Column: A Voice from the Past Calls Out

Remembering South U's roots, and hoping for a better future
Bob Dascola

Bob Dascola of Dascola Barbers on South State.

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.

About the writer: Bob Dascola of Dascola Barbers, a family-owned Ann Arbor business, is active in the downtown business community. He is a board member of the State Street Area Association.


  1. April 7, 2009 at 2:42 pm | permalink

    Last night, before Council started, I took the time to read Bob Dascola’s memories.

    Whether you think we live in a small city or a large town, it’s the people who make living here worthwhile. Thank you, Bob, for making certain we remember that shopping in Ann Arbor should be textured and interesting — and about the people who run the businesses as much as about where the businesses are.

  2. By Bob Snyder
    April 7, 2009 at 5:56 pm | permalink

    Bob Dascola’s “memories of South U” describes, in a real human story way, what South University, as both a neighborhood and a business destination once was and could hopefully become. It’s not the proposed high-rises, dense-packed with (if you believe the hype) wealthy students and city-living loving “Young Working Professionals. No, it’s the diverse mix of locally-owned businesses and their local owners/retailers. Somehow, it was able to work for many decades, without the influx of thousands of new residents, until sometime in the 1980′s when it began to deteriorate. It’s possible that, with a proper mix of locally-owned, neighborhood involved retail businesses, South U could re-invent itself whether or not another 150-foot tall building was built or not!

  3. By Vivienne Armentrout
    April 7, 2009 at 8:01 pm | permalink

    I moved here in 1986 and since we lived within easy walking distance of South U, we spent a fair amount of time there. We loved the Community News Center and hung out there a lot. We also liked the Bagel Factory and patronized Ulrich’s. I’m sad about what happened to the area. I haven’t been there in years (even less since the “real” Art Fair moved), so can’t make many pronouncements, but it seemed somehow more genuine in those days. I hope that Steve’s Lunch still thrives. That was one of the places I took visitors.

  4. By anon
    April 7, 2009 at 9:04 pm | permalink

    Will someone just say it? The Galleria, like its counterpart Tally Hall, has been an exercise in what not to do. Future development beware.

  5. By Mitch
    April 7, 2009 at 9:17 pm | permalink

    You are clearly nostalgic for the lost “good mix” of wholesome family-owned shops on South University. Has it ever occurred to you, though, that the makeup of the avenue might have changed because the demands and needs of its patrons, or maybe even the times in general, have changed (you yourself refer to the street as “campus”)? I think I can speak for my fellow students when I say we would much rather keep the few bars, restaurants, and shops we’ve got (chains or not) than exchange them for the joy one man might derive from being able to buy watch batteries and groceries in one convenient trip. If I need groceries I’ll go to the White Market, Produce Station, or god forbid take the bus to Busch’s. If I need a watch battery I’ll go to the shop on State Street or buy one online. Or is it that you, like many of Ann Arbor’s wealthy middle-aged residents, would rather the entire campus be tailored specifically for your occasional stroll through campus with your young kids/grand-kids, with no concern for the wants/desires of the students who give this city a reason to exist in the first place?

  6. By Susan
    April 7, 2009 at 9:29 pm | permalink

    Steve’s Lunch is long gone. I miss it.

  7. By Stephanie
    April 8, 2009 at 7:19 am | permalink

    Sheesh, Mitch, you’re comments are pretty harsh. And you’re missing the point of the article.

  8. By Dave Askins
    April 8, 2009 at 7:46 am | permalink

    “If I need groceries I’ll go to the White Market, Produce Station, or god forbid take the bus to Busch’s.”

    I’m glad that this perspective was represented in the comments. It highlights the fact that one of the stated strategies for helping the commercial/retail mix in the area is incomplete. That strategy is this: If high concentrations of residents (here, students) live nearby, they will be a captive audience for retail there.

    As Mitch points out, it’s not THAT onerous a trip to just go to Busch’s. It’s not like one needs to mount a 3-hour expedition to go there. And Busch’s has batteries, blank CDs, donuts, frozen broccoli, pork chops, fresh flowers, potato chips, and a wide selection of candy.

    So we don’t have a situation where the audience is captive — downtown in general or South U. specifically. We have a situation where the audience is really close — which is certainly an advantage to retailers who would like to sell something to that audience. To complete the strategy, those retailers offer something that the nearby audience wants to buy, or offer an experience that the nearby audience wants to enjoy.

    I see Mitch’s comments as reflecting the view that Bob’s recollection doesn’t necessarily square up with a scenario where Mitch will be spending dollars in the South. U. area. Which is fair enough.

  9. By Vivienne Armentrout
    April 8, 2009 at 8:05 am | permalink

    I think Mitch’s comments are revelatory about some of the stereotypes that students (not, I hope, all of them) hold about the established residents of Ann Arbor. If often middle-aged or older (but I know of many young families), we are not all wealthy. His comments invite quite a few “back at ya” comments involving stereotypes of students and the high cost of sponsoring the UM in our town. And Mitch, South U is not part of the campus, yet. It is the only shopping area near much of the east side, so might also serve those (non-student) households. I’m now on the west side so this is less personal than it would have been, but I still remember the feeling of isolation.

