Pretty much every armchair philosopher has reached the conclusion that downtown retail is a no-go: between the big-box stores and the Internet, who’s going to walk into a store and buy stuff? If you want to start a downtown business, the smart money’s on the restaurants and the yoga studios, right?
But get this: twice this season, a downtown restaurant has reverted back to retail space. La Marsa is in the process of becoming more M-Den. Now a small storefront on N. Fourth Ave. that was Smoothie King (and before that, a Middle Eastern lunch counter called Joe Joe’s) has ditched its kitchen equipment to become “home and lifestyle store” Thistle & Bess. Owner Diana Marsh says her landlords, brother and sister Olga and Peter Bilakos, “wanted it to stay a restaurant, and in fact, Steve [Hall] and Abby [Oblitzky] looked at it for their restaurant, Spencer” that will instead open on E. Liberty this fall. “They specifically wanted Peter and Olga as landlords, but it was too small.” Thistle & Bess makes another signpost on the trail of arty, offbeat little shops. You can start at Vicki Honeyman’s Heavenly Metal on Ann (where you can also get a haircut), stop in at Thistle & Bess, and continue to Kerrytown’s Found and Catching Fireflies and end at Treasure Mart.
“My parents are both English and Scottish. Thistle is for the Scottish part, Bess for the English part. You know, Queen Elizabeth–Bess,” says Marsh, explaining the name. Describing what she means by a “lifestyle” store she says: “‘Lifestyle’ is anything that fits a certain feeling, or aesthetic, or way of life. I’m not tied to home goods, paper goods, or any particular type of merchandise.” The English and Scottish influences are harder to spot than the Brooklyn ones. After graduating from U-M, she moved to Brooklyn and taught elementary school science for eleven years. “I made a lot of amazing artist friends there,” like Kimmy Scafuro. Marsh sells her little painted “pinch pots,” for parking tea bags or rings.
Chris Bilakos’s forecast about this block and retail may be on target. You don’t get this on the Internet: a flip-flop-wearing venture capitalist by the name of Adrian Ohmer admires some vintage champagne coupes (and knows the difference between a champagne coupe and a flute). He buys a blue-and-white recycled cotton throw and then impulsively tosses in several more trinkets (as a good venture capitalist should): a card, a pretty box of matches, and a little stand to keep the matches on.
Meanwhile, Marsh is explaining the necklaces she makes from “stanhopes.” Marsh is a collector of vintage charms and gravitates toward a couple of types not often seen here but sold at antique fairs in England: miniature book-shaped lockets with pictures inside; and stanhopes, a kumquat-sized Victorian precursor to the View-Master.
Marsh, who turned thirty-four at the end of July, grew up in Belleville, and like all of her immediate family, went to U-M. Her father, Dick Marsh, is a retired Detroit attorney. “He’s an antiquarian collector and Churchill historian.” Take a closer look at her age: “I was born the day after the royal wedding [of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer]. I was supposed to be named Alexandra,” a name that pops up in Queen Victoria’s lineage, “but wedding madness overtook. They had to name me Diana.”
Thistle & Bess, 222 N. Fourth Ave., 369-6092. Mon. & Wed.-Sat. 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Tues. thistleandbess.com