Detroit’s Avenue of Fashion has many shopping and entertainment experiences to offer: a unique makeup and massage experience, stores with fitted suits and matching shoes, live Gospel jazz music that floods the streets and more.
But since the pandemic started, the needs of those who visit businesses along Livernois, between 7 and 8 Mile, have changed. The demand for custom suits, for example, has grown on the avenue for pastors and, unfortunately, funeral attendees.
Businesses were already struggling before the coronavirus hit. Construction on Livernois of a new streetscape had slowed the flow of customers to shops. Add the coronavirus pandemic, and many businesses are fighting to stay afloat as winter approaches.
“As they were just beginning to recuperate from the construction, the pandemic hit,” said Mark Lee of The LEE Group, a business marketing consulting firm. “As a result of that, a lot of the businesses took a significant financial hit. Some are on the verge of opening, some had to delay their openings, as well as some (who) did not open at all.”
Businesses say they are not seeing much traffic from Detroit residents, and they attribute that to people whom they describe as not comfortable with shopping in person because of coronavirus concerns.
Normal traffic of students from surrounding institutions, such as the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College’s Marygrove Conservancy, has slowed as well, they say.
“They’ve been patronizing some of the businesses that are open around here,” U-D Mercy President Antoine Garibaldi said of the students. “They couldn’t do too much during the summertime because they weren’t around here, and there weren’t too many [stores] available.”
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But still, the businesses are trying to carry on. Here are some snapshots of a recent visit to the avenue.
A unique place to enjoy live Gospel jazz music
Lonie Wiffen has had dreams of opening the Gospel Music Café since June 1998, when she gave her life over to God. She wanted to create a place where Christians could go to relax, read, listen to live jazz and have fun outside of church.
She signed a lease for her Livernois location in August 2018 but she wasn’t able to open because of the construction that began the following year.
The Livernois construction between Margareta and 8 Mile was in the process of bringing a safer pedestrian streetscape with outdoor seating options, a left-turn lane, protected bike lanes, new landscaping and street lighting. The construction started in April 2019 and lasted nine months.
“I couldn’t do anything but work in the café,” said Wiffen. “By this time, bills were piling up. But because I do work — I’m a mail carrier — I was able to juggle income for the business and for my home. And then my daughter helped me. But it was hard.”
She was finally set to open the cafe’s doors in March, but then, the coronavirus pandemic started and she had to shut down. The Gospel Music Café was able to open its doors Aug. 18 and in September, a Gospel jazz band called Da Key of D Band started performing on Friday and Saturday evenings. Dim lights draped the café that serves appetizer foods, smoothies and desserts. But the crowds were thin because people still have concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, Wiffen said.
“It’s still been kind of hard because a lot of people are still afraid to come out,” Wiffen said. “We have people that are not afraid to come out, but a majority of people are still afraid. So now we’re planning on having an open jam session next month for Gospel musicians.”
Cosmetics business adapts its sales
For a year, Tauntus Cosmetics Beauty Bar has offered full-body waxing, massage therapy, makeup artists, cosmetics, apparel and accessories. Almost all of the staff works at the Detroit Public Schools Community District, including store owner Nadonya Muslim.
When the business first took root on the Avenue of Fashion, construction was taking place and they also received a high water bill from the previous occupant. As soon as traffic started to pick up for the store, the coronavirus outbreak forced it to shut down.
“Nobody is buying any makeup, so that’s kind of sad and depressing,” Muslim said. “But you want to continue to hold on to your dream. The same thing with the massages, people are scared to get massages (because) they have to actually touch them.”
So the storeswitched to selling face masks online. The business made themed face masks for National Pan-Hellenic Council sororities and fraternities and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. By reaching their sorority sisters, HBCU alumnus and DPSCD staff, Tauntus Beauty Bar was able to stay afloat.
Sales at the store have dropped 75% from last year and 90% of its current sales come from face masks. Most of the store’s sales are online. Muslim applied for more than 50 grants and received one for $10,000. As for other relief grants, Tauntus Beauty Bar didn’t meet the qualifications.
“We didn’t have enough employees and we don’t have payroll,” Muslim said. “We don’t pay ourselves. We just work. All the money goes back into the store, or to flyers and electricity. We don’t really make enough money to pay anybody to work.”
Eventually, the employees will receive income. But Muslim said that all the employees love what they do in the store, which continues to push them toward their dreams.
Muslim said she worries that once the cold weather starts, the business won’t receive much traffic at all. But she hopes that its online presence and winter products will bring shoppers in.
Operating five stores during the pandemic
Many Detroit CEOs, lawyers, church leaders, reporters and the City of Detroit’s police chief are frequent shoppers at Times Square, a high-end men’s clothing store that sells custom shirts and suits.
The store is reminiscent of a time when high-end retailers attracted shoppers from across metro Detroit from the 1950s to the ’70s. The Avenue of Fashion got its name during that time, and the area’s revival started about five years ago.
Times Square is one of many stores owned by Al Bartell, who oversees Suits for Less, The Red Door, The Shoe Box — all located on Livernois — and another Times Square store on Mack Avenue on the city’s east side.
The Livernois construction was stressful for Bartell and his five businesses. The pandemic caused him to temporarily shut down all of his stores, with his two Times Square locations remaining appointment-only when he adapted to selling masks. The Red Door, a women’s shoe store, just opened Feb. 23 and Bartell had to shut down the store March 16. All stores have since reopened.
As a result of the pandemic, Bartell said, sales dropped 25% across all of his stores. He said his clients have mostly been funeral attendees and pastors. The rest have no upcoming occasions that would require a suit, with many events still virtual.
If it wasn’t for the coronavirus, Bartell believes his store’s sales would be up 120% because of the new Livernois streetscape.
“Everything is mellowing out. The streetscape is beautiful now,” said Bartell. “They widened the sidewalks and the restaurants put tables out. The only thing holding us back is the pandemic. In the midst of all that, we’re still trying to do business.”
The future of Livernois as winter approaches
With the neighborhood growing with nutrition and education programs, people in the shopping industry have high hopes for Livernois and nearby McNichols. Some businesses have received grants from Detroit organizations and institutions. Lee, the marketing consultant, said some of the businesses might not make it, but he has a piece of advice for business owners.
“They need to go back and really rethink their business model,” Lee said. “I would recommend they focus on how to leverage technology: How do they begin to pivot their business model to basically encourage people to come and purchase things online?”
Lee said business owners should adjust and inform customers about the safety protocols the store has in place, so that customers feel comfortable returning during the pandemic. He also urged community members to continue shopping local too because it keeps Detroiters employed.
To find information about COVID-19 relief grants for businesses, visit the Detroit Means Business website.