Making way for the further mallification of Ann Arbor, this month Eastern Accents, Herb David, and Mahek all cease operations

    Cities are living things. They grow older, like all of us, and they change. They evolve, or they die. I get that. I’ve grudgingly come to accept that the best things in life are transient. That realization doesn’t make it any easier, however, to accept it when good things, that genuinely make me happy, go away. And it’s doubly painful when those good things are replaced by painfully bland, completely soulless franchises, which were dreamed up in the corporate boardrooms of Wall Street in order to more efficiently suction money away from our local community. It’s taken some time, but I can accept that Discount Records is no longer on State Street. I still have a real problem, however, with the fact that a Potbelly Sandwich Shop now stands on the site where James Osterberg, as a teenager hired to put new records on the shelves, decided to make music his life’s work, met his future bandmates, and earned the nickname “Iggy”. History, I would contend, is important to the civic fabric of a community. And places like Potbelly, as good as their sandwiches may be, and as interesting as you may find the refurbished, yet non-functional, turn-of-the-century stoves they build their themed stores around, seek to obliterate that history in order to convey their heavily-focus-grouped aesthetic of faux authenticity.

    I quarel with my friend Pete about these matters frequently. We sit together over lunch – me bemoaning the creeping spread of corporate homogeneity across the American landscape, and him defending the ubiquitous presence of national chains, arguing that they’re more efficient, and often treat their employees better than their locally-owned competitors. For the past several years, these heated discussions of ours have taken place over a table at Mahek, a small Indian restaurant in Ann Arbor that we’re both quite fond of. When we met to eat there a few days ago, though, we found that it too had closed – the most recent casualty in a war on authentic, non-commoditizable, non-scalable American culture. In the case of Mahek, it doesn’t look as though its building is going to be taken over by yet another Starbucks or 7-Eleven, as it was purchased by local restauranteur Sava Lelcaj, but that doesn’t seem to be the norm these days, as downtown rents continue to climb beyond the reach of local entrepreneurs who don’t have national chains behind them. No, most of the time we hear about this kind of turnover happening, it’s something like a Five Guys franchise moving into the shell of Ann Arbor’s beloved local book store Shaman Drum.

    Before we move on, I should acknowledge that Discount Records was itself a chain, and that Potbelly, despite its non-local ownership, likely pays its people better than some local restaurants, and at least professes to care about the environment and the communities in which it operates its 200+ identical stores. So, yes, these are complex issues, which don’t lend themselves easily to the black and white thinking we all love so much. This, of course, is something that many of us heatedly discussed recently in the thread that emerged from my interview with local entrepreneurs Jean Henry, Lisa Waud and Helen Harding, the founders of the local entrepreneurial support group Small & Mighty.

    In the past several weeks, we’ve learned not only that Mahek was closing, but also that Blimpy Burger, Eastern Accents and the Herb David Guitar Studio would be going out of business. And, before this most recent round, it was White Market, which closed this past summer, after over 8o years in business. The building now houses franchises of both Florida-based Firehouse Subs and Wisconsin-based Toppers Pizza.

    But, maybe there’s hope. Maybe, in time, the pendulum will swing back the other way, as it has in Ypsilanti, where unsuccessful chains have a tendency to be taken over by small and scrappy independent businesses… Our our local prepared food CSA, Harvest Kitchen, is in a former Qiznos. Our local Thai restaurant, Tuptim, is in a former Long John Silvers. The Blue Wolf Grill, which just recently opened on Washtenaw, is inside the shell of a former Taco Bell. Pacific Beach Burrito, before it closed, was in a former A&W. And Pita Pita exists where a Dunkin’ Donuts once stood. I take some comfort in that… in knowing that something better, and more authentic, might be waiting in Ann Arbor’s future. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

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      38 Comments

      1. anonymous
        Posted March 13, 2013 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

        The Ann Arbor I knew and loved died with the Club Heidelberg.

        And let’s not forget Drakes and the Village Corner.

        The change is certainly accelerating.

