'Encore entrepreneurs' add vibrance to Detroit's small business scene

Lost in the noise of startup excitement by young business owners in Detroit is a quiet boom among "encore" entrepreneurs. Retired, or still working and pursuing a passion, about a quarter of new ventures in cities across the country are spawned by older people, according to the Kauffman Foundation.

Diane Van Buren, president of Zachary and Associates, a Detroit-based economic development firm, has been involved with planning and development activities throughout her career.

"I'm always trying to work with someone else to help them see that this is something they should do," says Van Buren, 60. "I've always had the ability to find where there's a need and how can I help fill a niche and do something I enjoy."
Diane Van BurenShe and Ernie Zachary, her business partner and husband, created SocraTea, a unique tea room connected to the Sugar Hill Clay ceramics studio in the lower level of the Garfield Building in Midtown Detroit. After years of visiting tea shops around the world, they recognized that while there is no shortage of quality coffee purveyors in the area, there wasn't a place to sit and sip a cup of exotic tea in Detroit

Ernie Zachary and Diane Van Buren"We don't fit the category of hipster, but we fit the category of understanding the dynamics of the city and how it got to where it is," she says. "You're able to bring more passion to a project, and maybe a bigger field of experience of what's going to work and what's not going to work. Maybe you don't have the fearlessness that a young person has...but you don't have the desperation of not having a support system to fall back on."

Source Booksellers was cloistered in the Spiral Collective, a cluster of creative ventures sharing space at the corner of Cass and Willis. Janet Jones, the bookstore's owner, saw The Auburn under construction across the street and envisioned her store having extremely more visibility in that vibrant environment.

She moved into a storefront next to hip businesses like Global Detroit Human, Hugh, and Nora. Then she hired Rosalyn Smith, one-time manager of the former Borders Bookstore downtown. Suddenly her exposure increased significantly, along with her inventory. Within a year her revenue nearly doubled, she says. In an era in which niche bookstores are redefining a market segment seemingly lost to online book sellers and declining print readership, Source Booksellers is providing nonfiction readers a place with personality.

"We came here because we wanted to grow. The opportunity showed up and here we are," says Jones.
Source BooksellersSource Booksellers has evolved over several years, but the entrepreneurial vitality of Midtown gave Jones an opportunity to redefine it.

"I had to reimagine this bookstore: How is it going to look?"

According to Civic Ventures, many encore entrepreneurs establish business that are not only intended to be profitable, but also serve a social purpose.

Shoppers browse at Source Booksellers"People of my age have an opportunity to contribute to the culture in a way that this age group has not been expected to," says Jones. "We have great, stimulating ideas. We don't have the weight of children, the weight of having a job... I'm grateful for my pension. I don't have to buy my groceries from Source Booksellers. We can do things without being encumbered by not having enough money. I want the business to pay for itself, and it does.

"Being where I am in life allows me to do this. I'm not naive. I'm not going to be here forever. What I do want to do is establish Book Source as an institution in Detroit...If I can create this space as a community space for anyone who walks through the door, a place that adds to the fabric of businesses in Midtown; that every business is not food or clothing.

"Older people, 50 and up, have an opportunity in our culture to rethink, reimagine, and restart your life...because of your health, the opportunity, and vision that people at this age have."

Larry MongoLarry Mongo put his various businesses up for sale and planned to spend his retirement between Mexico and Toronto seven years ago, but a group young people living in the Capital Park area convinced him to reopen his bar, located next to the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. What began as a neighborhood party evolved into a Friday night affair, and then Saturday night. Today, it's Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy, a favorite among folks looking for an eclectic venue to imbibe and engage a diverse crowd.

Mongo has transitioned from a would-be retiree to a very active entrepreneur. He's leveraging the success of D'Mongo's to open two new restaurants downtown: Hotel D'Mongo, offering southern American cuisine, and Grandma D's, a French country bistro. Mongo attributes his confidence to the impact of young entrepreneurs like Phil Cooley of Slow's Barbecue, but especially the "kids" who convinced him to reopen his bar on Griswold.

"I could not believe it. They got me invested."

People have asked him how and why he's doing it.

"I say one thing to them: All I did was open the door and I listened to these young kids. I watched and I listened. These kids have such confidence in themselves. The world don't have to be perfect for them. Watch what they're eating, where they're going, what they're doing," says Mongo.

While these businesses are in the retail sector, they reflect the vitality among encore entrepreneurs in all sectors, according to Randal Charlton, former executive director of TechTown Detroit and Boom! The New Economy, a pilot program which provided support for older business developers. He says at least 25 percent of all startups in the area are launched by older adults.

"Folks over 50 tend to have more funds available for new ventures than kids leaving college with a tuition debt hanging over them," says Charlton, who serves on the Hannan Foundation Board of Directors, which serves the older population. He is also involved in other startups in the life sciences sector.

Charlton acknowledges that many encore entrepreneurs follow their passions, but offers a cautionary tale.

"After a lifetime involved in technology businesses, I decided back in the 1990s to follow my passion for blues and cajun music and food from Louisiana. I set up a club called Café New Orleans and lost my investment and everything else, including my house and my shirt.  It was a case of ignoring the business facts because I loved the business so much."
SocraTeaDiane Van Buren also says she's made many mistakes, as well. But that's where encore entrepreneurs have an advantage.

"You can see ahead a little bit further because you have the experience and lessons learned."

Aging Together is a summer-long project between MLive DetroitWDET 101.9FM Detroit and Model D Media that explores the issues of older adults in Detroit, Southeast Michigan and the state.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.
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Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.