A few days ago, the family and I ventured into Detroit, and, not only didn’t we die – we had a great time. And, while there, we dropped by our friend Joe Posch’s lovely new store, Hugh. What follows is a brief conversation between Joe and I on the idea behind the store, the challenges of retail in the city, and the burgeoning entrepreneurial scene which seems to be taking root in Detroit.
Mark: So, what can you tell me about the retail scene in downtown Detroit?
Joe: I feel like the indy retail scene is as good as its been in all the time I’ve been hanging/living in Detroit. There are a lot of people pursuing the small business dream right now.
There are several factors that contribute to this, I think. First of all, the suits have started to realize that there is no single magic bullet that is going to turn around downtown – no stadium has accomplished this, no big business relocation, no hotel renovation. Those things contribute, sure, but the trickle-down effect that justified so many tax credits and demolitions didn’t really happen. From the state-level down there are now discussions on how to encourage small business growth.
Now indy retail isn’t the big-hire fast-growth kind of small business that significantly figures into the tax base, but that whole discussion has created an environment where a small business can at least be taken seriously. And retail being public as it is ties into the next point.
Secondly, as the “creative corridor” (aka Woodward Ave) conversation evolves, people are realizing that with no street-level experience there is no way to draw people looking for a typical urban experience. I give the University Cultural Center Association in Midtown major credit for realizing this and actively working to promote their existing retail and encourage new retail business on street level in a certain area. They did a brochure this year listing 18 places you can walk to in the North Cass Area (up by Wayne State University) and it’s kind of surprising to realize how much is there, in such close proximity. Having big names like (the former) Detroit Renaissance or Crain’s Detroit Business promoting this stuff helps legitimize it too, even though sometimes I think they want to just turn downtown Detroit into another Chicago.
We’re also seeing landlords who are willing to take on a smaller tenant and be flexible with the terms of the lease. The Park Shelton, right next to the DIA, terminated their agreement with the commercial leasing agency they’d hired (who only looked for national tenants for 5 and 10 year leases, and failed) and has now filled up several of their smaller spaces with independents like Leopold’s Books and Good Girls Go To Paris Crepes. My landlord for the Hugh space was extremely flexible, as one would have to be with a six-month store going in.
Also, small businesses banded together two years ago in a group called Open City started by my friends Liz Blondy of Canine to Five and Claire Nelson of the Bureau of Urban Living. Its objective wasn’t to form a lobbying group, but rather to provide a support and networking group for people who wanted to open their small business in Detroit. What resulted was a surprising amount of focus on entrepreneurs, and that really helped raise the profile of the developing retail world downtown. It also helped get several small businesses open: Supino’s Pizzeria, GGGTP crepes, Leopold’s, and City Bird. The Supino story echoes the VG Kids story you recently wrote about – he had almost given up on finding a spot in Detroit, he came to the first Open City meeting, met some people who helped him find the perfect spot and – bam – it’s a hit, in Eastern Market. The Free Press recently voted it Best Pizza in the whole metro area.
Lastly, all this attention on Detroit’s hardships has created an atmosphere of goodwill from many people who don’t live in the city, and a renewed spirit of pride and support from the people who do live here. People make a concerted effort to shop downtown, and then you’ve got boosters like Toby Barlow from Team Detroit, who on his own just worked with his team to put together a brochure that said “Have an Inter-NOT Holiday – shop in Detroit.” They published it and distributed it totally on their own.
The bottom line, as far as Detroit goes, I think the failed business growth policies and this horrible economic period are making people pay attention to the small. That and the frustration (or embarrassment – pick one) caused by a lack of street level experience once the world started looking at Detroit (because let’s face facts, the only reason mass transit is getting any play around here is because they’ve been shamed into doing it).
Whatever the reason, it’s a tight-knit business community, we support our own and we try to invite others in, and it’s an incredibly rewarding time to be working toward changing the landscape of downtown. Oh, and making a buck this way seems a lot better than freaking out about layoffs all the time.
Mark: We had a great time when we came out to see you the other day. Before dropping by Hugh, we went to see the Nutcracker at the Detroit Opera House, and, afterward, we went to the Woodbridge Pub. It’s good to be reminded from time to time that there’s a world outside of Ypsilanti, and that, in spite of all the ruin porn coming out of Detroit, there’s cool stuff happening there, and that young(ish) entrepreneurs are mixing things up… Speaking of cool stuff, why don’t you tell folks about Hugh?
Joe: Hugh is this swell shop I opened up this fall in downtown Detroit. By design it is only going to be open six months. I call it a “retail happening.” Hugh sells home and personal accessories for men, and the product mix is a contemporary take on classic bachelor pad style of the 60s and 70s. We sell things like cocktail accessories, cufflinks, ashtrays, travel gear, some cool decorative stuff, host gifts, and some asshole-ish cards. Also some furniture and lighting. The idea was to bring the pricepoint down from Mezzanine and do something fun and accessible.
Mark: OK, so what’s Mezzanine, then?
