Layered Uses: An experiment in storefront space
When people ask me about the vacant storefronts on Jos. Campau, I’ve always said that this wasn’t a Hamtramck problem, but an American problem. We’re shifting the way we live, so why do we expect for our retail storefronts to be used in the same ways they always have? Our built environment is charming, walkable, and dense. Walkscore.com calls our intersection a “walker’s paradise” with a score of 95—even with current vacancy rates in the business district we’ve seemingly got everything we need for most daily errands. Most of the things that once required a physical storefront don’t anymore. We rarely visit accountants and other professional services anymore. We buy clothes and dryer sheets online. Even eyeglasses are delivered to our door. In Hamtramck, we’ve got 50+ markets, many restaurants, coffee shops, general home good stores, galleries, and many other small businesses. It’s not about having the population to sustain retail, it’s about how we want to shop.
A recent piece in the Freep says we’re “over-stored”, and explores what big box stores could be used for, though I’ve got to believe we can do better than storage units. Online retailers like Bonobos have “guideshops” where you try on clothes but “walk out hands-free.” Nordstroms is experimenting with storefronts that offer an experience, but don’t stock any of the clothes they sell onsite.
We’ve seen shifts in how we use residential with airbnb, personal transport with Lyft and Über, even office space with local & national co-working spaces like Bamboo Detroit. But what about retail? Much of it has moved online. We’ve also seen the return of the market, with local bazaars popping up weekly (we host our own SHOP SUEY), and larger spaces being chopped up into mini retail that’s either weekly or used everyday. There’s the pop-up shop, the 1x hosting of a temporary local businesses for a few days or weeks. And going beyond retail by switching retail spaces into frames, storefront windows showcasing artist installations.
In many ways, Hamtroit is the place to challenge traditional uses. Down the street from us is revolver, a restaurant that has a different chef & menu week-to-week, mostly open on weekends. Public Pool is a gallery that’s owned and run by a collective of people who pool their time and resources. Playhouse, and the work of Powerhouse Productions, asks a lot of questions about what is a house, what is a neighborhood, what are community occupied places.
Since opening in 2016, we’ve presented rotating programs. Often a visitor would come up to us during an event to ask: “But what’s it going to be though?” We would answer, “Well...this.”
Like many other alternative uses, we’re challenging the idea that the ratio of use to space should be 1:1. Over the last year, we’ve hosted over 60 different programs, generally occupying the space for a few hours, sometimes a weekend, even a “pop-up” museum that took-over the space for 3 months, with discussions/performances layered on top of it.
Now we’re shifting a little, and we want to make some of those layers bigger. On Wednesdays and Fridays, Bank Suey is now also Book Suey. And on some of those Saturdays Bank Suey that is Book Suey is also Shop Suey. This is confusing, or it isn’t—lots of people get it right away, while others look quizzically.
How it works
We’ve got somewhere between 365-1,095 spaces
Instead of looking only at the number of rooms or storefronts we’ve got, we’re also looking at time. Right now we’re programming the main floor space, which is around 2000 sq. ft. We also own the building everyday, all day.
For Example, a week might look like:
- Monday – Workshop for artists on the logistics of running a creative business.
- Tuesday – 12-3p Offsite meeting for a non-profit, 6p Student meetup
- Wednesday – Book Suey from 4-9p, with a pop-up coffee shop layered on top
- Thursday – 7p Community storytelling event
- Friday – 8p Tango Class
- Saturday – Shop Suey from 12-6p, including Book Suey, then 9p Album listening party
Shared space, shared vision
Much like a gallery or museum hosts varying exhibits, we are curating the programming and businesses that share our space. Unlike a rental hall, all of our pieces tie back up to a bigger vision and mission, and we are accountable for the things we present. We carefully curate and work with like minded partners to present programming we think is valuable for our neighbors. We’ve hosted over 60 gatherings-- while they’ve covered a broad range of topics they’ve been unified by one purpose: to build skills, understanding, and confidence resulting in citizen involvement and greater community wealth. A few of the organizations we’ve partnered with: WDET 101.9FM, Brick + Beam, Michigan Historic Preservation Network, Incremental Development Alliance, Muslim-Jewish Forum of Detroit, Detroit Poetry Society, Hamtramck SOUP, Build Institute, Food Lab, Hamtramck DDA, Hamtramck Music Festival, New Weird America, Cranbrook Art Museum, Detroit History Club, Institute for Social Policy & Understanding, Creative Many, Fringe Society…
Making the Case for Layered Rentals
Who wants to be at a store-front 7 days a week? In a world of working from home and co-working “hot-desks”, why wouldn’t we begin to think about the format of retail and other experiences? Many of us no longer live in 5-day work weeks, or even one (or two) role lives. You can be a part-time graphic designer, part-time barista, part-time social-media coordinator. Or you can have a full-time university career and simultaneously be a herbalist. Being a part of a layered rental system, you can be a retailer or workshop host or event producer one day a week or less. People can try their business out before diving in, or maintain several interests part time. Book Suey came out of a group of coworkers talking about what their “dream job” might be, they grew into a cooperative group of 7 members with a variety of “day-jobs” in addition to being open 2 days a week. They might grow into taking up more space and time, or this might be the perfect cadence for them.
