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Think small not mall: Ditch contemporary retail and head for the bijou boutique

A purring machine" is Emile Zola's description of the vast, ruthlessly contrived department store at the centre of his 19th-century novel The Ladies' Paradise, which charts the early stages of our now full-blown love affair with shopping.

It may have been a fictional glint in the eye of the modern-day mall and cavernous designer flagship, but the shameless domination of the old-fashioned high street that Zola describes has proved an uncannily accurate portrait of contemporary retail.

Or at least it did until recently. For lately, our obsession with pounding acres of shopfloor in search of our purchases seems to be on the wane and small is once again looking rather beautiful. It's this renewed affection for shopping on a more human scale that design journalist John Stones is celebrating in a new book, Very Small Shops.

A whistle-stop tour of some of the planet's teeny-tiniest emporia (all occupy fewer than 150sq m), Stones talks to the designers who have been challenged with creating unique but functional spaces and explores their peculiar attraction.

"I think it's that Alice in Wonderland feeling of entering a dolls' house," muses Stones. "There's great appeal in being able to grasp a world in its totality."

Likewise, Stones found that the designers behind these miniature universes were attracted to the projects by the possibility of realising their personal visions in their entirety, with fewer compromises: "Small spaces allow a designer the kind of control you never get with huge places, because it always becomes too expensive," explains Stones. "It means they can afford to produce it as they originally imagined it more easily."

The innovation motivated by such stringent physical limitations is striking. Along the way, Stones takes in EKO, a diminutive Toronto jewellery shop counter-intuitively designed to appear empty – until curious customers get inside and discover the display cases hidden between aluminium "ribs" in the wall.

In the narrow 16th-century streets of Maltese capital Valletta, where space is naturally a premium, chic footwear boutique Shu defies the laws of physics by displaying 75 pairs of shoes and storing 600 more in a seven-metre by three-metre room. This was done by knocking through to the basement and installing three interlocking staircases up to the ceiling, creating an Escher-esque construction where steps double as display shelves and shoppers walk up and down "through" the merchandise.

And in Barcelona, Happy Pills exploits nothing more than a narrow space between two buildings to create a sleek sweet shop.

"It's easy to view retail as a commercial, cynical business, but when you look at these lovingly created shops it becomes something very different," says Stones. But before you get too warm and fuzzy, it's worth remembering that small proportions and big business are not mutually exclusive.

Alongside the independents are global brands such as French patisserie chain Ladurée, Italian fashion label Marni and Spanish shoemakers Camper, all of which have jumped on the idea.

"There is no single view of what these shops are like," admits Stones. "The big brands I chose are trying to do something that felt closer to people not only by being small, but by not being homogenous."

It's a trend that Stones has noticed gaining momentum over the past five years, and he predicts that it will continue to grow in the current economic climate: "People don't have the budget for the big, splashy, grand places and they also seem a bit naff now. They belong to a bygone era."

In many ways it is good news for those of us increasingly bored by the conveyor-belt escalators of those "purring machines". However, it's by no means a signal of the end of consumerism. After all, you might walk out of Selfridges empty-handed, but how many of us can resist reaching into our pockets after 10 minutes in an enclosed space with a friendly shop assistant?

'Very Small Shops' by John Stones (£22.50, Laurence King) is published on Wednesday