In 1997, my parents emphatically told me "We're moving, you're not," and moved to Belleville the year I came back from school in the UP to go to Wayne State. I don't get a chance to see them as often as I'd like and when we do see each other, we bond at Meijer. Really. Specifically, I come over to their house; we sit around for a bit and someone finds a reason to go to Meijer. "Hey Toy, I got an 80% coupon for the jewelry section" or "Hey Donald, we need more salad dressing." Usually, we walk around Meijer and comment on everything as if we were from a small town in a foreign country, just in wonderment at how much stuff one person can buy at one store. The Meijer on Belleville Road never gets old for my parents and me.
Hopefully, sometime soon we'll get to have our own Meijer in Detroit. Although I probably won't spend hours shopping there, I am very happy all the same, because why should the folks in Belleville have all the fun?
Last week, my mother visited me at Eastern Market, where I set up a mobile crepe station every Saturday at Shed 2. It wasn't too long before she felt the urge to explore and she was in amazement at how wonderful Eastern Market looks and how it's changed in the past year or so. I feel the same way. Eastern Market now reminds me of the marchés in Paris. It feels so fresh and vibrant, and you have a chance to get to know the merchants.
There is the mushroom guy, the pork people, the popcorn guy, the wine guy at Cost Plus Wine, Dave at R. Hirt, Dave at Supino Pizzeria, the gladiola guy, the Amish lady that makes miniature breads, the maple syrup guy, the Zen Center guy, the flower lady with the bouffant and the amazingly long nails, the lady in Shed Three who always has a "heavy date" and is trying to quickly move her vegetable of the day, the Asian vegetable "$2 a flat" people, the red trolley coffee people, the spice lady, the organic vegetable lady that has the most amazing wildflowers in the summer, The Gabriel Imports olives guy, Hans the soup guy from Russell Street and the "Fresh blueberries"/"Fresh Apples" guy who looks like Ernest Hemingway with his family. They are all there, usually every week without fail. There also is another cast of characters that come out during the week, when most local restaurants buy wholesale for their shops.
I had to step back and take a look at Eastern Market through the eyes of the many families I come in contact with on Saturdays. They're just like my family. Lots of families bond going to the market. It just goes to show that the common denominator of food, whether it be at a mega super market or at a colorful outdoor urban market, is the ultimate bonding agent and it gets families to take time out and spend it with each other.
In the last post, prompted by the multitude of questions about why I chose to open in Detroit, I addressed the issue of place and the role it plays in the conception of my business. This time, I'm going to tackle the other question that comes up when I tell people what I do for a living: How does a small bookstore survive?
This question, of course, touches on the broader issue of how any small retailer can survive in an era where big box stores and malls dominate the landscape. Walking into one of these rectangular palaces, one feels intuitively that this place will have every book (or cooking utensil, cleaning supply, or whatever else it sells) one has ever heard of. How could a little spot like mine ever hope to compete?
The solution can be found in the sacrifices these places make in order to maintain their warehouse-like collections. Let's look at my business, bookselling, for insight into what I mean. Gigantic bookstores, in my opinion, are some of the worst places to browse. They are very good at having exactly the book you came in looking for, which is why they're designed with library-like efficiency. If you've got a title or author in mind before you even walk through the doors, you can make a beeline straight for the right section and you’ll be checking out in no time.
But they are not very good at encouraging exploration or discovery, nor is there any way one could reasonably expect the employees to know about every book in the store. I've tried to take advantage of these deficiencies in my comparatively small space. Instead of attempting an exhaustive approach toward inventory, I've chosen to curate a smaller sample of things. I emphasize discovery and novelty, displaying as many books as possible with their covers facing out and stocking a sizeable collection of things that people would not see elsewhere in the area. I want people to come in without any idea of what they're looking for and walk out with something entirely foreign to them.
This is a strategy all small retailers can use to combat their giant, wealthy competitors. We can afford to be specialist experts, whereas they must be conforming generalists. We can talk to our customers confidently because we know and love what we're selling. People come to us because they have grown tired with shopping, eating, and living in anyplace; because they want to be a part of this place.