      2. Edward
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:39 am | Permalink

        The loss of Herb David will be felt in the community, but it’s hard to argue that, at 90, he doesn’t deserve to sell the building and enjoy his retirement.

      3. Hmmm
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 8:19 am | Permalink

        You know who else valued efficiency above all else, Peter?

      4. Elliott
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

        Seva is also transitioning. I believe the plan it to reopen elsewhere in town, but the building where they currently are has been sold, and will no doubt evolve into upscale housing of some sort, to accommodate the changing demographics of our city.

      5. Eel
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

        The big problem is, once history is gone, it’s almost impossible to recreate.

        The best thing that could happen to Ann Arbor is an economic collapse that would send the chains scurrying. Or, better yet, maybe the University of Michigan could start taking in-state students again, instead of opening their doors so widely to the children of the wealthy from the New York, China, etc. That would change the dynamic of the city considerably. The upscale lofts would stop, and real, authentic culture could once again have a fighting chance.

      6. Marcia
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        It makes me sad to think that all these unique businesses are fading away. Linette introduced Steve and I to drakes. State street is un recognizable to me. I live in canton, mostly for employment and cost and other pragmatic reasons, but I always try to o to the locally owned restaurants here, and there are many,though you might miss it in the avenue of chains on ford road. But I also kind if understand the appeal of some for some.. Familiarity with the menu, etc. I know people with restricted diets or people or parents with picky kids ( me) like knowing the menu in advance wherever they go.

        I imagine the cost of rent in Ypsilanti vs. Ann Arbor must make a difference. I work in garden city and have found a lot of great little ethnic restaurants there, in westland and Livonia. They aren’t necessarily hip areas, but the owners say the rent in these areas makes it easier to open up.

        I did read that the grand traverse pie company downtown opened up downtown and closed within a year.

        When I was in high school in Oakland county, royal oak was the ” alternative place”
        In the 8os. By the time my husband and I bought our house in ferndale in 1997, r.o. Was unaffordable and very populated by chains.

      7. K2
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Borders is gone too.

        What’s the big one that, if it were to go belly up, people would really shit their pants?

        And I won’t accept University of Michigan or Zingerman’s, as they’re too easy.

        What locally owned businesses do people see as indispensable, too interwoven into the fabric of Ann Arbor, to lose? Is there one left?

      8. Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        Eel, right on. Of course that would mean less tuition $ so I’m not holding my breath.
        I am so tired of seeing the ultra expensive student lofts and student apartments popping up like weeds.

      9. double anonymous
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        A2
        Ann Arbor
        Authenticity Absent

        And I love the idea of making “Pure Ann Arbor” signs out of the scrapped signage of locally-owned businesses that have been priced out of the market.

      10. Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        Discount Records was a chain, and an awful record store.

        There used to be a McDonald’s downtown.

        I just had to get that out there.

        There are still plenty of family owned small businesses in downtown Ann Arbor. I did a survey of State St and found that more than 60% of businesses on that street are locally owned. The trouble is, that they get ignored.

        The readers of this blog, Mr. Maynard included, don’t seem to care about small businesses unless they are owned by young, educated white people and cater to young, educated white people.

        Perhaps I’m being reactionary or painting the readership here with a wider than necessary brush, but that’s the theme I see here, and frankly, it depresses me.

        I am happy to be proven wrong. I love you all.

      11. Dharma
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        Yes, it is sad to see Ann Arbor institutions leave and I am as annoying by 7-11 and the like as much as the next townie. But…. I can think of so many examples of newer locally-owned Ann Arbor business that have cropped up in the last 5 years! What about Comet, Lab, Mighty Good, Jolly Pumpkin, Chela’s, Frita Tostidos (or whatever it’s called haha), Last Word, Raven?!?!!? (the list goes on)

      12. Dharma
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        The beer garden, Mark’s Carts, Tomukun…

      13. Dharma
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        *annoyed oops

      14. Marcia
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

        I hope the Godwin’s law violation to efficiency and chain restaurants was tongue in cheek.

