General Store. 4035 Judah Street, Outer Sunset, San Francisco, California, USA.
“There’s a certain person who has this desire to live near the sea,” artist and shop-owner Serena Mitnik-Miller tells me. “It’s hard to explain to people who don’t get it, but it’s important in our lives – an understanding you don’t even need to talk about.“ Serena and her husband and business partner, Mason St. Peter, make living ‘close to nature’ much more than a mantra. “Nature is powerful,” Serena observes, “we are physically part of it – to not consider that as part of your life is ignorant.” A truly holistic approach, both to making art and to the design and running of their San Francisco shop, has helped Serena and Mason create a local and global community.
Clues to a different way of life inhabit Serena’s artwork. Watercolours swirl and twirl on paper, painted contours looping and overlapping in flowing but closed formations; patterns repeating themselves symmetrically but with a loose, organic quality, thanks to earthy colour pigments and a subtle simplicity of shape. They seem to me to explore natural forms of geometry.
image from www.serenamitnikmiller.com
Serena’s art has taken all sorts of directions: a full list of media would include photography, print-making, crafting, home design & interior architecture. She paints, on paper but also everything from wood blocks to wall murals; she has designed and produced surfboards, even customized Vans running shoes; but her most impactful creation of all, I’d argue, is the shop she and Mason opened in San Francisco’s beachy ‘Outer Sunset’ neighbourhood: General Store.
It was a fledgling beach community in a foggy, almost forgotten part of San Francisco that inspired Serena and architect Mason to take on a space left vacant by their local video store. Back then, retailers in the area included surf shop, Mollusk, managed by Serena, and a restaurant called Outerlands serving locally sourced foods with a handcrafted, folksy vibe: think driftwood walls and a menu big on artisanal, home-baked bread. The owners of these businesses, also friends, encouraged Mason and Serena to set up as fellow entrepreneurs.
They are a dream team. An artist / collector’s discerning eye paired with a designer / architect’s aptitude and a shared appreciation of the natural world made for a fit-out that perfectly reflects its setting in this Californian coastal town. In front, a group of benches – propped from underneath and perfectly balanced using nothing but big, smooth, round stones – give the shop a villagey, communal feel. Out back, Serena has transformed a once-derelict concrete garden of weeds into a peaceful eden of lush tropical cacti and succulents, complete with greenhouse and a big wooden tabletop – an ‘open whenever we are’ outdoor space for customers to enjoy, used for day-to-day meetings and one-off workshops like sandal-making, indigo dye, and wood-carving, to name a few.
In-between these outdoor spaces, pooling light either side of the centre of the store, is a circular structure: an idea conceived by Serena and ingeniously executed by Mason, skateboarder since childhood, as an almost full skating ramp. The design process was dynamic, practically-driven: “There’s a part of creativity that is about exploring the possibilities and finding new ways to do things. It’s all problem-solving. There is no right or wrong answer, it’s just figuring out the option you want to choose to move forward in a certain direction,” Serena explains. I see a trace of her artwork here, too. The shop’s dimensions and circular core form a three-dimensional study of many elements of pattern, light and natural forms found in Serena’s paintings.
General Store is so-called because the original plan was so loose: simply to sell “a little bit of everything.” Serena really wanted a studio, but considered it an extravagance: “the space was large and too expensive for just a studio, so we thought, ok, maybe we’ll sell a few things you can’t get in the neighbourhood in the front.”
As products found their own way to the shop, a new and distinctively Californian, laid-back, handcrafted aesthetic identity emerged. “People were like ‘I make this’ and ‘I make that,’” Serena remembers. A girl “from down the street” came in with natural wooden boxes made by her father, still a store staple to this day: “We just cannot keep them in stock — pretty sure he doesn’t sell them anywhere else. He’s a plumber on the side or does some kind of septic system..the boxes are his side job.”
Serena sought out pieces she liked and things made by friends or fellow artists, like cookbooks by SF bakery Tartine; the unique, cork-topped canisters of Humble Ceramics; colourful clay mugs by Atelier Dion; notebooks by Postalco; Mociun’s distinctive geometric jewellery; and pure, yummy enough to eat skincare products by Earth Tu Face. Each product has behind it a relationship built up and treasured, over years: “Every time I go pick something out from our partners, it’s more than just ordering product. It’s ‘what’s going on in your life?’ It’s really nice,” Serena tells me.
The shop sprouted a ‘sister’ location in L.A.’s Venice Beach when John Moore, a design project collaborator, introduced Serena to his longterm girlfriend Hannah Henderson. Serena says their connection was immediate: “We have a similar background; both the children of single moms, we never had a lot growing up, so we love thrifting – the ‘treasure’ of vintage, finding the perfect white t-shirt or perfect pair of Levi’s. When Hannah and I first started hanging out, sometimes we’d show up wearing similar or the same things.” The two couples teamed up to design and open the Venice store, now run by Hannah, and together she and Serena source expertly curated vintage pieces for both shops. Not only do the two see things with a similar eye; they share a genuine passion for artistry, history and provenance over scale and disposability.
This collective of vendors and makers, born in a sleepy beach neighbourhood, has grown and evolved to celebrate the work of artists around the globe. The L.A. venue’s larger space has allowed General Store to find and stock new products while maintaining the shop’s signature handmade, natural aesthetic. Absolutely everything in General Store is either a one-off, or still made in small batches, with love and care, by people whose friendship matters.
When the SF store’s former manager, ceramicist Julie Cloutier, left to go full-time with her craft, Serena was sad but also hugely moved and proud: both of Julie and of what the shop had made possible for her. “It’s not because of me but I feel I’m part of it; to see people have the opportunity to be passionate about something that, 10 years ago, may not have been as appreciated. It’s those relationships – whether it’s with the people we work with, with Hannah, my husband, other employees — that’s the part of it I would say is the most fulfilling to me…because I feel it’s about my family. It’s a big little community, I guess.”