Way Down Downtown

There's something magic on the 200-block of East Liberty Street, but you might miss it if you're not looking carefully. To find it, look for a small a-frame sign on the sidewalk marked "Ann Arbor Magic Shop." Follow the sign to a staircase, climb down, walk around the bend and there it will be, bursting from floor to ceiling with color, magic and memories.

The Ann Arbor Magic Shop and the Ann Arbor Sports Memorabilia Shop share a space, owner and general air of whimsy and wonder. Tucked below Liberty Street, every inch of the store is so full of trinkets and tricks it's easy to see how visitors can get lost there for hours.

"When people walk in," says owner Kenny Magee, "they look around and see the ventilation piping that is typical of basements, and they say, ‘This is like the ultimate man cave.""

With University of Michigan sports memorabilia stretching back decades, as well as other sports items, movie posters and more, Magee's shops may be uniquely suited for an underground commercial space, but he's far from alone down there. Though not obvious to the casual passersby, dozens of businesses operate below street level in Downtown Ann Arbor. Their ranks include a far more diverse spectrum of businesses than one might expect, beyond the typical set of small service providers found on upper levels. Among Magee's peers include retail, resale, entertainment and more.

"For some this is an incubator area," Magee says. "Small businesses will start here, see if they're going to take off and move on.

Businesses that "incubated" beneath the streets in Ann Arbor include Underground Sounds, Vault of Midnight and, most recently, Transition Rack, a bike shop that just moved from an underground location on Liberty to Fourth Avenue this month.

But not every underground business has their eyes set on an upstairs storefront. For Karl Lagler's Antelope Antiques & Coin, across the hall from Magee, it's quite the opposite. Antelope reversed Transition Rack's path, originally located around the corner on Fourth. For years, Lagler couldn't get the traffic he wanted there. After moving below ground on Liberty in 2008, all that changed.  

"In Ann Arbor, I think people want to be in the thick of things," says Christine Slocumb, president of Clarity Quest Marketing, which has an office in Seattle, another city with a large influx of underground businesses, as well as her basement level location on Main Street. "In Seattle people did it because it was cheap. But it's a draw to be in the center of Downtown Ann Arbor. People want to hang out and have fun here."

As it turns out, being in the heart of downtown is simply worth it. For a certain kind of entrepreneur with a certain kind of chutzpah, being below the pavement of Ann Arbor's busiest streets is a far better deal then being not being on them at all.

When Maris Turner went looking for a space to open he and girlfriend Sara Renner's new Avtomobile boutique, they fell in love with a basement-level location on Liberty without even considering it a drawback.

"It was the first place we checked out," Turner says. "It had low ceilings, and it's just a cool, Michigan basement kind of feel. It's more unique than most places with windows and drywall. We said, ‘Sign me up. Let's do it."

Like the Magee's magic and memorabilia shops, Avtomobile's aesthetic fits their eclectic, underground space. The store includes a mix of vintage and original clothing and art designed by Turner and Renner. Their own creativity also helps make being below ground possible.

"We knew it would be tough because there is no real storefront," says Turner. "But we have a chalkboard we setup on the sidewalk with some music blasting."

Magee agrees that being found is the greatest challenge of being underground. Between his online presence and the city being accommodating with sidewalk signage, however, he says the challenge is manageable.

And then there are those who find being tucked away to be a benefit in and of itself.

"Our regulars love it," says Faith Wood, manager of Ann Arbor's iconic underground dive bar, the 8 Ball Saloon. "They feel comfortable knowing they don't have to deal with the students or the game crowds. It's like a getaway from the Art Fair and everything else."

After 29 years in business, time has been on the 8 Ball's side in terms of building a loyal following that knows how to find the hidden hangout below The Blind Pig. Though entertainment venues must attract crowds to survive, the long-established 8 Ball isn't alone in the field of underground entertainment. The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, Babs Underground Lounge and the new The Last Word bar are just a few of the places that manage to draw fun seekers beneath the streets.

