Rust Belt Market

Over the last several months, the enormous, vacant retail space on the corner of Nine Mile and Woodward has undergone a radical transformation. What was once a big box franchise -- an Old Navy store to be exact -- has morphed into something uniquely homegrown. Some might even view the recently opened Rust Belt Market as the former tenant's exact opposite.  Independent artists and crafters have set up shop in the cavernous store, turning it into one part art fair, one part funky flea market and one part artist community.

The vibe is like a party at your coolest, most creative friend's place. Music blares, people congregate on couches, and everyone from fine-art photographers to a spiritual counselor/tarot reader display their wares at visually arresting tables.

The Rust Belt Market is a 15,000-square-foot space where vendors can rent a booth for a day, a weekend, or by the month. Up to 70 vendors can fit; more like 50 to 60 or so fill the market on an average weekend (it's open Saturdays and Sundays from 11-7). Offerings range from vintage clothing dealers to T-shirt makers and food entrepreneurs to fine artists. And like the cherry atop a very funky cake, there's live music or a DJ spinning much of the time.

That atmosphere is part careful planning and part happy accident, says Tiffany Best, who operates the market with her husband Chris. They go to great lengths to balance the mix of vendors each week so it's not too heavy on one particular kind of offering. At the same time, the atmosphere created by the people selling their eclectic wares is its own sort of serendipity.

"One thing that makes us feel good is when people who come through say the energy and vibe is really warm," says Best. "That can't be forced, it has to be organic."

One of their bigger challenges, Best says, is just getting the word out about what the Rust Belt Market is and what they do. They're running commercials on local cable systems and will soon launch a revamped website where shoppers can check out the live music lineup for the weekend, see profiles of various artists, and track down resident Etsy shops or contact information.

Another challenge has been to put all the puzzle pieces of the different vendors together.  "It's the shock of turning a business plan into an actual business," Best says. "You start to realize that all those numbers are people - I've been so close to the planning process that you forget that part. It's just a lot of human relations with up to 70 people each weekend and 25 new people you've never met before."  

Vendors change week to week, with some establishing themselves as regulars and the majority of others dipping their toes into the water for just one weekend. So far, most are pretty satisfied with the results they're seeing, Best explains. Vendors help each other out with ideas for marketing their products or making their booths more attractive to shoppers, and some have made important business connections with people they have met at the market.

Unlike seasonal art fairs, which are subject to the vagaries of weather, the Rust Belt Market's indoor location allows for worry-free conditions year-round.  It's also pretty low-risk for vendors to try out a space -- fees are little as $60 for a day or $100 for a weekend, and the market provides all the creature comforts of heat or air conditioning, electricity and bathrooms.

It's a relatively easy way to get started in a business, says Amy Duncan of Henriettahaus Coffee. She started her coffee stand, which features beans she roasts herself in small batches, shortly after Rust Belt Market opened. It's proven very successful -- her booth has become something of a hangout for the other vendors.

And the low cost of entry has allowed her to launch her business, something she might not have been able to do by opening a shop on her own. Duncan first registered Henriettahaus as an LLC in 2008 but struggled to open as a freestanding coffee shop. "This allows me to build it up slowly to where I am never outgrowing what I can handle financially," she says. "It's a really unique opportunity."

Gail Mash is a spiritual teacher and tarot reader. She sells crystals and geodes at the market as well as offering tarot readings and counseling. She's a bit of an anomaly amidst the artists, crafters and collectors. But the energetic atmosphere drew her in, and it's been a successful venue for her. "The space has paid its rent every Saturday before 2 p.m.," she says. "I think people are more open here -- when you like art or music and beauty you're more receptive."

Mash also likes the unpredictability of not knowing who will be next to her week to week. It's that changing nature that's really key to what makes the Rust Belt Market tick -- as hard as it might be to define, Best says. "Once we get that shopper through our door for first time, it's kind of like an ah-ha moment."

Amy Kuras is a Metro Detroit freelance writer and frequent contributor to Metromode. She writes about schools, parenting and a host of other topics. Her previous article was Bowling 2.0.