On a trip to San Francisco and in search for great experiences, I headed into the Mission District. There, I happened upon a pirate supply store. Not only was it full of useful pirate things but it was beautifully designed with a thoughtful layout and clever signage.
How often do you see a pirate supply shop, let alone an artfully created one?
Immediately I became curious, wandered in and found myself picking things up, exploring and then seeking something to buy. Beyond the General Store ambiance and surprising items for sale, the packaging and descriptions made each product interaction enjoyable.
Hooks, mermaid bait, a peg leg sizing chart, some Scurvy Begone, everything felt like it belonged on a pirate ship.
I couldn’t help but inquire about the store… and I learned it was a tutoring and education center for kids to become better readers and writers.
Later, still unsure what pirates and writing had to do with one another, I Googled “What is the name of the pirate supply store in San Francisco?” It is, in fact, called The Pirate Supply Store and sales of the merchandise supports a writing center in the back of the store called 826 Valencia.
This only fed my curiosity more. I dug around and learned more.
826 Valencia is an exercise in creative constraints and changing lives. When its founders wanted to open a tutoring and creative writing center and thought 826 Valencia (the address and future name-giver of 826 centers all around the country) was the perfect location, zoning laws require that the location operated a store. Not content on their first idea, (a hot dog stand), they were inspired by the space’s esthetic to open a pirate shop.
That response to constraint led to a creative flourishing around the country. Each city’s centers are now intentionally “fronted” by an equally unusual and whimsical store. LA has not one, but two Time Travel Marts. Chicago boasts a Secret Agent Supply Co. and Brooklyn’s Superhero Supply Co. keeps all kinds of caped crusaders caped. Visitors to DC’s tutoring center can also visit the Museum of Unnatural History and the MIchigan location is perfect for any robot-related needs and wants.
One of the cofounders of is Dave Eggers, who rose to popularity with his blazingly popular novel “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” He’s written more acclaimed books, fiction and nonfiction alike, founded McSweeny’s and generally been awesome. Unsurprisingly, someone that prolific is asked to speak about it frequently and Eggers is all over TED. The following video in particular is worth a watch if you’ve never seen it. He’s genius. It’s genius. It’s fun and creative and helps so many children. And it is built off of creative constraint and fueled by fueling the curiosity of kids and adults alike.
I was so curious I wandered into the store. I was still curious so I asked. Ever more curious, I started Googling and ultimately was so curious that I immediately watched the whole 25 minute video and bookmarked several more.
Curiosity works with kids. It gets them excited to work on their reading and writing. I can’t imagine how fun it would be to be a young student surrounded by all that creativity and welcoming weirdness. For employees and volunteers, making learning as fun and free as possible has to be rewarding.
Curiosity works for adults and brand building, too. 826 Valencia got my money and my time. I was glad, eager even, to give both. I’d happily tell people about their work and encourage people to support their efforts. I’m telling you about it now because they made me curious and tell a great story.
As usual, I think about how this applies to the work we do here at Blue Like Neon. For any brand we’re working with, pirate or not, there’s a story to tell. There are creative constraints—limitations on the scope, the budget, the timeline, the technology.
It’s when we take those constraints and use them to be ever more creative that unexpectedly great things can happen. And, when we help our clients tell their stories as best as they can be told, they get curious customers who gladly, eagerly even, give their time and money to learn more and buy more.
I went out that day seeking a great experience. I got that and more. I learned about an incredible organization doing great work with school kids. And I got affirmation that the foundations of our business (shown below) are helping the businesses we work with.
Work Wisely with Creative Constraints.
Make People Curious.