Nowadays, many people quickly check smart phones for business hours before we head somewhere. Google maps will even remind us something might be closed before we get there if we navigate somewhere outside of business hours. Varying hours with varying types of programming is much easier for the guest or shopper to navigate than when you assumed everything was open during the same hours.
Administrative and logistical services are also hosted online and flexible. You can have an entire inventory system for under $100/mo, with services like Shopify, Square, Clover, Basil Bookseller, an essential part of business you previously had to have custom system built & set-up for your store. You can do your accounting with Quickbooks or a Google spreadsheet. The barrier to entry for side hustles and small businesses is much lower in a world where you don’t need a full staff.
It Adds Up
At Bank Suey, we’ve always operated with “everyone pays a little, no one pays a lot” and a crazy sliding scale for event partnerships and space usage. If you spread the burden of utilities and rent across multiple people and organizations, that monthly bill goes down for everyone. This keeps risks low for newer businesses, or for things that people want to have as a side hustle. It allows us all to be more experimental and idealistic in what we’re doing because we don’t have an unattainable financial mandate. For a so-called “high-risk” and certainly low-margin retail venture, like a bookstore, lowering the financial burden of traditional rent might be the difference of it feasibly existing. For the smallest bookstores, average occupancy costs are around 25% of annual revenue (ABACUS 2015 survey), representing the largest expense to the business. In a layered space you can cut this by at least 10%.
“...But You’ve Got to Pay the Bills”
We avoid this phrase at all costs. We’re trying to do the type of work you’d do for free, the dream jobs, not the sell-your-soul-for-a-paycheck stuff.
From the beginning we’ve made intentional choices to keep costs low, the purchase price of the building was relatively low, and we did much of the rehab work, the patching and scrubbing ourselves, so we didn’t need construction loans or debt against it that would keep us up at night. We’ve got utility and tax bills, but our actions are as loosely tied to a capitalist imperative as possible.
Side-note: If you’re interested in rehab photos, peek over here.
Space for Ideas
Though the building has a lot of historic character, we’ve kept it rather simple, essentially one large rectangle, so it’s not specialized to one use. Because we’ve kept costs low and have multiple groups sharing in the expenses we do have, we’ve all got the flexibility to try things we couldn’t otherwise. We can transform the space into a fantastical bazaar, we can have youth created exhibits, we can be a concert hall, we can host important panel discussions,we can become a museum at the intersection of art and history, workshops on citizen led real estate development, etc… Maybe you have an idea you’ve been dying to share or a skill you’d like to teach, apply to bring it to Bank Suey here.
Community of Multiple “Owners”
Shared space requires negotiation, we see this at home in our arguments about who’s going to do the dishes. Layering participation isn’t as easy as handing over the keys to one tenant. However, by taking a more collective approach, we’re building a community, maybe a family, that works together and has a real stake. With multiple voices at the table, the overall programming becomes more diverse and meaningful than if the space was run by just us as owners. With a lower barrier to entry, it also has the potential to include people who aren’t normally at the table as business owners.
This isn’t new
There are so many things that do exist already and have existed for a long time that this model of layered retail is similar to. It steals different aspects from: bazaars, antique malls, collectives, museums, galleries, business incubators, co-working spaces, community centers, libraries, “casa de culturas”, and surely many more types of places and spaces that I am entirely unfamiliar with. So in many ways it’s sort of a time tested idea.
In broadcast programming, like television and radio, there’s the concept of breaking apart the day into smaller parts and selling all of the programming or adtime. All of the time needs to get used, so some times (like 4a) are much more affordable to place ads during. It has always been one of our ideas to look at the space holistically, with potential for 24 hours (or maybe more like 18 hours) open to program.
I’ve always been obsessed with museums, as platforms for presenting information and spaces built to take you through experience. Prior to opening Bank Suey we talked a lot about the concept of “Hamtramck Museum of ________” where community members might be invited to curate their own exhibit to teach people about what they are experts at. In many ways this concept of ever-changing exhibits lives on through the rotational programming and layered rental concept of Bank Suey.
There’s Much More
There’s certainly much more to say about this idea, and even more to test—we’re excited about layered uses as a way to activate storefronts and create space that’s a little easier to have some ownership of for everyone. We’ll keep sharing what we’re learning and hope you will too.