Small Says it All

Urban living. It means different things to different people. For some, it’s having a mass transit mindset that keeps them safe from those dreaded price-at-the-pump rants. To others, it’s the comforting whir of activity outside their window and being able to grab Pad Thai at four in the morning. But for most of us in Detroit, urban living has an altogether different flavor. We don’t have a ready-made world we can passively sit by and enjoy like so many other cities. Life here means a little activity called contribution. We want to get something done? We roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves.

Enter the Bureau of Urban Living. Sure, it’s that new little store you always wanted in Midtown that carries amazingly fun, cool modern home furnishings for perfect prices. But it’s also way more than a pretty face. It’s a retail space that, true to its name, is a place you can go to hang out and shop with like-minded city dwellers. You know, the kind of folks who are there because they want to be there and get stuff done.

Nestled comfortably in the heart of Midtown's blossoming retail and restaurant corridor, Bureau should pat itself on the back for being the next great leap forward in helping to create a retail district where visitors could one day walk for blocks and blocks and keep stumbling upon unique place after place. This newest hope in the movement to turn Midtown around is owned by two 30-somethings who, despite being new to the entrepreneur thing, are chock full of urban planning and city dwelling insights.

Big challenges

“We got married a few years ago and seeing all the gifting involved in buying new housewares and not having a place to do that in the city made me even more interested in that idea,” says Claire Nelson, who owns the store with husband, Francis Grunow. “But I think it really came from a desire to help contribute to a mixed-use pedestrian friendly district in Midtown.” It took them just a short year to go from conception to birth with this, their first retail effort. And even though they found it easy to go solo without help from the wealth of area small-business loans, they still encountered a huge challenge when it came to one very small issue.

“There just aren’t a lot of places under 1000 square feet in buildings on ground floors in the city because we’ve demolished so many of our smaller buildings,” says Nelson. It’s an issue she and Grunow feel is so important to entrepreneurial life in Detroit that she channels the late urban planning guru Jane Jacobs, and her mantra of using old buildings for new businesses. “People who study cities know that for start-up businesses with small retail, old buildings are great,” she says. “They are incubators. They are small little spaces…just the right size.” She points out that new development projects downtown, while exciting and great, are also creating an excess of spaces that could only house major national chains, not the little locally inspired shops that just want to be good neighbors. “When you look at places like Chicago or Toronto, you see a million teeny, tiny spaces that sit side-by-side for blocks and blocks," she says. "That’s what healthy cities are.”

It’s exactly these inviting, ground-floor spaces that Nelson says allow you to stroll by on your way to dinner and offer the full skinny on life in the neighborhood. And it's not just open retail spots, but real estate offices, sales models and small architecture firms that help make everything more accessible, helping you imagine you can actually live in the area. “You don’t see that as much here,” she says. “So we really liked the idea of having a physical space where you can look in the windows and see an animated place or come inside and pick up a Midtown Living brochure.”

"Changing the way we live and work"

The animated space they settled on is a 600-square foot former sales model in Canfield Lofts, just a stairwell down from where they also live. “We wanted to be part of a retail district,” Nelson explains. “And right now, the retail nodes in this city are the Fisher building, the Guardian building, the Renaissance Center. Those are all fabulous, but they’re not the kind of mixed-use retail districts that most cities have in neighborhoods instead of office buildings.” Midtown, the couple agrees, is one of the healthiest mixed-use neighborhoods and has the most potential. But it still has a long way to go, they commiserate. Like so many other business owners in the area, they see the need to think more as a district and do things in tandem. “We can’t survive as a small business where people don’t work it into their lives to stop here on the way home from class or work. It just won’t work. We have so many pieces — like Amsterdam Espresso, Peoples Records, Avalon Bakery — but we are all independent. It can be frustrating.”

But Bureau is doing more than its part to bring people together, and to bring together commercial and residential communities into one. In fact, what they most gush about is how well their little store full of pretty things forces people to interact with each other. “What’s happening here that I am so excited about is that people are coming in from different neighborhoods," Nelson says. "There will be couples in here at the same time and someone will say, ‘I live in a townhouse in Lafayette Park.’ And someone else will be like, ‘I live in the pavilion at Lafayette Park,’ and they start talking and sharing information.” It’s Nelson’s self-confessed favorite part of owning the store. More of her thoughts on how small retail can help build a larger community are contained in this recent episode of Model D TV.

Grunow, though, has an almost aerial view of what these connections forming at rapid speed in the store could mean. “We need to see Detroit as a place where entrepreneurialism can connect and encourage creative activity and push systems and bureaucracies. And ultimately, change the way we live and work,” he says. “It can’t be business as usual if we’re going to create new business.”

And that’s what this little, yet massively important, urban living outpost is all about. It’s a place you can stop by and gab with others about all the red tape. Then, you can buy something right off the shelf that’ll help you cut clean through it.

Jennifer Andrews is a Detroit-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Model D.

Photographs of Bureau of Urban Living Copyright Dave Krieger

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.