      15. Mr. X
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Yes, Peter, Mark hates non-white entrepreneurs…… which is why, in this article, he focused on Eastern Accents and Mahek, neither of which is owned by these “young, educated white people” you say he loves so much. And, while Herb David may be white, he’s certainly not young. (He’s 90.) So, out of the three businesses mentioned in the headline, not one supports your claim that Mark only pays attention to young, white entrepreneurs. Also, you may want to brush up on your reading comprehension, as Mark concedes the fact that Discount Records was a chain, right in the third paragraph. I love you, but, Jesus.

      16. John Galt
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        Thankfully, our city fathers have wisely penned up our city’s food carts in that lot behind Downtown Home and Garden. One hesitates to think what might happen if people were able to explore the possibilities outside of that lot.

      17. Mr. X
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        Also, Peter:

        “Bill Gates: capitalism means male baldness research gets more funding than malaria”

        http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-03/14/bill-gates-capitalism

      18. ypsijav
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

        I thought he was nicknamed Iggy by Michael Erlewine and the Prime Movers after they poached him from the Iguanas as a drummer.

      19. Murf
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

        Isn’t the Blue Wolf on Washtenaw?

      20. Stooge
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        From Michigan Rock and Roll Legends dotcom:

        Jim got a job after school at Ann Arbor’s Discount Records under the supervision of manager Hugh “Jeep” Holland. (Holland would first call him “Iguana” at the store, and that would eventually lead to the famous the “Iggy” nickname.) It was while working at Discount Records that Jim first got to know brothers Ron and Scott Ashton who often hung out on Liberty Street outside the store.

        http://www.michiganrockandrolllegends.com/mrrl-hall-of-fame/99-stooges

      21. site admin
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        You’re correct, Mr. Murphy. I will see to it that this is changed at once.

      22. Chemie
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        My buggy whips! My buggy whips!

        Just kidding.

        Honestly, these things are cyclical. It doesn’t make it any less painful, though, as you’ve stated. Ann Arbor, as I understand it, once had a dozen or so thriving breweries. All of that was crushed, however, with Prohibition, and the subsequent takeover by Big Beer. Now, though, it’s starting to come back. The same thing is happening with food. There’s a real resurgence. Unfortunately, it’s all happening at the upper end of the price scale. There’s plenty of authentic, interesting stuff happening. It’s just not happening for most of us.

      23. Mr. Y
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        G from Blimpy Burger
        A from Mahek
        M from Shaman Drum
        E from Eastern Accents

        O from Borders
        V from Village Corner
        E from Herb David
        R from Drakes

      24. deleuzean
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        Downtown Ann Arbor, IMHO, is a good mix of chain franchises and local bussinesses. I do wish the rents were lower so that more people who want to run niche-y retail shops or hole-in-the-wall restaurants and clubs with oddball food and music offerings could make a living doing so. I blame the internet, too, though, because so much of what is great about oddball/underground culture lives and thrives there now. I like hanging out downtown, but the internet is just so awesome it’s hard to tear myself away from it.

      25. deleuzean
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        Also…

        I miss the tiny little Japanese Pla-Mo / Gun-Pla shop in the front corner of what is now T.K. Wu. I got two of my most excellent model kits there. How they ever made even the tiniest bit of money is an absolute mystery to me.

      26. Redleg
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

        The “blanding” of Ann Arbor continues……. “Anywhere USA” indeed.

      27. anon
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

        “I like hanging out downtown, but the internet is just so awesome it’s hard to tear myself away from it.”

        tragic.

      28. Posted March 14, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

        Pete, are there any businesses you are thinking of specifically? Your comment makes it sound like you know of some businesses owned by non-whites that we are ignoring. If that’s so, let us know what they are and bring some attention to them. I’m not being sarcastic…I seriously want to know.
        xxoo

      29. Posted March 14, 2013 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

        In my defense, I thought that both Mahek and Eastern Accents were owned and operated by evil/brilliant white people who had an army of life-like Asian robots at their disposal.

