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Why you should shake off your fear of ‘appointment only’ boutiques

Troy Seidman at Caviar20, his “by appointment only” interior-design shop in Toronto.

Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

One of London's most edifying shopping experiences is on a dead-end lane near Victoria Park. A cavernous, double-height showroom behind colossal Edwardian doors, the Modern Warehouse is secluded and little-known: Everything a dedicated shopper wants out of a destination. And if you're turned on by Scandinavian-modern furniture, it is the absolute zenith of chic.

But to get in, you'll need to call ahead.

Most of you will want to stop reading here. The term "appointment only" is one of the most reviled in retail. How inconvenient. How awkward. How shameful if you don't buy.

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Increasingly, though, the appointment-only model is an attractive one for young, highly specialized retailers – design retailers, yes, but also in-the-know fashion, obscure music and rare books. And not only because so many do the bulk of their business online. Sure, it's a rent-saver, but it also allows merchants to double as curators, teachers and entertainers, carefully controlling the retail atmosphere and forming long-term relationships with their customers.

And more than the sum of online and bricks-and-mortar sales, "appointment only" offers untold benefits to shoppers.

On a recent morning I resolved to give the Modern Warehouse a try. Within 10 minutes of dialling, co-owner Rob McClymont had dashed over from his nearby apartment, fixed me a cappuccino and sat me down in an Illum Wikkelso leather V11 armchair. Over the next half-hour he gave me a primer on the Danish designer Borge Mogensen; debated the appeal of rosewood versus teak; contemplated the outrageous popularity of the Hans Wegner Papa Bear chair.

It was the most satisfying browse I'd had in weeks. But I'd argue McClymont got as much enjoyment out of it as I did, even though I left with nothing more in my bag but his business card. I had become a disciple, after all.

"When we set up this business, the goal was to avoid traditional retail," says McClymont, whose partner Dan operates out of their Nottingham warehouse, two hours away. "Nobody wanted to spend days sitting in a shop – we'd be bored to death, and we couldn't do all those practical things, like getting things restored and reupholstered, or fixing hinges."

The appointment-only model addressed that balance. "The whole thing about this kind of specific furniture is people want to talk to you about it – 'How was it made?' 'Is it a good buy?' – they want to have that conversation. And when I'm here they can have all my attention," says McClymont. "This is a little bit closer to a gallery experience, where people are treated as potential clients rather than shoppers. Yet they're not paying a gallery premium."

As a happy consequence, he adds, "There's a bit of a vibe where people feel they've discovered something."

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McClymont agrees the method can seem daunting to those of us used to anonymity. "Some people, no matter how much we tell them not to worry, not to feel they have to buy, I can just tell by the look on their faces they're anxious that we're opening especially for them." McClymont's remedy was to launch a regular Saturday "open for browsing" day.

Like many temptations, appointment-only boutiques are lurking everywhere, though not where you'd expect.

Troy Seidman, of Caviar20, deals a cross-section of glamorous 20th-century artifacts from an unremarkable side street in downtown Toronto. By phone or e-mail he'll share directions to his industrial space, down an anonymous laneway and up a utilitarian staircase. After swinging open the door to his sun-splashed white loft, he will invariably put on a pot of tea or open a bottle of red.

"There's an element of surprise that people experience and they really enjoy that," says Seidman of the exercise. "Interior designers love to bring clients here for that exact experience."

Caviar20's slender, sexy modernism and Hollywood-style art deco – not to mention sculptural wood pieces by contemporary designer Don Howell – would attract throngs in a storefront on King Street or Davenport, but traditional retail is "not something I'm actively seeking out," says Seidman. He saves his capital for trade fairs like Toronto's Interior Design Show and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, in New York every May.

The idea is to lure serious collectors who want a one-of-a-kind piece. But Seidman encourages pop-ins, whether they're design students or curious locals. "I'm fairly accessible, so if someone wants to look, they're welcome to," he says. "I hope I give the impression that I want people to learn."

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To get the most out of a "by appointment" retailer is to get the most out of retail. That is, a discourse about what you're buying; a proper liaison between yourself and the maker; and an elite product at a price that doesn't bear extortionate overhead costs. As Jurrian Booij of BK in Ghent, Belgium, tells me, "It helps you create surroundings where you're exclusive without paying rent of €10,000 ($15,000) a month. For that reason, appointment-only is a logical step when you're starting out."

Booij will "open the door to anyone with an interest," which means shoppers should probably express one when they take that cup of coffee, even if they have no intention of buying his 20th-century mod art and decor. Whether that means boning up on the history of industrial lighting, Low Country designers of the 1960s, mid-century Lucite or even the Danish sideboard trend, a little knowledge goes a long way to building a dialogue – and making all involved feel they're not wasting their time.

Back in London, Gallery Fumi faces onto high-traffic Hoxton Square, though few people dining on the facing patios likely know it exists, past two doors, through a concrete corridor, up four flights in an elevator. But co-owner Sam Pratt, who shuttered a flourishing retail location two years ago, prefers working "one to one, making it into a secret kind of situation that only they know about. It adds something to the process.

"Our clients do feel very special when they come."

Fumi's collection is awesome in scale and spec – on a recent visit, an eight-metre engraved-wood screen by Zoé Ouvrier separated the jesmonite tables by Study O Portable from the dentalium-shell artworks by Rowan Mersh. Yet Pratt and his partner, Valerio Capo, put visitors at ease with coffee or wine from the open kitchen. "We also live in the space," says Pratt, "which makes it feel unlike a full-on gallery. "People find it interesting because they can see the work in a living environment."

It's a successful formula for all involved. "Things have improved tremendously since we had the appointment-only idea," says Pratt. "We sell far more now than we did with a retail space. It's definitely a win-win."

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