Joe: Mezzanine is the store I started in Ann Arbor in 1998. It sells classic to contemporary modern furniture, lighting and accessories. I moved off of Main Street in Ann Arbor in 2005 and subsequently set up shop in downtown Detroit. I’m currently transitioning that business to be online only.
Mezzanine’s business in Detroit was much more in selling furniture and lighting vs. accessories, and Mezzanine is relatively high-end, so Hugh was something I wanted to do to re-engage in a regular retail experience. I’d missed that.
Mark: I’m curious as to how the experience of owning a high-end retail business in Ann Arbor was different from what you’re dealing with now, in Detroit. And I’d also like to know what similarities you might see between the two.
Joe: The experiences have been very different. In a way it’s apples to oranges.
Main Street and Ann Arbor had lots of foot traffic, an educated population, reasonable density, and is reasonably affluent. And for a while it was a good fit. But as Main Street became more bar/restaurant driven the crowd kind of changed. A lot of people were coming in from what I would call the “donut of Novi” that was sprouting up around the city, and they tended to be mall shoppers, not independent shoppers.
At the same time my regular clientele tended to stay away from downtown Ann Arbor, because of this shift, or parking, or internet shopping or whatever. And my rent was VERY expensive. So the apparent benefits of being on Main Street didn’t really pan out for a specialized store like mine toward the end.
Having the store in Detroit was like starting over. A lot of my customers in the Ann Arbor store were destination shoppers, but in Detroit nearly all of them were. I was fortunate that I sold things that people sought out, and that I was able to get a tremendous amount of press coverage (something I was never able to get in Ann Arbor). But I was able to find a really gorgeous showroom space for significantly less than I paid on Main Street, and customers responded to more than the classic modern items that have become ubiquitous with the emergence of Design Within Reach (which were the only things that sold in A2). And customers in the Detroit area tend to spend money a bit more freely than Ann Arborites.
Being in Detroit is a lot more work and more difficult than it was in A2. I had to learn all kinds of new tricks to get people to pay attention. Sales were strong in furniture and lighting, but the accessory portion all but died. But I really felt part of the community here – the business community – which I did not in Ann Arbor. And the support for what I was doing – which wasn’t just a switch from what I did in A2 but also a switch from how this kind of business functions in metro Detroit – was tremendous.
I took for granted the ease with which commerce took place in Ann Arbor, I will say that. I’ve joked with friends that if I worked this hard in Ann Arbor I’d never have needed to move. But the flip side is that the things I’ve done here with success – PR, having events and promotions, getting involved – I tried in Ann Arbor and they never bore fruit.
Similaries? I can’t think of many, to be honest. They are just two super different ways of doing business… Oh, there is one similarity worth mentioning between Ann Arbor and Detroit in terms of running high end retail: the overzealous parking enforcement.
Mark: You called Hugh a “retail happening” as opposed to “pop-up retail”. I’m curious as to why that is, and I’d like to know if there are other examples of either right now in Detroit.
Joe: I think of Hugh as different from pop up retail for a couple reasons. Pop up retail is typically used as a marketing effort by a single brand, and it can be quite successful in generating buzz. Possibly less so now as the popularity of pop up stores increases, but overall that’s the case. Pop up stores are also typically relatively short-lived and are designed to stand out as a contrast against other established retail.
Hugh is more a store concept, and six months is a relatively long time compared to most pop ups. Also, Hugh is not played out against a backdrop of established retail. I may be humoring myself but I think that gives Hugh a little more significance – it’s a way to have retail someplace that typically might not, if only for a while. So I think “retail happening” kind of suits it. It’s a six-month retail party on Park Avenue.
The only other temporary retail that I know of right now is Hamtramck’s Design 99 opening a shop from Dec 18 through March in the DIA. I don’t know a lot about the project, but knowing Mitch and Gina, it will be cool.
Mark: So, their store is going to be inside the DIA?
Joe: I guess. I know nothing at all about it except it’s temporary and in some DIA gallery. Whether it is a gallery inside the DIA or over in space they might have elsewhere, I don’t know. I expect we’ll know more around the 18th!
Mark: My tastes, as I think you know, run considerably more utilitarian than yours. I appreciate good design, but, for the most part, I just like durable things that serve real, demonstrated purposes. And, if they’re inexpensive, all the better… I’m wondering if that niche is being filled right now in Detroit. Do people have access to affordable housewares in Detroit?
Joe: OK, I will try not to be insulted by the implication that I don’t sell things that serve real, demonstrable purposes!
You seem to be making a leap here that good design cannot be durable and serve a number of real, demonstrable needs. As a matter of fact the great thing about design is the effort to be functional as well as attractive. Don’t confuse appeal with function. And well-designed products can also be affordable.
The Bueau of Urban Living is a good place to check for attractive and basic housewares. The woman who owns it is a graphic designer though, so there is a designer’s eye behind the collection.
Now if you are saying that you don’t like thangs all fancy-like, that’s fine. In Detroit two places I think would be good to check out would be Stadium Hardware and Dollar Magic.
