826 LA is a nonprofit writing and tutoring organization based in Echo Park and connected to the larger 826 family, which has operations across the US. The Time Travel Mart is 826 LA’s store and e-commerce site. Aside from bringing in significant revenue to support their programs, the store carries items like Forgotten Science Project in a jar and bottled Famous Last Words, which reflect the same sense of possibility and wonder that 826 instills in its students.
I had the pleasure of volunteering with 826 at another one of their locations in San Francisco last year. Having tutored writing in college, I expected a similar experience assisting with outlines, grammar, and generally helping students get their English homework done… but I found that the students had finished their homework. Instead, they were writing pieces for themselves. And the work was good— open, messy, and wild—not what you’d expect from pre-teen writers, who unfortunately learn to judge their own work by that age.
This is the magic of 826. Stepping into 826 LA and its Time Travel Mart is like stepping into a world where the void of judgment opens infinite space for possibility. It’s a feeling similar to the writers’ phenomenon of “stumbling upon” an idea. When 826 LA tasked us with designing and developing a new website for Time Travel Mart, we knew that capturing its magic would be our biggest challenge. How was it possible to capture that feeling of “stumbling upon” in a website?
Our first answer was to recreate the information architecture of the site, which previously categorized merchandise in a way that site users could not search or easily locate what they wanted— not a very magical experience. By bucketing merchandise into distinct categories and designing a clean user experience, we were able to change this. Developing the site using e-commerce platform, Shopify, we were also able to turn viewing product details and checkout into a streamlined experience for customers. Using Shopify also made the new e-commerce site sustainable for 826LA, who can easily update their merchandise and product availability.
Once we were able to streamline Time Travel Mart’s ecommerce experience, the second part of our solution was all about embracing that “stumbled upon” feeling. One unique feature we incorporated to achieve this is called “Easter eggs,” which partially blend into the site design, but allow users to virtually stumble upon different, colorful gifs when clicked. The purpose here was to mimic the writing experience, during which creativity and inspiration can strike suddenly and take a writer down unexpected paths. All the gifs in this post are "Easter eggs" from the time travel mart website.
The result is the first phase in a brand new e-commerce site for Time Travel Mart that fully captures the wonder and inspiration we feel at its physical location, and that I felt while working with the student writers at 826. Because a significant percentage of their revenue comes from the Time Travel Mart, having a more robust and easy to use site is a powerful step for 826 LA. This will make the difference in scaling their overall impact by including more students in their programs and better serving their current participants.