In singularly unsurprising news, Brookstone has filed for bankruptcy. The company will shutter its remaining 101 mall storefronts, officially closing out an era that began its fade years ago. Even if you won’t mourn its disappearance—even if you haven’t stepped inside a mall since the Mallrats era—it’s worth a moment of appreciation, and a full accounting of what’s been lost.
Brookstone debuted in 1965, a year after the Beatles first came to the United States, and a year before Star Trek boldly took it where no TV show had gone before. It was born as a catalog, a sort of proto-Amazon, promising “hard to find tools” within its pages. The stores came later, in the early 70s, eventually becoming as endemic to suburban shopping malls as Auntie Anne’s and Claire’s and that arcade with the double-screened X-Men game.
When you think of Brookstone now, you think of its massage chairs. How could you not? That’s what got you in the door, after an enervating hour of roaming the Borders aisles and soaking in the cologne at Abercrombie & Fitch. Brookstone represented a vibrating oasis with heated lumbar support.
It was more, though. During the height of the mall era, Brookstone carried gadgets that were both sublime and absurd, often at the same time. Before Bluetooth’s ubiquity, it sold wireless headphones with a range that barely encompassed a dorm room. In the aughts, you could nab a self-contained sea monkey habitat that looks like an orb from Labyrinth. And of course there were, and still are, the foot baths.
“Brookstone has always been a place of discovering new things,” says Brookstone public relations director Paul Donovan.
That includes some eventual mainstream hits as well; Brookstone was among the first to carry Parrot drones and iRobot vacuums, Tempur-Pedic beds and Fitbit wearables. But its main appeal was that sense of discovery, the joy of the inessential. What do you get the person who has everything? Something so niche from Brookstone—a “fermentation crock” designed specifically for sauerkraut, say—that it’s guaranteed to delight, or at the very least to surprise.
“Brookstone offers a number of unique and innovate products created by third parties who—prior to their relationship with Brookstone—do not have access to wide distribution channels,” the company wrote in its bankruptcy filing. In other words, the weird little gadgets and toys that remind you that tech doesn’t have to conform to perfectly chamfered rectangles. It can be janky and odd and unexpected, and all the more fun for it. “Brookstone has always been a place you go when you don’t know what you want,” says Donovan.
To be clear, not all of that is going away. This isn’t even Brookstone’s first bankruptcy. It’ll retain its online presence, and its 35 airport stores will remain open. It’s not the same, though. You go to a Brookstone at the airport out of necessity; it just happens to sell the nearest pair of headphones or two-tone neck pillow. It was discovery that brought you to the Brookstone at the mall.
That will hold true until the remaining locations shutter. But the long collapse of the shopping mall in the US is well-documented. Brookstone isn’t its first victim, and won’t be its last. If anything, it’s remarkable that it held on so long. Its contemporary, Sharper Image, shut down its last 86 stores in the summer of 2008.
Something else may be at work in Brookstone’s retreat as well. Losing foot traffic surely was the knockout blow, but its online and airport sales dropped steadily from 2015 to 2017 as well. It might be this: When Brookstone reigned, all gadgets were a little weird, a little risky. Not everything had a chip in it. But over the last decade, increasingly commoditized hardware has ceded the spotlight to software, to systems. In a world like that, Brookstone’s oddities and innovations have a hard time breaking through.
Still, Donovan sees opportunities ahead. The company has an airport store redesign on the way, and traditional retail operations still active in China.
Meanwhile, online, Brookstone recently instituted a “Makers Showcase” that gives promising crowdfunding projects a platform. Donovan touts the Royole RoWrite Smart Writing Pad, a digital slab you can draw on, and zap the file to your iPad or Android device over a Bluetooth connection. He likes the GeoOrbital Pavement Electric Bike Wheel, which promises to “Convert your manual bicycle into an e-bike with a 20mph top speed.” Scrolling through the page, you’ll also find a “smart pillow,” and a Google Assistant shower speaker. And pretty quickly you realize that it’s true: Brookstone stores are closing, but its spirit lives on in these affable oddities.
“There’s been a democratization of innovation; more people can invent stuff. But somebody’s got to be there to put it all together, to find the good stuff and present it to you in a place that you trust and understand, and that’s always been Brookstone’s job,” says Donovan.
Getting people there will remain a challenge. The internet’s a lot bigger than a mall. And while Brookstone will carry on as an online source of last-minute Father’s Day and graduation gifts, there was nothing quite like walking into the store, knowing the unexpected was waiting for you on its shelves.