense variety of tapes with uniquely useful properties.


Your comment seems well made, and to make a good point.

We waste a lot of productivity on providing choice.

I don't think pure utilitarianism is the answer, but it seems we could do better.

But then, noone needs party balloons at all ...

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact