And more Dexter marketplace changes
by Sally Mitani
From the September, 2016 issue
With their grand new 3bird, Cathy Swan, Laura Telesco, and Laura Keefer have invigorated retail on Main St. Their new store is still on Main St., but they moved it over a block, consolidating Nichols & Stafford and the Home Store, now united under the roof of the former Huron Camera. Keefer says they gutted "a warren of rooms and partitions," creating an airy, high-ceilinged, whitewashed space.
Swan started in 2004 with the Home Store, selling furniture, rugs, and interior design. She took on Telesco as a partner when the store spilled over into home accessories--the stuff you put on tables or in china cabinets--and they opened Nichols & Stafford in 2011. In 2013 Keefer started a store-within-a-store at the Home Store selling clothing and jewelry. When they decided they needed a common identity, they had a brainstorming session at Nichols & Stafford. "We wanted three somethings," Telesco says. "Then I saw the birds"--the long-legged bronze bird candlesticks that have become one of their signature items--and the name was settled. Swan's eighteen-year-old son, Tucker, designed the logo, a simple image of three birds enclosed in a dotted circle. Tucker, who will be studying engineering this fall at WCC, also laid the new flooring along with some friends.
Swan points out one new line of merchandise, Joanna Gaines' Magnolia Home Furniture, which is tied to the HGTV Fixer Upper show. Magnolia is part of a growing response to online sales. "Well, retail these days ... it is what it is," Swan says, throwing up her hands. "Millennials want to buy everything online and have it delivered to their doors." Magnolia--while it does have an online market for small stuff--won't sell its furniture online or in big-box stores, and 3bird is one of the few places in Michigan you can get it. What 3bird doesn't have in house can be ordered through the catalog.
Michigan-manufactured and Dexter-themed merchandise also sells well here. Clothing and jewelry is casual, a little arty, a
little boho. Telesco points out a large inventory of chic and pricey OCJ shirts referencing, sometimes obliquely, the U-M and MSU. Kendell Mae candles in rustic tin buckets, made in Union City, Michigan, burn for more than 200 hours. And those leggy bird candlesticks are always in stock. They cost about $15.
The Dexter Daze parade marching by August 13 as Swan and Telesco talked was a reminder that Dexter is a town with a healthy identity and self-regard--pretty much everyone in town was either in it or watching it. In fact, Keefer raced out to the sidewalk to see her daughter, a dancer, pass by. The goal was to get the store open by Dexter Daze and they made it, barely. "Nichols & Stafford closed thirteen days ago, and the Home Store closed nine days ago," Swan said, though not all the new merchandise had come in yet. She says 3bird will have a grand opening sometime this fall.
3bird, 8060 Main St., Dexter. 424-9140. Mon.-Wed. & Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thurs. & Fri. 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun. noon-4 p.m.
Next to 3bird, where Absolute Computer Services used to be, a versatile hangout is percolating behind window signage that boasts of comics, cards, and candy. "Traditionally," says Ethan Ernst-Hodys, owner of Watchtower Comics and Collectibles, "a comic book store sits there, and you wait for someone to come in and buy them." He thought it might pair well with the gaming business, where people come to play "geek"--his word--card, board, and video games, but don't always buy something to take home. Candy, whether consumed on or off site, never hurts with a young demographic.
He thinks Dexter is ripe for it: "Ann Arbor and Ypsi have game stores and comic stores like Vault of Midnight," but there's nothing in the western county. "Dexter has a good median income, kids can ride their bikes here," and he says he hopes to attract people from Chelsea, Stockbridge, and Pinckney.
Ernst-Hodys, forty-two, has degrees in economics and computer science. He's never owned a business before, but he's also got a full-time day job working remotely for a software company in Atlanta, so he's not under pressure to turn an immediate profit. Nevertheless, he says, "we had positive cash flow the first month."
On a hot August afternoon, no one seemed to be buying anything, though the store was bustling like some cool kid's rec room, with four or five preteen boys sitting in front of a big screen playing Super Smash Bros. This is all part of the strategy. "We're building a community. The community gives back to themselves because they want this to exist. People feel invested." In other words, let people hang out and play games for free--they'll eventually ante up somehow, either buying comics, games, candy, or participating in pay-to-play tournaments. And while Ernst-Hodys acknowledges the geographic community he serves, he absolutely refuses to acknowledge any other demographic divide. Anyone can be a geek: "We're gender agnostic and nonjudgmental."
Ernst-Hodys, whose eight-year-old son often is in the store, fell in love with anime in his early adult years. Teaching English in Japan in 1997, he says, "I played the original Pokemon in Japanese."