      30. Mariah
        Posted March 15, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        I understand frustration at the mall-i-fication of downtown, but it strikes me as nothing new. I remember fighting the idea of Starbucks opening way back in the early 2000s. Now I don’t even really think twice about it. And Peter’s right that as a record store, Discount kinda sucked much of its life.

        A few folks above get to what I see as the heart of the matter. It’s hard to make (high!) rent on a lot of types of brick-and-mortar stores that once existed. I agree that I’d love to have more variety than just restaurants and gift shops (and we *do* still have some variety), but in order to allow for smaller businesses to take that risk, rents would need to be lower.

        I’m curious if anyone has suggestions re: specific policy decisions that local governments or downtown business owners have made that have helped provide a balance of business types *and* have lowered barriers for new businesses? I used to think that it an ideal downtown would be chain-free, but I think I’ve moved to feeling that’s far too black and white, but that still doesn’t excuse us from thinking about *why* rents might be so high that only chains or specific types of businesses can afford them, while there are still other buildings and storefronts sitting vacant or “coming soon!” forever.

        I think that Herb certainly deserves to be able to retire. I have no doubt folks had offered to purchase the business from him, but I also get the feeling he likes to run things with his name on them a very specific way (as he should!), and so I can imagine a bunch of reasons why he’d rather close up than sell.

        On a positive note, however, he and his wife will continue to own the property, and stated that they don’t want a restaurant to go into their space, and the top floor will be home to a new spin off business, made of of three longtime luthiers.

      31. XXX
        Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the update on Herb David, Mariah. I like knowing that luthiers will be plying their trade upstairs. Also, I agree that Herb should be able to retire, and I don’t think anyone has said otherwise. It’s just sad to see things go.

        I have a question. When you say Herb and his wife have decided that they don’t want the building to be a restaurant, do you have a sense as to their reasoning? I’m curious as to what they might have against restaurants.

      32. XXX
        Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        I almost forgot why I came back to this thread. I had something for Mr. Y, should he want to follow though and make the sign.

        Here’s the “G”.

        http://imgur.com/R6H50zG

      33. Mariah Cherem
        Posted March 15, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I didn’t mean to say that anyone was saying that Herb shouldn’t be able to retire, but more that it seemed that although he didn’t want to sell his business, his retiring didn’t necessarily equal mallification. He and his wife have made statements pretty contrary to mallification and seem to be trying to be good stewards of the property. Herb David closing is certainly sad, or at the very least, a sort of passage.

        I don’t have much context for the probably-not-a-restaurant comment. That was just something I noticed skimming an aa.com article (take that source — and its apparent typo — as you will): http://www.annarbor.com/business-review/top-floor-of-the-old-herb-david-guitar-studio-will-become-ann-arbor-guitars/

        But, I think there are some distinctions here. I appreciate that Mark notes that Sava is buying the Mahek building. From the sounds of it, Herb intends to keep his building. Neither of them seem to bent on mallishness (how many words can I make with the word mall?!).

        That leaves Eastern Accents. I’m sad about EA closing too. It sounds like a landlord issue bubbled up, which makes me wonder who the landlord is there and what the issue was (I’d love for someone to make a block-by-bloc map of who owns what downtown property, tho I don’t have time to go through all the tax records myself at the moment).

        While EA is leaving, that adjacent space has had a “coming soon! comedy club/hookah bar/pizza joint/we’re-not-sure/whatever” sign up for over a year. When I first saw it, I bet friends money it would never open. That same adjacent space has been many things (I first went there for a show/wrestling match when I was like 15) and often nothing at all. I don’t know who owns what on that area of the block, but I wouldn’t bet much money on it becoming mallified (or much of anything) for a little while at least.

        I definitely get your overall point, Mark. I agree, it totally sucks (I’m so eloquent, eh?) when things and place we love go away. I’m bummed. I’m just not sure that any of these three locations will be turned into a Claire’s or Perfumania anytime soon.

