Monthly Milestone: Local Shopping Madness

Why it's crazy not to support local businesses

Editor’s note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s Sept. 2, 2008 launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication. It’s also a time that we highlight, with gratitude, our local advertisers, and ask readers to consider subscribing voluntarily to The Chronicle to support our work.

Nina Juergens of Acme Mercantile

Nina Juergens of Acme Mercantile with a cake marking the downtown Ann Arbor store's 9th anniversary in November.

When I worked on the business desk at The Ann Arbor News, we were awash with press releases about various business anniversaries, awards and other achievements. In hindsight, it’s fair to say we did not treat these accomplishments with the respect that many of them deserved.

Perhaps it takes being closely connected to a small enterprise – whether it’s a business, nonprofit or independent professional, or a program you launched or service you’ve been providing  – to appreciate the milestones that might seem trivial to an outsider. If you understand that making it through the day without quitting your business can be a pretty significant achievement, it gives you a visceral connection to those announcements.

That’s one reason why here at The Chronicle, we’ve started allotting some of our monthly milestone columns to congratulating others who’ve reached some kind of marker. Generally, large institutions are more likely to log higher numbers and get more attention for that. The University of Michigan, for example, is gearing up to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2017, and is already marshalling its considerable resources for that event.

But I have a soft spot for smaller, human-scale endeavors.

This month, we’re highlighting three such ventures: Local businesses – Acme Mercantile, Le Dog, and Anderson Paint – that all celebrated recent anniversaries, and whose owners have strong ties to this community.

And because tonight, Midnight Madness and Kerrytown Kindle Fest are launching many Ann Arbor shoppers into the holiday shopping season, with several downtown stores open late and offering special deals, I’d like to start by sharing a couple of thoughts about that, and by sharing a Twitter hashtag: #a2shoplocal. 

Local Shops, Local Shopping

What I enjoy about spending money locally is seeing the direct link between what I spend and the livelihood of the people – my neighbors, in some sense – who are getting my business.

It’s not abstract.

The ownership isn’t dispersed worldwide through shares of stock, or at a corporate headquarters in New York or Los Angeles or Bentonville, Arkansas. You can actually talk to the person who makes decisions about the business. You run into them at Michigan Theater or Michigan Stadium, at Arbor Brewing or Knight’s Market, The Ark or Power Center. They might, when sufficiently provoked, even turn up at a city council meeting.

The global economy has reached a level of complexity that we might feel like we have no control over what happens in our local communities. But in a very concrete way, we do have that control. We can choose where we spend our money, and how. And that has a tangible impact on where we live, work, play – and shop. It doesn’t take rampant consumerism to make this work. But it does take a shift in our spending habits.

So in the spirit of taking action and not (simply) wringing my hands, I’ve started highlighting local options on Twitter, using the hashtag #a2shoplocal – stores, restaurants, events, online businesses (run by local folks) and items like gift certificates for Ann Arbor parks and recreation. It’s an idiosyncratic collection of things that strike me as worth noting, as I come across them, and obviously not all inclusive.

But anyone can use the #a2shoplocal hashtag – and I hope you readers who always keep your Twitter feed within arm’s reach will do that, too. At least for the Twitterverse, it could be a low effort, possibly high impact way to share suggestions and keep the “Buy Local” meme alive. While this message gets more traction during the holidays – when almost everyone is on the hunt for gifts – it needs to stick beyond December.

Three Local Business Milestones

People deciding to shop at locally-owned businesses have made it possible for the following folks to celebrate their own milestones.

Nina Juergens once told me that she opened Acme Mercantile because it’s the kind of store where she wanted to be able to shop downtown. Nothing like it existed, so she created it herself. (She also owns Salon Vertigo on Fourth Avenue, so it’s not like she needed something to fill her days.)

The West Liberty store, which celebrated its 9th anniversary in November, reflects the quirkiness of Nina’s vision. It’s a place where you can buy shoelaces and duct tape, dish soap and rubber gloves, chew toys for your pup, lovely flax clothing, tea, gag gifts, clocks, pens, gum – you get the idea. Nina also makes her own “Canned Acme” by filling what looks like an oversized soup can with merchandise, then using a device that seals a metal lid on it. You don’t know exactly what you’ll get, but that’s the charm.

Nina has also been a long-time supporter of the Ann Arbor skatepark, and is a member for the Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark board of directors. (The group is working toward a goal of $1 million, to build the skatepark at the city’s Veterans Memorial Park.) That passion is reflected in the store, which sells skatepark merchandise – T-shirts, mugs, keychains, skateboard decks and “Canned Skateboard” – to promote and raise money for the project.

And since it’s the season, Acme is selling skatepark Christmas cards, too.

Le Dog

Le Dog's Main Street location, managed by Ika Van Dyck-Dobos, opened in 1996. The metal sculpture adorning the napkin box is by Middy Potter, an artist at the neighboring WSG Gallery – which is celebrating its 12th year anniversary.

