By the time you begin reading this sentence, the Bureau of Urban Living
will have retired its store on West Canfield.
Don't be sad. It's the way Claire Nelson wanted it to happen. "I didn't want to be sitting behind the counter having people come in to say goodbye," Nelson says. After four years, the Bureau owner, Open City
co-founder and Shop Midtown
campaign coordinator is writing the next page of her Detroit story. The space will be the new home of Nest
, the upcoming home goods creation of brother-sister entrepreneurs Andy and Emily Linn, who own City Bird
It's been a remarkable journey for Nelson, a native of the Chicago burbs who split the Midwest for Smith College in Massachusetts, where she majored in Architecture and Urbanism, with a year in New York City and Paris for Columbia University’s "Shape of Two Cities" program. From there, she went to Washington D.C. to intern at the National Building Museum
and then returned to New York, where she worked at the Skyscraper Museum
and the Van Alen Institute
. She imagined a life in the Big Apple – that is, until she met Francis Grunow, then a planner for the City of New York, who saw the seeds of new momentum and opportunity in his hometown and decided to return to Detroit. "My whole childhood, I wanted to escape the Midwest," she says ruefully, "and I finally get there, and I'm living my happy New York life, and I meet this dude who wants to go back."
A year later, she packed her bags for the Motor City, focusing on freelance graphic design projects and working with Archive DS, which at the time was working on the new Rowland Café and a second Pure Detroit location in the newly re-opened Guardian Building mezzanine. The idea for a store began to hatch when she moved into the Canfield Lofts in 2005. Nelson remembers feeling frustrated by what she calls the big challenges Detroit faced, like regional transit -- or rather, her limited powers at the time to enact change. "I could be an advocate, and I could say a million times that I thought things like transit and historic preservation were important. But I felt like I couldn’t do that much to move the needle," she says. "I thought instead of banging my head against a wall with these big issues, I could open a little shop and help demonstrate the ideas I care about, like walkable neighborhoods and more activity on the street."
After shopping for space in Midtown, Colin Hubbell, the late developer of the Canfield Lofts, told her they could be roommates -- he'd move his desk to the back of the sales office (by then, they'd sold all the condos), and she'd do her thing in the front. "So I signed a one-year lease," Nelson says. "There was no plan for being there forever. It was kind of like, let’s try it and see." There was no big neon open sign in the window, and the space didn't attract the foot traffic of a Woodward or Cass Avenue locale. So when Nelson took her seat behind the counter in the spring of 2007, she didn’t know what to expect. "Honestly, I thought I would be sitting at the counter doing my design work, just like a studio, and once in awhile someone might walk in," she laughs. Which settled her nerves -- shy Nelson remembers worrying about what on earth she'd say to customers. But making those connections and talking about the city turned out to be her favorite part. "The shop gave me a space where I could learn about all the great things people are doing and have this wonderful ongoing conversation about the city."
She called it the Bureau of Urban Living -- "it was kind of a joke," she says. "It was the missing city department we wished existed at the time." A general store for the urban dweller, hocking wine glasses and stationary and gifts that were scarce downtown and she was sick of driving to the suburbs for. "I wanted to share my love for city living. And if anyone happened to come in from the suburbs, I could say 'Oh, you don’t live here? This neighborhood is great. You should consider it.' It gave me an opportunity to tell that story. I really should have gotten my realtors' license," she jokes.
Plenty has changed in Midtown Detroit since the Bureau staked out West Canfield as a location in 2007. While Nelson is clear that she didn't start anything, that she simply continued in the footsteps of entrepreneurs like Canine to Five's Liz Blondy, or Jackie Victor and Ann Perrault at Avalon Bakery, the shop became a touchstone for Detroit retail -- a living example of the city's shopping possibilities beyond liquor stores and gas stations. Through Blondy and Nelson's work at Open City, they were a source of free guidance and enthusiasm for businesses like Supino Pizza and Leopold’s Books and Astro Coffee. Her next mission? Working on projects to help other entrepreneurs who want to open in the city -- and advocating for those who are already here. "We need more voices who can speak about collective issues and concerns; whether that’s small business or retail, walkable neighborhoods, or infrastructure -- the things that will make small businesses successful here," Nelson says. She'll also continue her work with Model D
, where she coordinates the Speaker Series, recently administrated over the Next Big Thing
event and more.
Four years is the length of a traditional college degree program -- so it's funny, and somewhat fitting, that Nelson refers to her experience running Bureau as "her education." It was transformative," says the self-described architecture and design geek. "I used to care most about the physical fabric of the city, but in the shop I really came to understand that the people make the place," she says. "I came to Detroit because I thought it had amazing, underappreciated architecture -- but I stayed for the people, for sure. There's an egolessness and camaraderie about this place that you don't see in other places."
She's also excited to watch the growth of Nest, the Linn siblings' next project. She remembers their first visit to the shop, the week Nelson opened, bearing soaps emblazoned with a map of Detroit. The City Bird line became Nelson's most successful draw and they worked together to expand the collection to housewares and more; and, yet, she encouraged them to open their own location next door in the Canfield Lofts. "I've learned a lot from them," she remarks. "It's been fun to collaborate and watch them grow. I don’t know anyone more committed to this city, and I know they’ll continue to do great things."
While she says she'll miss Bureau, Nelson is also adamant in the belief that Nest is the necessary next step for the West Canfield retail space. "I think it's time for a new shop, whether it was us or someone new -- our customers deserve something fresh and exciting." She'll miss her customers, the ones who supported her through the lean times, the most. "I'm just really excited that people I love and trust will be taking the space, and I know they're going to do something really great there. I don't think we have to make a big deal out of the end of anything. It's the beginning of something new."
Something new -- not only for the city, but for Nelson's own life -- a chance to come out from behind the counter and advocate the big issues, the way she always wanted. And it's time, she insists, for new Detroit businesses to become part of the continuum of life in Midtown. "We all throw new ideas against the wall and see what sticks," she says. "I love being part of a place that values entrepreneurs and creativity. Some things are going to last for a short while, and others will last forever. We want to give people who have ideas the freedom to try different things. Cities are dynamic, changing places. That’s what makes them so interesting."
Don't be sad about the passing of your favorite urban general store. For Claire Nelson, this moment is the next big thing. As for where to get your housewares – check out Nest when it opens before the holiday.
Ashley Woods hunts and gathers information weekly for Model D's Development News section.
Photos courtesy of Frits Hoendervanger (top) and Paula Turner (exterior and interior of Bureau of Urban Living).
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