Mark: Yeah, I wasn’t intending to imply that you only want to sell to the rich. And I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Hugh sold useless objects. And, I should point out that there are quite a few inexpensive, as well as well-designed and useful items at Hugh. But, with all of that said, I don’t think you’d disagree that your tastes are a bit more refined than most, and that, generally speaking, thoughtfully designed and hand-crafted pieces cost more. I was just wondering where people in Detroit buy everyday things, like plates, glasses, cooking pots, and the like.
Joe: I certainly don’t disagree that I’m pretty picky. That’s true. And generally-speaking yes, you do pay for thoughtful design. Although I would like to point out the standard hardware store bottle opener is designed too, just maybe not as much thought is put into the aesthetics.
People in Detroit buy everyday things the same place everybody else does: Target.
Mark: OK, here’s the big question. Given what you know about the area, and the retail space in general, what do you think would work well in Ypsilanti right now? I know of two good, finished spaces that are probably going to be vacant soon on Michigan Avenue, that can likely be gotten for a good price, and I’m looking to recruit someone to try out a pop-up with the possibility of more. So, any thoughts on what might work, and where I might be able to find entrepreneurs who’d do a good job?
Joe: I think almost anything can work temporarily, so the type of shop really depends on the person opening it. But essentially any store that would consider opening permanently could also be a pop up. I do think a pop up store has to be more boutique than “general goods” though, it has to have a focus and a draw. A pop-up hardware store is a bad idea.
It’s also important for a pop-up (and I am speaking of temporary retail in emerging areas) to “fit” in its area. With Hugh, I looked at the bars on Park Ave and saw that there were a lot of young professional guys drinking here.
One possibility would be to take the concept of the Shadow Art Fair and extend it into a short-term store. It could feature home-grown goods and help define Ypsi’s brand of cool in the public eye. It would be a great showcase for unique gifts and home accessories and fashions and publications and stationery… and it would also be a great launching pad for industrious creative types who are looking to put their own ideas into full-scale production.
I think it is important to have someone with retail business experience involved in the process. He or she does not have to be the owner, but there is so much of a learning curve in independent retail, you’ll save a lot of time and money and frustration if you have a veteran involved.
With that in mind, another idea is to find an established retailer and to see if they want to do something temporary. Anybody with a store has three ideas for other stores percolating at all times. It’s a chance for them to mitigate risk while trying something out. They also might have fixtures and excess inventory that might fit in the new spot, which keeps startup costs low.
One last thought on this particular question – I think it’s important to stick to the temporary timeline. Have fun with it, try it out, see how retail works, but don’t dangle the carrot that the store might stick around if it does well. It puts the same kind of pressure on a hopeful community that a regular store does – that if might go away if they don’t support it enough – and it leaves behind the same discouraged feeling if the store does close as scheduled.
Remember that retail is supposed to be a fun thing for a community to have, and just enjoy the temporary retail while it’s there without worrying about the future. It’s amazing what removing that pressure does for the mood in a small business.
Mark: We’ve talked about an official Shadow Shop, but I think, in the end, we all came to the conclusion that doing that would detract from the Fair itself. That certainly, however, wouldn’t preclude someone else from pursuing the idea… As for retail in Ypsi, I think the two main things we’re missing downtown are general housewares, and utilitarian clothing. (I’m thinking of something akin to Sam’s in Ann Arbor.) I don’t know that either of those really lends itself to pop-up, though, as they require lots of inventory, etc. Anyway, it’s an interesting puzzle. And I like your idea about approaching existing business owners, perhaps in different markets. I could see something like that working out really well… So, any other thoughts? If not, I’ve got one last question… What are three great gift ideas that people could expect to find at Hugh this holiday season?
Joe: See now I completely disagree that a Shadow Shop would detract from the Fair. I think it could only enhance the themes of Ypsi-grown, supporting the community, promoting creative endeavors and branding Ypsilanti as a place with a unique vibe. It’s a temporary store, so it’s not like you are doing the Shadow thing year-round. But as a one-time push to say look what is possible if you take this idea to the next level, I think it’s great. And the Fair benefits from a higher profile.
Also, the Shadow already has an identity, and that is really useful when you are trying to get all the (free) publicity you can. Plus, what other indie/alt fairs are doing something like that? Be the first! I’m tired you being a follower, Mark.
Anyway, you may of course decide for very legitimate reasons that’s not the way to go, but then someone else out there should open up a Shadow Shadow Art Fair Shoppe. I’m just sayin’.
So any other thoughts… I guess just a few final pieces of advice for anyone who *does* want to look into temporary retail. Find a good landlord and keep expectations low on the rent. Don’t overspend on buildout or things you can’t sell when it’s over. Accept credit cards. Be open for Christmas.
Speaking of Christmas, a couple great Hugh holiday gift ideas are … Whisky Stones, which are soapstone cubes you store in the freezer and use to chill whisky (or white wine) without diluting ($19.50); titanium crystal beer glasses (pilsner, goblet, wheat beer), which have titanium in the crystal instead of lead and are therefore super break-resistant ($12-15 each); and of course vintage Playboys from the 60s and 70s are a terrific bachelor gift ($7).