Like so many of history’s brilliant thinkers, Josh Sampson has a difficult time explaining the genesis of his genius. “I just wake up with these things,” says the owner of Good Baby Management, a Denver real estate and brand development company that counts the Big Wonderful, a pop-up beer garden and festival, among its concepts. One of his latest thunderbolts: Garage Sale, a Larimer Square vintage clothing and vinyl shop that also serves cocktails and tacos. “No one has done it here,” Sampson says, adding that LoDo’s Dairy Block is “mainly a food hall.” Hair-splitting aside, Garage Sale’s conceit is distinctive—though uniqueness itself is becoming commonplace on Larimer as the district looks to novel ideas to reverse its pandemic plunge.
After being saved from demolition in the 1960s by preservationist Dana Crawford, Larimer Square has become one of the most sought-after shopping locations in the city. COVID-19 and its social-distancing requirements, however, hurt brick-and-mortar retail across the country, including in Denver. Sales here dropped 7.9 percent from July 2019 to July 2020, but restaurants (down 43.2 percent) and clothing stores (26.4 percent), Larimer Square’s lifeblood, were wounded more than other sectors. Grace Buttorff, owner of the Hailee Grace boutique on Larimer, says sales plummeted 75 percent in April. Urban Villages, the district’s property manager, restructured leases, according to Kyle Mason, director of property management. But by October, eight of Larimer’s tenants had left the square (only two departed due to the coronavirus, according to Urban Villages). Meanwhile, nonstore retail in Denver—mostly e-commerce—more than doubled over the same time period.
In its desperation not to cede even more territory to online behemoths, Urban Villages is experimenting with experiential shopping. Garage Sale was in the works prior to the pandemic. But when the Market—a coffeehouse, bakery, and deli—closed, Sampson replaced it with the Farmers Market, which is like the former Market, only more bougie (locally made dog biscuits, booze, artisan loaves). The Swiss alpine outfitter Mammut opened its first U.S. store, on Larimer, in October. Mammut Exp (as in: experience) allows Coloradans to interact with a more comprehensive range of the brand’s merchandise. Josh Schmitz, the proprietor of the Bellwether bar and barber shop on Colfax Avenue, at press time planned to unveil three concepts on Larimer: Ghost Coffee Saloon, Drunken Bakery, and Hidden Gems, an ice cream parlor that serves only vanilla mixed with the diner’s choice of cereal. Oh, and its menu is written in a language patrons must decode and the playlist is exclusively trap. “The future of retail,” says Sampson, “is concepts that bring people out of the house.”
The decision to introduce a retinue of experiential retailers, along with transforming the block into a pedestrian-only thoroughfare, seems to be helping the area rebound—just in time for a sale. In November, Larimer’s owner confirmed that Charlotte-based Asana Partners was under contract. Asked if the changes were designed to make Larimer Square a more attractive buy, Urban Villages responded in a statement: “We have set the block up for continued long-term success.”