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The upstate art shopkeeper
Path #9: David McGillivray is building an art & design store in the Catskills
In this edition of Desire Paths…
David McGillivray bartended, stocked shelves, and worked in an insurance call center before discovering his life’s passion: design. After a successful freelance career, the British-born, New York-based designer has moved to the small Catskills town of Livingston Manor to sell beautiful art and objects. Sounds dreamy. Let’s find out why he’s doing it—and how he’s getting on…
I’m Danny Giacopelli, an editor, photographer, traveller and small business fan. By day I’m Editor-at-Large for Courier magazine. This is my personal newsletter, Desire Paths. It’s based on the idea that the most fulfilled, fascinating people in the world chase after risky dreams, change careers, make unconventional decisions, and cross oceans to start something new. I go deep with them—small business owners, designers, shopkeepers, farmers, billionaires, hermits, maybe even you—and share everything I learn.
Path #9: David McGillivray
“Most people take a picture of something in a store and then buy it on Amazon. If that happens in my store, then I failed to hit the brief. The type of store I want to create is one in which you're looking for an excuse to buy something, not the opposite.”
I’ve followed David on Twitter for a while, so I was intrigued when I saw his post about opening an art and design shop in the Catskills. For many of us, moving to the country and opening a small, curated shop is a dream. Here’s a guy actually doing it.
So we hopped on a call a few weeks later and ended up talking for two hours. The conversation went deep. Below are the highlights—David’s story, in his own words.
I hope you enjoy it. (And time to pack your bags for Livingston Manor…)
A smart kid hunting for a passion
I grew up in Hastings, England. Now it’s full of cool spots, but back then there was nothing at all. I went to a very bad, rough school where the teachers were doing what they could to hang on. I took a career guidance quiz once and it said I should be a van driver. I remember getting the results and being like, ‘Oh. I don't think I want to do that.’ That was the only career guidance I ever had. But I was always interested in “business”. In primary school I had a pencil case of stuff and I’d go around to everyone’s desk trying to sell them random things. My mom asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to be a businessman.’ I didn't really understand what that meant, but I understood the spirit.
I didn't do great in school. I was a good kid and well-behaved, but I didn't apply myself. And yet… I had a computer and was coding websites in flash at the age of 12 and putting them on bulletin boards pretending to be a professional. People were like, ‘I don't think this guy has clients!’ ‘Damn!’ I thought. ‘Didn't fool them...’ There was this weird duality where I was really advanced for a kid, but I was failing geography class thinking, like… what is this? What am I doing?
From stacking shelves to discovering design
Fast forward some years and I found myself working at an old pub in Hastings. I started as a waiter when I was 16, then eventually worked behind the bar. I was also making music with friends. At the time I was earning like five grand a year and only like £10 or £20 in tips a week. Not sure how that was all legal! I thought, maybe I should find a way to earn more money.
So I got a job at an insurance company in the call center of the claims department and I doubled my salary to ten grand a year. I was really good at it, but it was soul destroying. So I quit and tried to start a music technology company—while making some cash by stacking shelves with retirees at B&Q during the 5am shift. I'd work until midday, go home, take a quick nap, then work on my business in the afternoon.
And through the process of setting up this business, I discovered graphic design and realized what I actually enjoyed was the development of the brand itself. Like, ‘Wow, this is a job?’ So I dropped everything and went back to school to study design. As soon as I got there, I said ‘This is my world’. It clicked. It was one of the best times in my life.
Launching his career…
I ended up in New York and worked in-house for a few small and fast-growing companies. My last in-house job before going off on my own was a womenswear brand called AYR. It was incubated by Bonobos. I basically designed everything but the clothes. Then I went freelance. I’ve been a freelance designer now for 15 years. Most people who operate at the level I’m at are creative directors at an agency or have their own startup. There’s not a ton of people who are still freelance at this level and as hands-on as I am. That’s been my value prop. I work on only one project at a time, producing work to a high standard and on tight timelines. At this stage in my career, I’m not really compared to other freelancers. Instead people are often, like, ‘We're speaking to you, we're speaking to Red Antler, and this other studio or agency.’ So I became an expensive freelancer, but a cheaper alternative to a big studio.
…and then rebalancing it
The last few years, I’ve been trying to reengineer my practice so that I enjoy it more. It’s a well-oiled machine that’s making me good, reliable money, for work that I’m interested in. Except… I still wasn't really enjoying the process. I wasn't hating the projects at all, but I was definitely looking forward to wrapping them up. I’m knocking on forty now and it’s taken me this long to realize some things. You can understand something hypothetically for decades, but often it takes a certain event to really understand with your whole being what it means. And it took me a long time to realize that I need to actually enjoy the process. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Let’s go upstate
I realized I needed to take a step back from this type of work as my primary source of income and energy expenditure. And a few things came together simultaneously, including my wife Rebecca having increased flexibility and more geographic freedom. So in 2017 we had a bit of money saved and we bought a house in Livingston Manor in the Catskills. This was way ahead of the Covid curve and upstate rush. We weren't big ‘upstate people’—we’d maybe been up there only three times before we bought the house!—but we've always been interested in architecture and liked the idea of having a place of our own. Properties were much more affordable back then and there was so much more inventory. We started looking on Zillow, scrolling through with a search radius of basically the entire Catskills. And we found a fantastic place.
