Elmo Morales came to Ann Arbor in 1964 on a U-M track scholarship with “two bags, a suit, and a tie. I thought I was all grown up.” He had gotten a lot of offers from other schools. He lived in a rough part of Washington Heights, near the north tip of Manhattan, but one upside was that his high school track scores had been published in the New York Times. Michigan track coach (and later A.D.) Don Canham, who hadn’t even met him, “called me and said, ‘Hey, kid, sign on the dotted line. We’ll give you everything.'”
Elmo–who doesn’t usually need a last name around Ann Arbor–has worn many hats since then: competitive runner into his fifties, teacher (he retired from Community High in 1999), T-shirt maker, spinning coach. Some know him as that preternaturally young-looking guy who can’t possibly be–but is–turning seventy this spring. Surely he dyes his hair? “No, I’ve got a little gray around the temples, but”–he takes off his cap and offers his head for inspection–“if that’s a dye job, it’s a pretty good one, right?” In a scene that must have struck bystanders at Espresso Royale as slightly creepy, his hair was carefully finger-combed: jet black.
Elmo has been selling his licensed U-M apparel and other Tree Town souvenirs at Elmo’s Main Street T-shirts for twenty-nine years, but he has no rancor about leaving downtown: “We’re taking the high road.” But it still hurts. “It took me a long time to accept it. At first I felt defeat.” Then came a crisis that made the decision easy: “My wife got sick four months ago, and I made the decision just like that.”
He’s retaining his much smaller and less well-known campus location on E. Liberty but admits this is the beginning of “a phased-out retirement. I don’t know whether [the store is] going to make it or not.”
Downtown has changed, he says. Main St. may be full of people, but “they come down to walk around, and they’re not really shopping. They may come for the restaurants, but if you need something you’ll go to Briarwood.” And even restaurants, which used to be a good draw, have improved around town to the point where, he says, “every section of Ann Arbor now has its fine restaurants, without the hassle of [downtown] parking.”
Elmo’s lease ran out this month. He was paying $4,395 a month and was expecting it to be hiked at least another thousand, and he wasn’t selling enough merchandise to pay it. He sees this as evidence of the long-anticipated “Rahmani effect.” When ophthalmologist Reza Rahmani bought and renovated the building that houses Shinola, “he raised the bar for everyone. Everyone is confident that if he’s getting [high rent], they can get it too.” And Elmo’s landlord, A2 Curtis, has brought in Colliers to lease the space. “When you bring in the real estate people, they have to get their commission.”
As usual, the upbeat Elmo has too many other interests to dwell on one disappointment. He wants to make sure everyone knows he can print single custom T-shirts–or infant onesies and twosies–while you wait at the Liberty shop for $16.95 (not the same process he uses on large orders, printed at another facility). He teaches spinning at his space behind Stadium Hardware called Bodies in Balance, and he recently set himself a twenty-year goal to help an Ann Arborite win an Olympic medal in table tennis. “It’s all a matter of critical mass,” he says. “You have to have enough tables.” He’s working on it.
McCabe Ash, who owns Graphic Art Wholesalers next door to Elmo’s, will also be leaving when his lease is up in July. The very name of his business, he says, shows how Main St. has changed over the years. Robert Janis, who started the frame shop forty years ago, probably named it “to emphasize low pricing, affordability,” though now “it just sounds like a factory.”
Cheapness doesn’t cut it on Main St. anymore. Accordingly, he’s been trying to rebrand his frame shop, which also sells framed prints–like Chris Bidlack’s faux-retro posters for the “Ann Arbor Monorail” and other wonders that never were–as the Art Spot, but that hasn’t quite stuck.
Ash started working for Janis twenty-three years ago and bought the business thirteen years ago. His rent, like Elmo’s, is over $4,000 a month, and he’ll be moving out of downtown. He hasn’t found another place yet because, he says, “I can’t afford to pay rent on two places.” Like Elmo, he doesn’t blame the landlords–“It’s just business”–and he didn’t seem to be intentionally quoting from The Godfather.
With a Jacques Brel song playing on WCBN–“the best radio station ever”–he reminisces about an older downtown that has been slipping away. The most recent closings were Seyfried Jewelers and the Selo/Shevel Gallery, but he says the big drop-off in Main St. shopping came when Joy Pharmacy (the final incarnation of Lucky Drugs) left. “People would come to fill scrips. Now they don’t seem to come to Main St. anymore. Schlenker’s Hardware …” He doesn’t finish the sentence. It’s now expensive offices. “We’re lucky to still have Peaceable Kingdom and Schlanderer’s. They’re only here because they own their own buildings.”
Ash doesn’t single out Main St. retail rent as the problem–it’s inflated downtown property values and inflated consumer expectations in general. “I see luxury apartments going up that are for students. You can’t find a one-bedroom for under a grand. When I was in college” in the late eighties at MSU “you rented a basement apartment with pill bugs for a couple of hundred dollars!”
“We’re sorry that they’re both going,” says Andy Curtis, who with his brother Ben and father John form A2 Curtis, the landlords. “We’ve always had a very positive, wonderful relationship with both. It’s sort of a coincidence that they’re going in the same time frame.”
Until last year, John and his brother Jim jointly operated Curtis Commercial Realty. When they divided their real estate, Jim kept the original business name, while Elmo’s and Ash’s storefronts went with the John Curtis lineage.
Andy says A2 Curtis enlisted Colliers’ help to cast a wider net. These are high-profile spaces, and “the last thing we want is for them to sit there, waiting for someone to find them.” As for talk about the Rahmani effect: “I know where you’re going with this,” he sighs, “but our rents are at or below market. That has always been our philosophy. If they succeed, then we succeed.”
Elmo’s Liberty St. T-Shirts, 404 E. Liberty. 994-9898 (probably). Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Evening and Sunday hours seasonal. elmostshirts.com
Graphic Art Wholesalers, 224 S. Main, 769-5110. Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m. graphicartwholesalers.com