Publisher's notebook: Pop-up culture and the new wave of walkable retail

There is a block in Detroit’s West Village neighborhood that always transports me to another village -- Greenwich Village in New York City. Everything about this stretch feels just right -- from the framing of the storefront windows to the canopy of trees overhead. Even the width of the street is perfect -- narrow and intimate, hugged by buildings on both sides.

Like a beautiful woman, this block has great proportions. As it just so happens, her name is Agnes.

For some time now, the storefront spaces on Agnes Street between Van Dyke and Parker (formerly occupied by the legendary Harlequin Café) have sat vacant, awaiting a new lease on life. Thanks to a little bit of creativity and collaboration, this is about to change.

Last Sunday evening, a group of Detroiters gathered to prep the dusty interiors for a makeover. Soon, they will be filled with two new "pop-up" retail shops – the first, Coffee & Donuts, created by classically-trained pastry chef Angela Foster (opening Oct. 12); the second, an apparel store called PRAMU by tech entrepreneurs Dylan Box and Edmund Zagorin, selling t-shirts from "Detroit bands, brands and bars" (opening Oct. 13). Both will be open during Tashmoo Biergarten, which re-launches its fall season this weekend, right around the corner.

This is a pretty big deal for West Village -- the first steps toward the walkable retail district Villagers have been dreaming of for years. It’s also an example of the power of partnership: the owners of The Parkstone working with the Villages of Detroit CDC and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation to activate spaces in a phased approached -- temporary first, permanent next.

Future retailers will be revealed at the Villages Fall Festival on Oct. 27.

"Residents have been longing for a coffee shop they can walk to," says Brian Hurttienne, executive director of The Villages of Detroit. "Pop-ups are essential because they get the traffic started."

"I've really been blown away by the caliber of businesses that have expressed interest in these spaces," adds Michael Forsyth of the DEGC. The excitement in his voice was so contagious, I found myself washing windows alongside Joe Posch of Hugh, Kirsten Ussery Boyd of Detroit Vegan Soul, Wayne Ramocan of Osborn Neighborhood Alliance and Ajooni Sethi of Wedge Detroit -- all volunteering, just for fun.

Across town, in Midtown Detroit’s Cass Corridor, two more stores are prepping for an imminent opening of their own. Hugh, the popular home & personal accessories shop from local retailer Posch, will soon debut its new permanent home in The Auburn, thanks to a $50,000 prize from the 2011 Hatch Detroit retail contest. Just next door will be a brand new store, Nora, co-created by Posch in partnership with Toby Barlow of Team Detroit and Liz Boone of Federated Media, offering housewares and gifts from a wide range of international design influences. (Think Scandanavian and Japanese meets Cranbrook.)

"When we first talked about (Nora), it seemed absolutely right," says Posch. "It’s the perfect neighbor for Hugh. Putting together the vision for this store has been a fun, collaborative effort."

Ah, collaboration -- hardly a novel idea around these parts. We all know it takes a village to create a village, and Detroiters have been coming together to improve their neighborhoods for decades.

But recently, the rise in retail pairings points toward a new local norm: the Detroit duet. Entrepreneurs are doubling down on doubling up -- either partnering with like-minded merchants, or opening their own second locations right next door.

Everyday we have more occasions to use an ampersand when describing our favorite eating and shopping destinations: City Bird & NestThe Peacock Room & EmeraldCentaur & Hot TacoPure Detroit & Rowland & Stella.

Two by two (and sometimes three), storefronts are multiplying. Soon, the popular Supino Pizzeria will have a sister. Ditto Slows Bar BQ with Gold Cash Gold, and Good Girls Go to Paris with Rodin.

Sometimes it feels like Detroit is pregnant with fraternal twins. Double the work, double the joy?

When proprietors procreate or partner, there is always the worry that it might be too much, too soon. Can Eastern Market support two letterpress studios? Are there enough Corktowners to fill a bevy of bars?

So far, so good. Apparently, the reward is worth the risk.

Most new pairings prove that having a neighbor increases your chance of success. Certainly, from a customer perspective, multiple offerings make a destination more compelling.

And let’s face it, very few independent businesses are strong enough to thrive in isolation. The ones that do (like Slows) are proving solid enough to support complementary attractions without undermining their own viability.

This is a really big deal for Detroit, this confidence in coupling and clustering.

Incidentally, this message to "cluster, cluster, cluster" has been the main mantra of Open City, a retail support group of sorts, since its first gathering in September 2007. In other words: If you’re thinking of opening a new brick-and-mortar business in the city, please do it near others.

On Monday, Oct. 22 at 6 p.m., Open City will launch its sixth season at the still-gorgeous Cliff Bell’s in downtown Detroit. The event welcomes all who are looking to open or grow a business in the city.

Now hosted by D:hive, with support from the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, Open City is a monthly gathering to learn about opportunities and resources. This is where Dave Mancini of Supino’s got a tip that led to his current Eastern Market location, and where Jackie Victor shared Avalon Bakery’s story of pre-selling loaves of bread to raise startup "dough."

Yes, community micro-funding existed long before we ever heard the word Kickstarter.

Open City is also where folks who have been in business for a while -- veterans like Rufus Bartell and Dave Muer and Janet Jones -- share their earned wisdom with eager newbies.

Jones, beloved proprietor of Source Booksellers, epitomizes the evolution from pop-up to permanent retail. She started by selling books at events, then moved to a shared space called Spiral Collective, alongside Dell Pryor Gallery and Tulani Rose, at Cass and Willis. Soon, she’ll be moving to her very own spot -- right across the street, at The Auburn.

In her new home, Jones won’t be alone. She’ll be a stone's throw from her West Willis neighbors and surrounded by new storefronts -- including Hugh, Nora, and vegan restaurant Topsoil (from the team behind Russell Street Deli), among others.

"I think the new shops coming in are great," says Jones, who has been in the neighborhood since 2002. "We still have to keep working on diversity -- both in the kinds of businesses and the owners. But I’m very happy to see quality merchandise coming to the neighborhood. Not necessarily high-end, but quality."

Jones also believes new openings can benefit existing businesses. "As new businesses arrive, I hope they will consider buying their supplies and equipment from local companies. That makes for a better energy in the city, and it helps people who have been here feel they are not being supplanted by new businesses."

Good to keep in mind, local retailers. Keeping our dollars in the D is clearly a shared priority of many indies, new and old alike. That, and creating more opportunities to get out of our cars and walk.

Starting next week, that’s what Angela Foster and Dylan Box will be doing -- walking to work from their homes in Indian Village. "It’s nice to be able to go somewhere nearby," says Box, thinking of not just himself, but his neighbors.

It’s also nice to give people more than one reason to go.

Claire Nelson is the publisher of Model D, co-founder of Open City and board member of Hatch Detroit. She springs to action when someone says "storefront makeover." (Thanks, Michael Forsyth.)
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Claire Nelson.

Claire Nelson is the founder of Urban Consulate, a network of parlors for urban exchange. Most days you can find her in Detroit or New Orleans.