"We have close relationship with Babs and The Last Word," says Wood. "If I run out of a bottle of liquor or need a case of Red Bull, I can definitely call over and borrow one. I've received text messages saying, ‘This person is headed your way and he's trouble.'"

That sense of camaraderie is what connects Ann Arbor's underground businesses more than anything else – and helps them overcome some of their unique challenges together.

"We all realize we're in an interesting situation," says Magee, "and we do all get along."

And it's true. Turner was quickly able to build relationships and Magee and Lagler after opening Avtomobile, and Slocumb says the sense of community in Ann Arbor is what truly sets her office here apart from her Seattle and Connecticut locations.

"That's the really cool part of Ann Arbor," she says. "Even when you're in competitive areas everyone helps each other out. There is a good vibe in terms of similar businesses getting along."

From businesses incubating in downtown basements to longtime underground hangouts, the business culture below Ann Arbor's streets is as varied as it is vibrant. For more information, just look down.

ADDENDUM: SUBTERRANEAN INNOVATION IN ANN ARBOR'S DOWNTOWN

Lest we lead you to believe that retail rules downtown's underworld, it should also be mentioned that hidden from street view are some of Ann Arbor's most innovative ventures.

Digital Ops and All Hands Active share an underground space on Liberty Street, with a doorway located between Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and Beyond Juice. Head down the stairs and you'll swear you've stepped into a scene from a William Gibson novel.

Digital Ops is a multiplayer video gaming facility that's been around since 1997 (they claim to be the oldest in the U.S.). While the raised player consoles and chairs look appropriately cyberpunk, you may be surprised by how quiet these gamers are. There's nary an explosion or battle cry to be heard. It's the headphones, of course, cocooning them in their own virtual reality experiences.

Wedged into the front end of the basement space and over run with boxes and shelves full of gadgetry is All Hands Active, a community-based organization of hackers, makers, and mad inventors. Offering everything from workshops to build sessions, AHA encourages a neverending outlet for DIY curiosity. Whether it's electrically stimulating cockroach legs, constructing homemade robots and computers, or pulling apart a random piece of high-tech equipment, it's the kind of place where brains sweat and geek dreams become reality.

A few blocks away, a different kind of innovation is percolating below Ann Arbor's surface. In the basement of a parking garage at The Offices at Liberty Square (formerly known as Tally Hall) you'll find a significant chunk of Ann Arbor's start-up brain trust.

TechArb houses approximately two dozen student business groups and provides them with a 24 hours a day work space that includes free Internet and steady guidance from entrepreneurs and University faculty. Jointly run by University Of Michigan's Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering and the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Ross School of Business, the business incubator nutures project teams for six months, granting them space, mentorhsip, and resources.

And just a stone's throw away are the new offices of Menlo Innovations. Come to think of it, best to keep those stones to yourself since a glass wall is all that separates the innovative software company from its student neighbors.

Inhabiting a 17,000-square-foot space, Menlo further cements their reputation for developing unique work environments after moving last month from their open Kerrytown space to this larger subterranean office.

The enhanced space means bigger options for the company, such as a moms' room, to fit the company policy of allowing new mothers to bring their babies to work. Additionally, Menlo will be establishing a permanent area to host training workshops that are open to the public.

But their signature work space remains open, a place where staff are in "eyeshot and earshot" of one another.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate. 

 

All photos by Doug Coombe

Photos:

Kenny Magee at the Ann Arbor Magic and Sports Memorabilia Shops
Kenny Magee at the Ann Arbor Magic and Sports Memorabilia Shops
Kenny Magee at the Ann Arbor Magic and Sports Memorabilia Shops
A little magic anyone?
Sara Renner and Maris Turner at the Avtomobile Store
Sara Renner and Maris Turner at the Avtomobile Store
Sara Renner
Maris Turner
Paddy O'Reilly and Ian Rowlette shooting pool at the 8 Ball Saloon
Aaron Roy serving up a PBR at the 8 Ball Sallon
Stephanie Lee and Nina Cislaghi at the 8 Ball Sallon
Moses Lee and the truApp crew at the TechArb

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