Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
When Rebecca Macleery bought the property known now as Kalamazoo Dry Goods 6 years ago, she wanted to start a community art space where folks could learn, and share skills related to artmaking, sewing and crafting, and DIY home projects. She felt a need to create a space and community where people felt comfortable to be themselves.
“We need more spaces in our community that focus on inspiration and connection and also access,” says Macleery. While Macleery's conception of her business has grown and expanded, the significance of providing access, particularly for LGBTQ+ individuals, she says, is more essential now than ever.
To prepare to open her business, there was a couple of years of work to be done, and Macleery admits to being “a little naive” when it came to the process of transforming the former dentist office, then daycare, into what she dreamed her store to be. As a budding business owner, Macleery spent untold hours reading building codes, and discovering there were a lot of features in the building that needed updating, like plumbing and lighting, before the physical location for Kalamazoo Dry Goods opened its doors in November of 2022.
Macleery smells one of the roses in the garden behind the Dry Goods building.
Macleery did almost all of the updating herself — painting, flooring, planting, and tending the property's two gardens — and today, no sign exists of the building's previous lives.
Kalamazoo Dry Goods
, the brick-and-mortar which opened at 833 W South Street, just blocks from the downtown mall, sits back far enough from the road for the small unassuming front garden to welcome shoppers. From the door, some of the wares inside can be seen — mannequins, trinkets, shelves stocked full of soaps, painting supplies, sewing materials, and lots and lots… and lots of fabric. Macleery’s e-commerce fabric business which started in 2020 also operates out of the space.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the sun shone through the large picture windows of Kalamazoo Dry Goods, and onto the shelf dedicated to merchandise crafted by trans and queer artists. While giving a tour of the storefront, Macleery smiled as she spoke of the years readying her business to open. She learned a lot, she says, and “would do things in a different order, would spend the money differently" now.
Macleery pointed out stickers, earrings, and wall hangings made by local LGBTQ+ folks, explaining that makers receive 100% of the proceeds. Macleery says she feels it is vital to demonstrate LGBTQ+ support year-round, sharing insight on how she believes other business owners can do the same.
Some of the merchandise on display from the LGBTQ feature shelf.
“Our job as businesses with a platform is to impact the community in a positive way, not just sell things,”
The Dry Goods founder’s lips were sealed when it came to where she purchases the natural fibers, and high-quality dead stock (secondhand) fabrics that are carefully stored in the new location. “I try to source them within about 3 to 4 hours of Kalamazoo,” says Macleery, adding that she goes out and physically searches for them. Macleery is just as careful and thoughtful about what she carries in her store as she is about why, and she does not order blind. “I carry a lot of wool because it can be used for anything from rugs, costumes, upholstery, and many things in between. Nothing gets wasted."
Something else one may notice as they approach the front door to Kalamazoo Dry Goods is another humble fixture — an LGBTQ+ Pride sticker. Macleery, who opened the doors to Dry Goods last November, placed the sticker intentionally on the front window to show the shop is a welcoming space.
In addition, the founder of Dry Goods recently acquired transgender pride flags, which feature the colors light blue, pink, and white, and intends to display them in a visible location for shopgoers to notice. Macleery’s care for the queer community, especially trans folks, is one of the reasons she chose to open Kalamazoo Dry Goods.
“I am a parent of trans kids,” says Macleery, who says she wants to create a safer and more inclusive welcoming space, specifically for a community that is being attacked and targeted.
The LGBTQ shelf.
Since the beginning of 2023, over 410 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the United States. “Creating a safe space in that atmosphere is important to me,” says Macleery.
With all of the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and policy in the United States, the Kalamazoo Dry Goods owner recognizes there are risks to being such an open and affirming ally to this marginalized group. Macleery says that since she began to openly support the queer community on her socials and at some recent events held in the new brick-and-mortar location, she has lost some long-term customers of her e-commerce fabric sale business, which is the operation that has kept the doors open and lights on for the last 3 years since she started housing the fabrics there.
Supporting LGBTQ+ rights carries risks beyond just a decline in sales. Law enforcement agencies reported a significant 70% increase in national LGBTQIA+ hate crimes to the FBI between 2020 and 2021, as per their latest data. Macleery is not the only downtown Kalamazoo business owner who recognizes a growing threat and is fighting back.
Downtown Kalamazoo: Some clouds above the rainbows
“Wake up, Kalamazoo!” says Drue McPherson, owner of DRUE Salon
on Lovell Street.
Drue McPherson sits in the front window of his salon downtown Kalamazoo.
