In the old days, downtown was divided into three parts: Main Street (called Downtown), State Street (called Uptown), and South University (called Campus). Each area was different, but all were part of downtown Ann Arbor.
During my early days while attending Angell School on South University, I remember my mother giving me money so I could go have lunch at the Dugout restaurant on South U, owned by the Klepac family (their daughter was in my class), then pick up some ice cream at Miller’s before returning to school. As I grew up I used to hang out at Beaver’s Bike and Hobby on Church Street (owned by Fred Beaver), learning how to repair bicycles from Bill Loy (now owner of the Student Bike Shop).
I remember when the students left at the end of the school year in April, the local business owners wanted more people to come into the campus area during the summer, so Joan Beaver and a couple of her art friends invented the “Art Fair.” Wow, that really worked. Just look what everyone else in town has done with it!
I remember stopping at C-Ted’s Gas station (owned by Chuck Wolfe, on the corner of South University and Forest Street) to put air in my bike tires. His son Jim took over the business in the later years, then moved his business to the corner of Main and William because the property was sold. When I needed a pair of pants I would go to see Mr. Tice at Tice’s Men’s Shop and I would always wear my Tice’s Men’s T-shirt for a good deal. One day Mr. Tice told me that South U used to be a place where you dropped your laundry off in the morning and picked it up on the way home.
I would get my shoes at Fileccia Bros. Store, and Sam was often in the basement repairing shoes. In the back room at lunchtime most every day you could find all the local businessmen making sandwiches and having a business meeting, talking about changes needed on the street to make things better. If I needed a suit, I would go to Camelot Men’s Clothes (later called the Steeple Chase, owned by Terry Chase). I would go to Purchase Camera founded by Roy Purchase (later owned by John Ransom) for my postage stamps and for my film. One day my camera stopped working, so I went to see Heinz Grasshoff in the basement of Purchase Camera. He told me that it was made in Japan and he usually only worked on the “Rollei” cameras made in Germany but would take a look at it anyway. He was never able to fix it, but I thanked him just the same.
If I needed some groceries, right on the corner of South U and Church was the Food Mart owned by the O’Sullivan family and managed by David Jones, current owner of the White Market on William Street. For my medical supplies I would go to the Village Apothecary owned by Fred Kreye (formally Carlson’s Pharmacy) and visit Bridgitte Grasshoff (Heinz’s daughter) who has worked in the South U area since August 1964 – at Ulrich’s Book Store and later the Village Apothecary) – the longest of anyone I know. She should get the award for “sticking it out.”
As for my watch batteries, I would go to see Paul Schlanderer, at Schlanderer’s, whose family has been in the jewelry business in Ann Arbor for four generations. (Will they get the award for being the longest family-owned independent business in downtown Ann Arbor?) Artisans Gifts was one of the places to go for nice gifts, owned by Bruce Henry and Jim Davis, and there was also The Petal Shop (later Normandie Flower shop) for flowers very near Artisans. For bagels, the Bagel Factory was at the end of South U just before the mud bowl.
If I wanted to see a movie it was the Campus Theater, where I saw one of the Star Wars movies, which was unusual because the theater at Briarwood Mall had shown most of them. Somehow, the Campus Theater was able to show one of them. On the corner of South U and Forest was the greatest news and magazine shop called the Community News Center, below Bicycle Jim’s restaurant. A friend told me that his son found this shop and told his parents he had just died and gone to heaven and would spend hours there reading all the magazines.
There was also Conlin Travel, the Village Bell (after the Pretzel Bell on Liberty Street), Discount Records, O’Grady’s barbershop, A-Square Tobacconist, Logos Book Store, and Overbech Book Store (where the medical students got their textbooks), Wikels Drugs, Mary Dibble Ladies Clothing, Fox’s Campus Gas Station, and Redwood and Ross. I think you get the idea – the business mix was just right for the neighborhood and everyone used to go there.
As one of the founders of Think Local First, I know that a healthy community depends upon strong, successful businesses and organizations, but not just any kind of businesses. It takes a community of businesses and organizations that are owned and managed by our friends and neighbors, and that are good stewards of our community’s resources.
What made South University a great business area in the old days? The answer is somewhat complex, but simple, too. It had locally owned, independent, one-of-a-kind businesses from one end of South U to the other.
How did this happen? One of the key people on South U was Fred Ulrich, founder of Ulrich’s Bookstore, who understood firsthand why it was important to develop and maintain the right kind of business mix. It was Fred who kept things local by being a one-person landlord peer group.
In 1968 Fred Ulrich called my father, Dominic, and asked him if he wanted to own another barbershop, because Lee Mulholland, owner of Lee’s Barbers on East U at South U, was going to retire. My dad said yes, and I ended up working there in late 1969 after I returned from Vietnam. I eventually owned that business before moving to E. Liberty in 1983 to take over the original barbershop that my father bought in April of 1939. Why did I leave that location in 1983? It was because the building was sold and the new owner jacked up the rent out of sight to recoup his investment in the shortest time possible!
In the early 1980s, after Fred Ulrich died, South University started to fade from being a cool local place to shop and hang out.
The people that I mentioned above were part of this local movement early on. They gave South U the personality and backbone to be a thriving business area.
Now the buzzword is local, local, local. With that said, there is much to do to return South University to what it once was. It won’t come easily without everyone (property owners, business owners, citizens, neighbors, school kids, and local government) being on the same page. It’s much more than just putting up a few new buildings – it’s about the business mix.
If you need a reminder of the right direction in which to go, just look at Boulder, Colo. In Boulder, Pearl Street is much like what South U used to be. In the seven blocks of Pearl Street, 77% of the property is owned by 5 people, and guess what? They are all there working hard to keep the neighborhood alive and well, working with the locally owned independent businesses to make sure that they are doing well, much like Fred Ulrich did on South U many years ago.
Who will become the new Fred Ulrich of downtown Ann Arbor? Only time will tell.