In a hip, commercial district in Detroit’s Midtown Cass Corridor sits an eclectic family business with a quirky name. City Bird is home to a mix of Detroit- and Michigan-themed merchandise: T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Cass Corridor United,” glasses etched with drawings of local neighborhoods, and cookbooks filled with Bavarian recipes.
But this brother and sister team aren’t only business owners; they’re active ambassadors for Detroit’s turnaround. In December they published Belle Isle to 8 Mile, An Insider’s Guide to Detroit, a project that grew out of their retail business. So many of their customers were seeking recommendations around town that they identified not only a new revenue stream, but another way to enhance their native city’s image.
In undertaking research for the guide, Andy was “surprised by how many new things we discovered,” including storefront museums, a Danish bakery, and a store that sells European sausage. “It’s fun to realize there’s a lot more of the city to discover, even as someone who has grown up here,” he says. The Linns worked with 35 contributing writers and researchers to compile the overview and also tapped the expertise of yet another sibling: Their brother, Rob, an urban planner, developed maps for the book.
While some may question the Linns’ decision to open a pair of retail outlets in an area long synonymous with drug deals and crime, Emily and Andy wanted to participate in and support the mini-renaissance they saw emerging in the Cass Corridor neighborhood.
“Detroit is still big enough to make a difference in the world but small enough where we can make a difference,” Andy says.
Launching in the midst of the recession in 2009, they also were able to take advantage of reasonable rents. Nearby residents supported their efforts, and camaraderie among their fellow entrepreneurs has been a big plus, according to Emily.
“We support each other’s stores,” she says, noting it’s not unusual for business owners to offer to get coffee for others when their store is busy. “It’s helpful for all of us to have more businesses so the area becomes a shopping destination.”
In just a few years, the Linns have seen the corner of their city block at Cass and Canfield transformed. When they arrived in 2009, there was only one other retail establishment on the block and two restaurants. Now, there’s a hair salon, two boutiques, and a bookstore. The Auburn Building, completed last year, features 50 rental apartments (Midtown’s occupancy rate is 98 percent) and 13 retail bays, three of which are occupied. There are 10 businesses slated to open, including a Vietnamese restaurant, a vegetarian restaurant, and an antique store. Foot traffic is on the rise, and Andy says he often sees customers strolling from store to store with bags from nearby retailers. Sometimes those customers include the Linns’ former professors in U-M’s Residential College.
More stores opening on the block also relieves some of the burden the Linns felt about diversifying their product mix and having to carry a wide range of items. They initially sold vintage clothes in response to customer requests, but were able to phase that out when other stores came along. They’re also trying to respond to customer demand by carrying more of what sells well. Some of the most popular items were surprising, Emily says. For example, Nest customers are drawn to air plants inside small globes. “We found people wanted other plant accessories, so we expanded on that.”
The local Detroit theme works particularly well with products that attract all ages, notes Andy. Some of the biggest sellers are those custom-engraved bar glasses depicting 50 different Detroit neighborhoods. “There’s a lot of neighborhood pride, and people want to buy their neighborhood glasses,” he says, a good sign all around.
Come fly with me
The Linns have come a long way since City Bird was first born as an online business in 2005. Originally it served as a side outlet for Emily, now 35, to market some Detroit-themed products that had grown out of her work as a photographer and illustrator. Andy, now 29, agreed to help her build the website in his spare time.
In just four years, the online retailer had picked up enough steam that the siblings decided to pool their collective expertise and open a bricks-and-mortar store to showcase their work and that of 200 other designers. Nest followed in 2011. The business has grown 25 percent per year since its inception.
But working full-time jobs while growing their hobby into a fully realized business brought challenges. Emily had been leading workshops and teaching in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ studio classroom for 10 years, but quit a year ago to run the stores full time. Andy recently left his job of five years at an economic development and planning firm, where he specialized in alternative financing for historic redevelopment projects in Detroit. The two now employ six part-time staffers, all students or recent graduates of Wayne State University and the Center for Creative Studies.
Andy admits there are unique obstacles to being a retailer based in Detroit. External signage is one, as the city is difficult to navigate and slow to issue permits. But Emily says a strong neighborhood development corporation, Midtown Detroit Inc., “picks up where the city falls short,” making sure street lights stay on, for example. The group provided a grant to the Linns for exterior signage.
The pair hopes to keep growing both of their businesses, including the online component. But it’s not easy in light of Detroit’s tenuous and ever-uncertain economic future as an emergency financial manager enters the picture. “It’s a bit scary and unknown,” Andy says.
Feathering the nest
That said, both Linns continue to participate in the Detroit economy, refurbishing their recently purchased homes (in Woodbridge, just four blocks from each other) and frequenting the local music and restaurant scenes. They share friends in overlapping social circles and are lucky to have significant others who understand the extensive time commitment (11-hour days, six days a week) required to run a small business.
Andy also is a landlord on the side. He recently purchased an abandoned property with map-making brother Rob (another U-M graduate). The renovated seven-bedroom home is now leased to a group of five graduate students and young professors at Wayne State University.
On a recent winter weekday, the Linns were able to take a short break from their stores and walk with a visitor to the bustling Avalon Bakery. It’s tough to snag a table at the new stomping ground, but eventually the pair settles into this cozy space to reflect on why it was so important to them to locate their business in their home town.
“We have good faith in Midtown and downtown being strong neighborhoods,” Andy says, “regardless of what happens to the city as a whole.”
Emily says she is encouraged about Detroit’s potential. “I feel like there’s a critical mass of excitement, development, and entrepreneurship,” she says.
And, the siblings hope, that critical mass will continue to bode well for them, City Bird, and Nest.