‘What if we settled in the Catskills?’
We still had our apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, so we’d go up on weekends and renovate the house. In 2020, obviously, things changed. We came up here in March 2020 when everything was kicking off, and ended up in the house for a full year. It was a very weird and scary time, but we were lucky. By March 2021, we got an apartment back in the city, but we were still spending a lot of time upstate. We would always think about where we want to settle and eventually start a family, if not Brooklyn? At a certain point, we said, ‘What if we settled in the Catskills?’
Livingston Manor is the answer
This area is changing a lot. What excites us is that the area has its own energy, community and culture, but it’s also welcoming of newness. When we bought the house in 2017, there was Main Street Farm, and that was the only kind of ‘new generation’ of things in Livingston Manor. Now it’s buzzing. The Art Space on Main Street just renovated, there’s an amazing chef who’s working through permits to open a sake distillery and sushi restaurant, and there are tons of creative people moving here. Rebecca and I have also changed. We appreciate the upstate life and the slightly slower pace. We’ve made friends here and have had friends move here. We could see ourselves living here full time, so we made the decision earlier this year to make the move. We’re incredibly excited about it.
‘The vegan cheese shop is for rent!’
We were hanging out in the Catskill Art Space and talking to the director, Sally. Just gossiping about things. She mentioned that the building directly opposite the Art Space was possibly on the market. It was going to be turned into a vegan cheese shop, but the tenant who was working on the renovation actually passed away mid-renovation a while back. Which is incredibly sad. The place was just sitting empty. It’s the only mid-century modern building on Main Street, big aluminum frame floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and next to a great new wine bar, Sunshine Colony. For a while I’d been toying with opening a shop up here, but it was never doable until I was living here full time. Now there was a real opportunity…
‘Maybe I can open a boutique?’
For years I’ve been sourcing, buying and framing art of all kinds. I enjoy doing it so much. And I thought, what if I open an art and design shop but done in an accessible way? Not a fine art space where we’re selling ten, twenty, thirty grand works of art, but a place where you can say ‘I love this and want it on my wall’, spend a couple hundred bucks and walk away with framed art. I felt there would be a demand and excitement for that sort of thing. And then it developed—OK, so ready-to-hang art. What about a concept store? How would I build that? What overlapping products and objects can I add? How can this make sense conceptually? And how can I do something that’s original to the area?
I have a vision of who I think will enjoy the shop. And it’s sort of like... If you enjoy this, you're also going to enjoy this, this and this. It’s going to be high design and feel very fresh, but I don't want it to feel like a gallery or stuffy. There will be art. It might be for local collectors, people renovating a house, or for art and design kids coming up from Brooklyn for the weekend—there are a lot of those during the summer. They might pick up a cool 8x10 litho print selling for $300. I’m definitely trying to be accessible and hit all the audiences. I also want sculptures and design objects, art and design books, and a tight curation of stationery and paper goods, like precision Japanese pens and notebooks. All tasteful. Nothing novelty or cheesy.
‘I want to create a space that’s alive’
I don't want it to feel like a store you only visit once a month. I want locals to feel like they can visit every weekend. That's why we’re redoing the patio out front. We’ll have bistro tables outside and seating inside, with soft drinks and magazines. I want it to feel alive and interactive and a dynamic space. It's very important that it doesn't feel precious. Instead, you’ll roll up on a Saturday morning, pick up The New York Times, and sit out front with an iced coffee. That's the vibe I'm trying to create.
Challenges & opportunities
Opening a design boutique in Brooklyn would have led to more foot traffic but also probably 5X the buildout costs and 5X the rent. Upstate, we’re in a race against time to capture as much of summer as we can. But nothing is scaring me yet. There’s pressure, but it's fun. I was talking to my old design professor who recently retired and is oil painting every day. I told him it would be fun to sell a couple of his pieces in the store. I have an amazing artist friend and I visited his studio in Gowanus last week. The fact that part of my job will be connecting with these creators and sourcing their work is incredible. I feel the most energized I've felt in years!
Creating a feeling
If I sweat the details and labor every aspect in a thoughtful, soulful way, I think it will all come together and make people excited to be here. These days, most people take a picture of something in a store and then buy it on Amazon. That fact burrowed deep into my brain. If that happens in my store then I failed to hit the brief. Because the type of store I want to create is one in which you're looking for an excuse to buy something. You’re like, ‘This place is really cool’—the music, products, how it smells, how the owner is friendly and helpful. You buy into everything about it. You identify with it and support it and feel enriched just for visiting. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Corners hasn’t yet opened its doors, but you can follow its journey on Instagram.
UNTIL NEXT TIME,
Desire Paths is about the wild, winding, lesson-filled lives of fascinating people. I’d love if you’d subscribe or share with a friend.