Watchtower, 8066 Main St., 580-2245. Mon., Tues., & Thurs. noon-6 p.m., Wed. noon-9 p.m., Fri. noon-9:30 p.m., Sat. noon-5 p.m. watchtowerccc.com.
Ruhlig's Country Market, listed for the first time as the Original Ruhlig's Market in the Community Guide at the front of this issue, reduced its hours to three days a week this summer. "My dad's my priority right now, and I'm going to enjoy him while he's here," says Nancy Ruhlig. Her father, Martin Ruhlig, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's about two and a half years ago and went into the Chelsea Retirement Community in January. The store that she runs with her mother Shirley sells plenty of locally grown produce, but they're produce merchants as much as they're farmers. "We even go to [Detroit's] Eastern Market," she says--to buy, not to sell.
Ruhlig's will close in mid-October, as usual, when pumpkin season is over. As far as Nancy knows, they'll open again in the spring. "In our minds, we are going to be open next year. We're already talking about what we're gonna plant." Cabbage will definitely be there. "Bushels of cabbage for sauerkraut. That was my husband's thing," says Shirley. In August, perfect basketball-size heads of cabbage edged the driveway up to the market.
The Ruhlig family sold most of its ninety-six-acre farm last spring, retaining the buildings and enough land for both branches of the family to maintain gardens. The other branch is Martin and Shirley's son Marty and his wife, Ann, who for twelve years have run Ruhlig's Produce. In addition to small, compact kitchen-garden vegetables, Marty and Ann farmed land-grabbers like pumpkins and squash on their half of the Ruhlig family farm. Now without that acreage, they no longer maintain the farm stand, but Ruhlig's Produce still exists--Ann sells her homegrown produce at the Dexter Farmers' Market. The two Ruhlig markets co-existed for a number of years, but in 2014 Shirley Ruhlig filed a DBA ("doing business as") with Washtenaw County claiming the "Original Ruhlig's Market" title. Ann Ruhlig reluctantly admits that the sale of the farm has revealed some fault lines in the family. "It's been hard on the community," she says.
Original Ruhlig's Market, 11296 Island Lake Rd., 426-3161. Until mid-October: Fri.-Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and by appt.
Two out of three vacant Main St. properties will soon be filled in. Cathy Swan said that the Nichols & Stafford storefront she just vacated has already been leased to a new business called the Dexter Creamery, which will be making frozen yogurt, custard, and fancy popsicles.
Nate Pound has bought the Mill Creek Sport Center. It will reopen next spring as a kayak livery, says Pound. "We're working with the DEQ and the Huron River Watershed Council on a rehab-and-rebuild project" that includes the park on the other side of the creek. He says the building will be renovated--"pretty close to a total knockdown"--and he hopes to get it annexed into the city of Dexter. (Swan, Telesco, and Keefer had originally wanted it for their 3bird store, but "it was a really complicated property and didn't work out," says Keefer.)
As for the vacant Home Store, Swisher broker Jeff Evans says Mindo Chocolates has looked at it, but it hasn't been rented yet. "We've had several interested parties, but you know, people will kick tires and look at stuff and don't get serious until it's vacant and available." In early August, it was only just that.
A couple more holes in downtown remain unfilled. After all Jack Savas's lobbying to approve his Strawberry Alarm Clock Cafe, a groovy 1960s-style coffeehouse at the end of Broad St., community development director Michelle Aniol says that "in April of this year, Mr. Savas informed the city that he was cancelling the project ... The special land use approval for the cafe expired on July 25, 2016."
Savas says after buying the property, demolishing the house on it, and designing his modernistic dream space, he couldn't come up with enough money to build and operate it. He's trying to sell the project as is. He also "opened a dialog" with Mindo Chocolates. "They were considering purchasing my site plan, but they have a budget too. We're not dead in the water, but I think they're looking for an existing building." Aniol confirmed Savas "still has site plan approval until July 25, 2017."
Another property closed and up for sale is The Alley, previously Katie's Food & Spirits. Though it's had some problems in the past with liquor violations, listing agent Jack LeSage gives the troubled place a little historical context. "It needs to be gutted, but it's a beautiful building. It started life in the 1950s as a bowling alley. It has large open spans, a half-domed ceiling, exposed trusses." He says it hasn't been a bowling alley in awhile. The property's owner, Paul Cook, bought it "about twenty years ago with his brother. The brother was into bowling alleys--they ran it that way for a while." When his brother left, Cook "had to put up a couple of temporary partitions to close off the eight lanes," LeSage says. "It's pretty grubby."
[Originally published in September, 2016.]
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