Detroit is filling up with specialists and we're always looking for more. So long as your passion is true, you'll always outshine the sameness that surrounds us.
2008 became what I called my experimental Fight Club ("Only after you've lost everything, you're free to do anything….") year. I decided at the time to take the film literally to see what would happen if I followed some of the fictional character Tyler Durden's advice. Do real people actually do this? I loved my job as a French teacher, but I wanted to really push my limits, let go, and do something a little crazy.
Aside from the question "What's your favorite crêpe?" many people ask how did a Detroit girl like me get into, of all things, the crêpe business? I tell anyone who asks that it's easy to start a business if you are willing to give up being comfortable. Meaning you can sleep at night if your idea fails and you lose every penny to your name pursuing it. I took what money I saved, cashed out my 401K (gasp!), and started with that and, of all things, that $1,000 stimulus money that Bush gave us back in 2008! That's it.
Loans, unless they can't be avoided, I feel should be avoided at all cost in small businesses. Getting a loan somewhere throughout this small business journey probably would have made my life a lot easier, although there is something about working for every dollar that you get and knowing where every dollar comes from and where it's going and being on a cash basis with ever vendor you use. Many people are used to the instant gratification credit/loan, but there is something to be said about saving for your business – and saving while you do business – that makes you value your company and see money in a different light.
I'm a Detroit girl through and through. I grew up here, lived here, went to school here, and worked here. My goal in opening a business here was not to make any kind of statement. Rather, it's where my home is and where I feel very comfortable. Whether it be in Detroit or the suburbs, people have to be comfortable where they set up their businesses and there is nothing wrong with either choice of location.
While some people have left Detroit for dead, I know that there are people that still work, attend school, and carry their business on in the city, because I'm one of those people. That's where I and others come in and fill in the gap. Rent tends to be cheaper and especially in the Midtown/University area you have such broad access to many people from all over the metro area. There is room for more restaurants and shops in those areas. The audience is there.
I am every bit the film buff and in the end, a movie changed my life.
I'm pretty certain that anyone who has opened a small business has faced down the specters of cynicism and doubt, the lingering shades hiding in every daydream fantasy of what things might be like. The images of empty storefronts and zeroes in the books, I think, are natural and frequently productive. How else, after all, are you going to prepare for the worst?
But when I started talking to people about my plan to open a bookstore in Detroit, those ghosts took on flesh. Nervous, caring faces wondered how I was going to compete – with the Internet, with the huge retail chains, with the economy. And why Detroit? How was I ever going to sell books in a place that can't find a corporate grocer to sell fresh produce? These were serious concerns, deserving serious attention, and I found it hard to explain my passion and my plans.
But a partial response can be found at the front of my shop. The construction of my space involved tearing down the faux wood paneling that had been slapped on the walls sometime in the past, probably right around the time that the corporate grocers started moving in (Side note: It's a small wonder to me that I now own a shop only a few blocks from where my great-grandparents, escaping from Lebanon near the beginning of the last century, opened a little grocery store. Their building is no longer there.). Once the cheap façade had been removed, we found ceramic tiles bumping up against bright little paintings of sailboats. Pulling down the drop-grid ceiling exposed seven feet of height accentuated by setbacks and moldings. Much of this was in bad shape and, sadly, had to be covered up again. But the ceiling remains exposed and the richly colored tiles write their patterns near my windows. These remnants are part of my argument.
I have no way of directly competing with digital media or giant bookselling chains, just as they have no way of competing with me. I own a place with a particular past. I sell objects and all the sensations associated with them. The internet still hasn't figured out how to offer the aura of object-hood, that space between seeing pictures of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" and actually being there, craning your neck back for minutes and having to look at something else because you're starting to hurt. The retail chains, by definition, can't offer a unique experience. This sense of place is where my store holds part of its advantage.
This same sense is what still distinguishes Detroit. Wandering down Woodward or through Capitol Park is an experience completely unique to this place. If you find yourself alone on Belle Isle, you can be sure that you are the only person in the world watching that stretch of water. This is why we stay here. This is why it's so hard to watch our buildings go down. I believe my store can compete because it has a sense of place. It's important that we think of our city in that way.