McPherson says he has noticed an uptick in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in the downtown area since 2016. McPherson has always welcomed the queer community to his business which started in 2014, but since the beginning of the Trump presidency, he says he has made a special point to roll out the welcome for this group. The front of DRUE Salon prominently displays LGBTQ+ Pride flags, and McPherson played an important role in successfully organizing the Kalamazoo Pride celebrations in June this past year. The 2023 event drew thousands with the highest turnout ever, highlighting its growing popularity.
Both McPherson and Macleery grew up in Kalamazoo, and McPherson notes that for LGBTQ+ folks, “Kalamazoo felt like an inclusive bubble in West Michigan.” As DRUE Salon nears its tenth anniversary, McPherson says he can’t help but notice the polarization of beliefs that has swept through Kalamazoo and says it is not the same place he opened his business in 2014.
When speaking about the downtown Kalamazoo area, especially near his business, McPherson says he has noticed the area “has become a lot more conservative.
” McPherson adds that in addition to LGBTQ+ folks, that BIPOC folks, and Kalamazoo’s houseless population, are among those who face mistreatment as the downtown area becomes more politically and ethically divided.
An outside view of DRUE Salon, 115 W. Lovell Ave.,
As an example, McPherson describes a recent altercation he had with a group protesting queer rights on the corner of Burdick Street and East Michigan Avenue. McPherson says he approached the protestors at their prayer table to ask if they had a permit. The group said no, and refused to disclose their affiliation, he says. McPherson says he then contacted local law enforcement, and members of the group dispersed to a nearby business. McPherson notes what he sees as a disparity in how, unlike the immediate and massive police presence during the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations, he had to place a call and patiently await the arrival of a single officer to address the anti-queer protest.
Another downtown Kalamazoo business less than a block away from DRUE Salon, OutFront Kalamazoo, an LGBTQ+ resource center, faced a wave of threats and harassment after a video they shared on their socials went viral in February of this year. The video showed how OutFront has gender-affirming clothing and items they give away for free, and it was shared by Jeremy Hambly, a well-known conservative YouTuber. Hambly's audience then targeted OutFront Kalamazoo, an organization that has been advocating for LGBTQ+ rights since 1987. Hambly's video included the center's contact information and criticized their services, leading to an influx of threatening calls, emails, and voice messages. OutFront Kalamazoo has reported the incidents to the FBI and local authorities.
Both Macleery and McPherson say that they believe that the anti- LGBTQ+ presence they've observed in downtown Kalamazoo makes the community feel unsafe. To provide safe space and support, Macleery often offers events and opportunities for the community, such as the recent 100% commission to LGBTQ+ people for Pride Month and an earlier self-care day for trans people.
Soaps, and other spa day materials.
“The risk I was taking was nothing compared to the risk trans folk take just by existing,” says Macleery about her first in-store event in March for Trans Day of Visibility where she provided well-being opportunities, like facial massages, plus store discounts, for trans people. She says she wanted to allow people who are trans the space to simply exist as themselves in the store without fear of violence. As a parent of trans kids, Macleery adds, “I do not want my kids to ever be harmed because of my visibility in the community.”
Rainbows and flags are welcome signs in placemaking.
“One of the strengths is Kalamazoo’s participation in the placemaking process,” Macleery says, adding that she is uplifted when seeing how Kalamazoo neighborhoods interact and listen to what the people who live here want to see happen — for example, planting gardens in the Vine, more public art, music, free events, to name a few.
Macleery speaks passionately about how through supporting the LGBTQ+ community, she gained a new store following that means so much to her.
McPherson says that he feels supported as a queer person in Kalamazoo because of the close-knit community he has helped to create, though he is dismayed by the current divisive climate he perceives surrounding the downtown area. Both business owners acknowledge that actively demonstrating support for LGBTQ+ individuals, in public and behind the scenes through their business practices, is the most impactful way to create a safer environment in Kalamazoo.
While both Macleery and McPherson have strong roots in Kalamazoo, they are keeping watch on how the cultural climate evolves, particularly downtown. If the situation escalates, both say they would consider leaving the area. With what they see as a perceived allowance of the anti-LGBTQ+ agenda to spread throughout the community, McPherson says this is “not the Kalamazoo I want to live, and remain in." And from Macleery, “In my family, we are discussing if we need to leave the country.”
Kalamazoo Dry Goods has a large selection of fabrics.
Macleery says it is essential to the well-being of the LGBTQ+ community to visibly and symbolically hold space for folks.
“Visibility does matter. All those rainbows and flags do actually make people feel more included and seen and welcome. As leaders — personally and in the business community — it’s imperative that we go beyond flags and actually strive to create inclusive spaces online and within our neighborhoods and communities," she says.
"This mandates that business owners show allyship not just through visibility, but also being vocal and creating ethical business practices that center marginalized communities and put people before profit.”