    Wonder how easy it is to take the bus or a bike from the South U neighborhood to Busch’s? I assume that we are talking about the South Main store rather than the Plymouth store?

  10. By my two cents
    April 8, 2009 at 8:43 am | permalink

    The reason why these stores no longer exist on South U. is because people did not actually shop there. Many non-students like to stroll down the streets but they did not spend money. Like it or not the students like to spend their money on different things than young families or middle-aged residents. The students spend money locally that is why the retail reflects their interests.

    The next time you are traveling to the mall, target, homedepot etc. turn around and try and buy that item at a downtown establishment. Shopping downtown whenever possible will help bring in more diverse businesses to the area if the shop owners can see a potential customer base.

  11. By jcp2
    April 8, 2009 at 1:01 pm | permalink

    I see Mitch’s point. There has to be a compelling social reason to “Think Local”, as many of the goods and services formerly available in the South U district are easily available in bog box stores or on the internet at very competitive prices. South U may have been a shopping area for local residents in the past, but I think of the surrounding area as being either student residences or wealthy households in the Angell and Burns Park neighborhoods, so Mitch’s view may be closer to the truth than we would like.

  12. By susan wineberg
    April 8, 2009 at 3:29 pm | permalink

    One of the amazing things about the South University area is that it is still almost totally devoid of chains and has a high percentage of locally owned shops. Think of Middle Earth, China Gate, or Footprints among the many shops that are still there. I walked down South U everyday when I was a student in the 60s and shopped at many of the stores. They seemed to appeal to both townie and student alike. Today it seems that most of the shops are for students only, and the percentage of bars has increased dramatically. Students are the ‘captive audience’ but they would probably benefit from having stores that appealed to townies as well. A shop like Middle Earth does that, but it seems to be an exception. The surprising number of chains on State and Liberty haven’t hurt their bottom lines. Seems like if you want to shop local you should shop on South U! What this points up is that a study should be made of shopping habits that would allow us to make more informed decisions about what to encourage and where. Then maybe we could cut out the nasty personal comments.

  13. By jjf
    April 9, 2009 at 12:34 pm | permalink

    Bottom line, times have changed and we’ll never recapture yesteryear, nor should we strive to. What worked in the 50′s and 60′s won’t work today because we are dealing with an entirely different era in time. Peoples wants and needs have changed. Values and priorites have changed. How people spent their time has changed. We simply don’t live in the same world as we did 40 or 50 years ago. Why set goals and agendas as if we did? Doesn’t it make more sense to redefine what makes a sucessful downtown by todays standards? The memories are nice, but that’s all they are……memories.

  14. By Josh
    April 9, 2009 at 5:45 pm | permalink

    Mitch’s comments make sense. He loves going to bars and Bob doesn’t.

  15. April 9, 2009 at 5:57 pm | permalink

    Bob asks who will be the next Fred Ulrich of downtown. I’ll scale that back to the South U business district and rephrase it in terms of the role of community pillar or leader, rather than a more limited person/personality. Today that role might be filled by the South U merchants association. It might have a partner in the DDA and a group like Think Local First. Of course, there may also be some long-term individual business owners whose experience is very valuable.

    The value of knowing who is the go-to entity may still be one of the more important pieces of information for a prospective business owner. Bob’s account doesn’t quite argue that, but it is an interesting first-hand examination in search of clues from the past for the key(s) to future success. I enjoyed it.

  16. By Kathleen Ransom
    April 10, 2009 at 9:12 am | permalink

    Oh, the wonderful memories! Thank you, Bob for sharing the realities of the former South U. I too, grew up as a member of this wonderful community. I have very fond memories of all the people you mentioned, and many more. There was a time when it felt like we were one big family, but I have to agree with JJF’s comment: “times have changed and we’ll never recapture yesteryear”. We are very fortunate to have been a part of that generation and I will always cherish the memories of all of our family, friends, and neighbors.

  17. By Al Burdi
    April 13, 2009 at 2:26 pm | permalink

    An absolutely wonderful article! What you portray in your writing brings back many, many memories of A2 and, especially South U. When I cam to A2 in 1959 alone and without friends, I soon was “taken” in by the Paron Family at the Brown Jug. And, they will always be remembered. How about Chester Roberts; Miller Ice Cream shop where the tall monstrosity in located on South U; the Village Apothecary where we drank wine in Fred Kreyes cellar the night before getting married; and remember Ollie McLaughlin who had a radio show [Ollie's Caravan] broadcasted from the back booth at the Jug. I was there for the very first ART Fair and helped the Fillecias, Milt Moore and others assemble the framework for the booths for more than ten years.
    Ah…those were the days are indelibly my memory. And, Bob you hit it right on the head in describing Fred Ulrich. He was indeed the “concert master” on South to make sure [as you so nicely point out] to make sure the right “mix” of businesses were on South U.
    Robert…you have done an absolutely wonderful job in bringing me back to the halcyon years of South U. My hat off to you! Your article should be in the Ann Arbor News before it dies in July.