Fourth and Washington: Retail Rejuvenation

Look out, Main Street and State Street: the flourishing businesses at Washington Street and Fourth Avenue are out to establish a new destination shopping district right between Ann Arbor's two main drags – one that is dominated by locally owned businesses.
"There's a real difference between the State Street area and the Main Street area, and what was in between," says Lauren Naimola, who owns Dear Golden on Fourth Avenue. "There wasn't much to do and there wasn't much to see. Fourth is filling in a little bit and kind of bridging that gap."
Although Fourth Avenue stalwart Eastern Accents closed last spring, several new businesses have opened up near Fourth and Washington over the past year. Clothing stores Dear Golden and Today Clothing have both moved in on Fourth, while Aventura brought Spanish tapas into the mix just around the block on Washington. Going back a little further, Blue Tractor BBQ and Brewery expanded its operations in 2012 with its whiskey bar, Mash
But the key development in the Fourth and Washington explosion may have been the opening of Literati last April, right on the corner of the two streets. Ingrid Ault, executive director of Think Local First, says the bookstore has provided an "anchor" for the block.
"Once people are in the area, by virtue of walking by and being intrigued by walking through an interesting community that does not look like everybody else's, there's an anchor effect that comes from having to get to that destination," Ault says. "You'll find more interesting shops on the way to get there."
... numerous shoppers come through his store every weekend with Literati bags in hand.
Catheryn Snyder is the owner of Perpetua, a clothing boutique on Fourth. After four years in business, she says she's seen a distinct increase in sales over the past year. She attributes that to Literati's arrival, followed by the openings of Today Clothing and Dear Golden. 
"We have seen a lot more foot traffic," Snyder says. "There's more people walking and you've got a number of stores to go in and look at all in the same general area."
In choosing a site for his own business, Today Clothing co-owner Kevin Pearson says being around the corner from Literati was a "huge plus." He says numerous shoppers come through his store every weekend with Literati bags in hand.
"We sort of share a customer base," Pearson says. "We're both trying to attract intelligent, good people."
Literati likely owes much of its popularity to the void left behind by the downtown Borders location, but it still arrived at a rather dark time for traditional booksellers. Barnes and Noble reported a four percent drop in revenue last year, including a 16 percent drop for their Nook e-reader. Nonetheless, Literati co-owner Hilary Gustafson says Literati's inaugural year has been "so much better than we could have expected." Ault says that's due to a larger shift in the bookselling industry.
"Borders stopped selling books," Ault says. "They started selling puzzles and gift cards and trinkets and they really were sort of becoming the Hallmark model for gift stores, where you have little bits of everything. But when you have little bits of everything, you don't have enough of the individual unique elements that make you compelling."
Ault, as well as Literati's neighboring business owners, point to Literati's knowledgeable staff as a major factor in the store's success. 
"You go in there and they know what they're talking about and if they don't have what you want they'll get it for you," Pearson says. "Their customer service is really inspiring."
But Literati isn't the only factor driving growth at Fourth and Washington. Gustafson herself is modest about any role her store has played in drawing stores and shoppers to the area. She says Literati is a symptom of rejuvenation at Fourth and Washington, rather than the cause of it.
"We were just lucky to be moving in when some of these other businesses were moving in," Gustafson says. "I think that's a testament to the landlords in the area taking a chance on retail. I know retail isn't always as lucrative as a restaurant going in, but I think it makes a more vibrant downtown."
One of the main landlords taking that chance says he prefers retail tenants over restaurants anyways. Ed Shaffran owns the Fourth Avenue properties rented by Today Clothing, Dear Golden, Aunt Agatha's and Perpetua. He says retail operations are more compatible with the apartments that sit above many of his properties, compared to the late-night noise generated by bars and restaurants. Shaffran seems thrilled with the growth of retail in the Fourth and Washington area, which he says is "in a renaissance."
"We've been praying for this for years, going back to the late ‘80s when Fourth Avenue had the adult bookstore and the massage parlor," he says.
"I don't know a lot of women who want to come in and try on clothes after they've eaten."
Snyder says it's helpful to have fellow retailers on the same block, rather than more restaurants. A 15-year resident of Ann Arbor, she recalls when Main Street was home to more shops. But rising rents and proliferating restaurants have changed that, pushing retail off Main Street. Snyder says she likes the idea of cementing a new, more retail-oriented block downtown. 
"I'd like to think that having the local restaurants helps, but I don't really see a lot of it," she says. "I don't see a lot of people coming in and shopping after they go out to dinner. I don't know a lot of women who want to come in and try on clothes after they've eaten."
Snyder, Pearson and Naimola all agree: Fourth and Washington has come to present a new hope for downtown retail, outside of Main Street's prohibitively high price range. And they're dedicated to continuing to build upon a year that has shown some incredible momentum for their block.
"It was being near Main Street, but not on Main Street, that attracted us here," Pearson says. "We're taking Fourth Avenue back."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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