"It started off with my obsession with nostalgia," says "Slobby Robby" Hall, co-owner of Fourth Avenue's newest boutique shop, Generation Cool (404 N. Fourth Ave.). Hall and his partner, J.R. "Sid the Kid" Harrison, have been fixtures in Tucson's downtown culture for years now, assuming roles as club promoters, DJs, artists, clothing designers and generally flamboyant characters. Both are 33 and are passionate about their most ambitious endeavor to date, talking incomprehensibly fast as they showed me around the store.
Hall's nostalgia from growing up in the '80s and '90s is what makes Generation Cool unique, and far from just a retailer. "Generation Cool is a brand," he explains. "We're trying to establish a culture and a lifestyle ... that's the beauty of it: It's a store, a meeting place, a fun place for hobbyists. We're very committed to fun and honoring the generations of the '70s, '80s and '90s. The styles (from those eras) are classics now. We're not high fashion or following any trends. We're just presenting the classics in an atmosphere that's artistic and community friendly. A 3-year-old can come in here and get a stuffed animal and a 50-year-old collector can come in and get a Creature From the Black Lagoon model."
In addition to "clothing, accessories, toys and collectibles," as Hall puts it, Generation Cool will function as a clubhouse, complete with vintage arcade games, DJ sets from Harrison and others, Nintendo and Sega Genesis tournaments, and a full snack bar.
The emphasis is on community and locally made merchandise. "We offer the Generation Cool in-house brand that includes jackets, hats, sweatshirts and beanies," Hall adds. "We'll be doing backpacks, fanny packs, and we carry a huge selection of vintage clothes from the '70s, '80s and '90s." He stresses that all the vintage items are sourced from local dealers. As Harrison says, "We're not just carrying our own stuff; we're carrying other local brands. It's just a big community."
The two see themselves as investing in local designers and merchants. "We're very cognizant of supporting as much local product as possible," Hall says. "I'm really proud to present something on Fourth Avenue that's different and unique, but positive for the community. We're not a bar or a head shop. ... You go to L.A. and all these (different) stores are next to each other on Melrose. It's 'destination shopping.' I want someone to come down Fourth and have a blast at our store.
"It's an antique store. (For example,) this isn't some cheesy Mario Brothers key chain; this is a one-of-a-kind piece of art. We have something for the serious collector or something for someone walking down the street without a lot of money."
A premium is placed on emphasizing hip-hop culture because, as Harrison puts it, "we wouldn't be reflecting popular culture without incorporating and recognizing hip-hop. For anyone in our age group, hip-hop is mainstream popular culture." With a DJ booth, vintage rap and R&B records for sale, Hall sees Generation Cool as being a place "a lot of Tucson's hip-hop community will call home."
Neither Harrison nor Hall are exclusionary, however. Their marketing plan seems to be simply based on fun for anyone of any age or background. "This is a place where people can come together and not feel alienated," Hall explains. "We want to bridge gaps and bring our interests all to one place. We are reflecting popular culture—whatever's good, we want it."
Their mentality represents a profound shift in youth culture. Generation Cool is a boutique that treats '80s relics, from Nickelodeon baseball caps to Masters of the Universe action figures, as high art. Or Adidas track suits and Wu Wear as treasured collectibles rather than clearance-bin liners at a thrift shop. Both see Generation Cool as a gallery for museum-worthy artifacts and as a viable contender in a competitive marketplace. The kids have grown up and are opening stores on prime real estate. With their anti-elitist stance, and "come for the fun, stay for the product" business model, Generation Cool is somewhat groundbreaking, at least in recent years locally. Hall and Harrison's respect and commitment to their business is palpable and exciting, and hopefully will be a resounding success, and a blueprint for others to follow.
Or maybe it's just as simple as Hall explaining, "We wanted our own business. For me to set up toys on shelves for a living is probably my lifelong dream." And as Harrison concludes, "Everyone's invited. A generation of cool people."