While Acme is celebrating nine years, around the corner, Le Dog is marking 15 years at its “satellite” shop in the former Kline’s vestibule at 306 S. Main.

Jules Van Dyck-Dobos opened the original Le Dog in 1979, and if you don’t know the small red hut near the corner of Liberty & Thompson and the amazing soups concocted there, I’m not sure you really can claim to be from these parts.

In many ways, Jules and his wife Ika – who runs Le Dog’s Main Street location – are my heroes. There is no one else doing what they do. Le Dog is extraordinary, eccentric and grounded in this community. It’s a place where the personality of the owners is front and center, where the signs are hand-written, and where you’ll find a photo of the family’s third-generation newborn posted on the window.

There are no empire-building, franchise-proliferating expansion plans. No focus-group-driven decisions about what to serve, no social-media-savvy campaigns to bring in more customers. It’s a small, old-school business that provides a living for a family and jobs for a few other employees.

In rummaging around the Internets for this column, I stumbled onto a 2007 review of Le Dog written by Domenica Trevor – who coincidentally now writes an occasional book column for The Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt that captures some of the reasons why Jules and Ika have staying power:

Among some in town, Van Dyck-Dobos is considered to be, well, curt (OK, he’s been called Ann Arbor’s very own Soup Nazi), a reputation reinforced by such Le Dog signage as “If you’re talking on your cell phone, don’t talk to me!” and “No Coke! No Pepsi! No soda! Ever!” One could argue, however, that the clown who requests that he “hold the cream” or the cretin asking for the salt shaker deserves a measure of disdain.

And consider this: A friend whose mother was laid up with a broken leg explained the sad situation to Van Dyck-Dobos, who agreed to make her a few gallons of his freezer-friendly Italian wedding and six-bean soups. Loving daughter drove them to upstate New York, divided them into serving-size portions and stashed them, providing soul-deep sustenance until Mom was back on both feet. So. Meditate on such kindness. And be glad he won’t sell you soda – that stuff rots your head. Have the lemonade!

Another family business passed a milestone that’s also measured in decades. Bob Anderson of Anderson Paint Co. runs the business that was founded by his grandfather and that’s now located on West Stadium Boulevard. In a recent newsletter, Bob included some reflections about those early days:

This year marks our 60th year in business, so we thought it would be nice to talk a little bit about the founder, and our Grandfather, William Brady Anderson. After a year long stint of working at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York as a Chassis Lecturer for General Motors, Brady decided to move his young family back to Pontiac, Michigan. There he found a job working for the Pontiac Varnish Company as a Bookkeeper.

There were opportunities for promotion within the company at that time managing the various stores located all around the state, so Brady jumped at the opportunity to manage the Ann Arbor store in 1946. In 1949 Pontiac Varnish Company decided to get out of the retail paint business and offered each manager the opportunity to purchase their store. Brady saw this as an opportunity to be his own boss, sold his small side business of renting radios, took the proceeds of that sale and bought the Ann Arbor store.

In the late 1940s there was plenty of competition right smack dab in downtown Ann Arbor. Our store was located at the corner of Fifth and Washington, currently where the Garris Law Firm is now located. At that time Sherwin Williams, Pittsburgh Paint, and Glidden all had company-owned stores within a four block radius of Anderson Paint Company.

Brady decided to focus on the do-it-yourselfer, rather than the paint contractor at that time to differentiate himself from the competition. He figured out that to be successful selling to retail customers, he needed to provide higher quality products and exceptional service. It was not uncommon for Brady to make “house calls” for his customers to help them solve problems. This philosophy of providing high quality products and exceptional service for all of our customers is still our goal 60 years later. Our family is indebted to Brady for having the courage and entrepreneurial spirit to start his own business.

Congratulations to Bob, Jules and Ika, Nina and all the other local business owners who’ve carried on despite the odds.

Do you have a milestone to share? Drop me a line at and we’ll try to include it in an upcoming Chronicle monthly milestone column.

About the writer: Mary Morgan is publisher and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle could not survive to count each milestone without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of local government and civic affairs. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!


  1. December 2, 2011 at 1:20 pm | permalink

    Mary, I’ve noticed that your tweets have been celebrating local vendors, and I retweeted one of them because I consider this to be a noble enterprise. My husband’s comment was “why are you retweeting spam?” which led to a teachable moment about supporting our local businesses. Go! Go! As far as I’m concerned, Anderson’s is the only paint company around.

  2. December 3, 2011 at 10:30 am | permalink

    For many years we had a grocery store in the core downtown, the Capitol Market. The former proprietor, John Kokales, just died a few weeks ago.

  3. By Rod Johnson
    December 3, 2011 at 10:51 am | permalink

    Thanks for letting us know, Jim. The Capitol Market (and that whole block of old-school 4th Ave) is getting to be a fading memory now, the good going with the bad.