Former Downtown Home and Garden owner Mark Hodesh says he's heard people exclaim, "There's a place in Ann Arbor where you can buy both manure and fresh bread!"
Similarly, the store's current owner, Kelly Vore, recalls having joked with friends: "Where else can you find a bag of topsoil and Le Creuset (high-end cookware) on the same receipt?"
The store, located at 210 S. Ashley St., has made a long-lasting home for itself in downtown Ann Arbor due to its eclectic offerings, knowledgeable staff, and ability to roll with market changes.
Changing times, same location
Downtown Home and Garden began as a farm and feed store called Hertler Bros. in 1906.
"You could park a horse here and, for 10 cents, get water and hay," Hodesh says.
An old business card for Hertler Bros. indicates that it sold "hay, straw, wood, seed, and feed." When Hodesh bought the business in late 1974, he says it still had that traditional farm store feel, carrying "dynamite, barbed wire, and every poison known to man."
Hodesh had previously launched the successful Fleetwood Diner in downtown Ann Arbor, and he says it was "doing great." He took over the farm and feed store because it seemed like a new challenge located just down the street.
The '70s were the time of the "back to the earth" movement and many people were becoming interested in backyard gardens or urban gardens. So when Hodesh took over he added shovels, rakes, hoes, and kitchen supplies for pickling.
Wanting a different challenge, Hodesh sold the business in 1981 and moved to New York and then Maine, where he and his wife bought a summer hotel.
In the '90s, Hodesh heard through the grapevine that Hertler Bros. wasn't doing well. He thought it would be a shame for the store to go under, so he moved back to Ann Arbor to buy the business back, changing its name to Downtown Home and Garden in 1997.
Hodesh says the business didn't just survive the economic downturn of 2008, but it continues to thrive because it isn't just a store, but an entertainment. He says he knows people who tell out-of-town guests that they have to come and see Downtown Home and Garden, and he has often had new customers wander in off the street just to take a look around the intriguing old farm building that houses the business.
Time keeps marching on, though, and by late 2014, Hodesh was looking to retire. He began talking to employee Kelly Vore about an ownership change.
Vore had come on board in 2010, looking for a well-paying job with benefits during the nation's economic slump. Hodesh says she proved to be a competent and knowledgeable employee, and she says the transition to ownership happened organically.
She took over ownership of Downtown Home and Garden as of January 2015, though Hodesh still owns the property the business sits on, along with its auxiliary seasonal business, Bill's Beer Garden.
Vore says she and Hodesh have "more in common than different" and that she sees herself as "building on things Mark has done." She says the store is a very "flat" operation without many layers of management. Today, 18 employees who are experts in their individual areas report directly to her.
Vore, who previously worked as a manager at multiple REI locations, says Downtown Home and Garden was "ready for more formal operations." She's applied her passion for organization and her past professional experience to the store, while Hodesh has stayed on as a part-time employee and consultant.
Balancing predictability with freshness
Unlike other retailers, Vore says she isn't worried about online competitors because brick-and-mortar retailers can positively distinguish themselves from the online shopping experience in numerous ways.
Downtown Home and Garden prices are competitive with big box stores and many customers value the convenience of the store's location. Vore says a customer could save a few cents on topsoil by shopping at a national retailer, but at Downtown Home and Garden the customer can drive a truck right into the middle of the store and have heavy equipment or bags of topsoil loaded directly into the truck bed for just a few cents more.
Hodesh says that people who like to see and touch a product before buying and people who don't want to wait even 24 hours to have an item shipped from an online retailer are the backbone of the store's customer base.
Vore is continuing many of the store's traditions, such as its well-attended annual Christmas party and its annual pickle and jam-making contests. However, she's also introduced a few new items at Downtown Home and Garden. She notes that the store gets lots of favorable press, including visits from national TV shows, on a regular basis with little marketing.
"Our customers are our best ambassadors," Vore says. "Every day, you hear people coming in and telling you that when their parents are in town, they're going to show us off as a place they are proud to have in their area."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.