        It also sucks that Blimpy’s closing/moving(?), and I’m gonna miss seeing those amazing Snow Bears. Living down the street for 7+ years, that was a big ritual for me when we’d get a big snow. But we can’t even really chalk *that* one up to chains or mallification… more like UMification (which I’m sure many of us have a complex relationship to/feelings about).

        It’s sad, for sure, but I guess since we can’t keep any of those businesses open at this point, I’m most interested in what things individuals or groups could do to try to make starting new cool businesses or maintaining existing businesses easier? I honestly don’t know, other than patronizing places I dig… so I’m curious about other ideas.

      34. Posted March 16, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        Awesome comment, Mariah. Thank you for leaving it. I don’t know that I have much to add, but I do think that there’s some definite soul-searching that has to take place in Ann Arbor over the course of these next several years. As more wealthy students come to Ann Arbor, and more developers seek to cater to their demographic, the property values will continue to rise, and even the most community-minded owner will eventually begin to consider the possibility of cashing in, which, in turn, will force more local businesses out of business. My concern is that we’ve put off the conversation too long.

      35. Mariah
        Posted March 17, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        Mark, I certainly wouldn’t argue with that! This is a conversation that’s been kicked down the road for at least a decade too long.

        I think that one of the things that hinders the conversation is that often the people who most need to be involved in that conversation are the very people who honestly don’t have the spare time to sit around hours-long council meetings or forums. Time is a resource, and some people have more of it to spare than others (often because they have a wealth of other resources, too!).

        Communication is changing, and therefore peoples definitions of “civic life” are changing (one of the better related talks I’ve seen: http://dml2013.dmlhub.net/content/teaching-new-civics-ethan-zuckerman). As w/many academic-y things, the real meat begins partway in, around 24:00.

        A big question that I wrestle with is what sort of engagement people can really have with these questions if they can’t attend/choose not to attend giant, long meetings. We aren’t used to investing/structuring out time much that way anymore (at least I’m not!).

        Sorry to go on a bit, but I guess you can tell that I do care a lot about this topic. I think because there aren’t too many forums for me to talk about it, it all kinda comes out stream-of-consciousness when someone opens it up.

      36. facebook stalker
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        From someone helping to close down Eastern Accents:

        “Helping close Eastern Accents Bakery brings back so many memories and offers many lessons on community and family. It was awful when vultures came out of the woodwork, ready to take advantage of the owners. A stink-eye on a particular restaurant that’s going to open. But it was heartening to see others come together, lend a hand, and dance Gangnam Style to thank Ben, Carol, and Emilie for a wonderful 17 years.”

      37. Meta
        Posted March 22, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        Speaking of Five Guys, I was wondering if anyone saw the editorial by Timothy Egan in today’s New York Times.

        Immersion journalism was called for after a Five Guys franchise owner, Mike Ruffer, complained last week about the new law requiring him to offer his employees health care next year. At first, he thought Obamacare’s mandate wouldn’t apply to him.

        “I was fat, dumb and happy,” said Ruffer, who employs 147 people at his eight burger outlets in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area. “I’m not happy anymore.” I will take him at his word on the dumb part.

        As for the rest, here’s a guy selling something that is a leading contributor to the major health breakdowns in America, a product that may ultimately hasten an early death. He won’t offer insurance to the poorly paid workers who make said time bombs. But now that he’s forced to, and plans to raise prices to cover the care, he thinks this is an awful thing.

        And Five Guys is not exactly struggling. It is the fastest growing restaurant chain in our fast food nation, with revenue projected to pass $1 billion this year.

        In the burger master’s view, the government is forcing him to “pass on the costs to customers,” he said. But he already passes on considerable costs to customers who may never sniff a Five Guys fry. Because he doesn’t give his employees health care, they show up as charity cases at the hospital emergency room when something goes wrong. Last year, the uninsured cost the system $39.3 billion. Guess whom the expenses are passed on to?

        Read more:
        http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/burgers-fries-and-lies/?hp

      38. Eel
        Posted May 20, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        It’s not downtown, but Great Lakes Seafood has closed after 19 years.

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