Liberty St. sees changing stores

Terra Molengraff/Daily
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By Alyssa Adler, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 19, 2011

Though once bustling with heavy foot traffic, East Liberty Street has recently lost much of its usual crowd.

With the recent closures of several local stores including Borders, Inc., much of the southeast corner of South State and East Liberty streets has been left vacant. With the empty storefronts, many business owners have mixed feelings about the area.

Ralph Welton, chief development official of the city of Ann Arbor, said he has seen a variety of businesses come and go throughout the years, but the most successful establishments on East Liberty Street are the ones that appeal to students and Ann Arbor residents.

“I think that it’s vital that (business owners) understand that...they have to perform their business to the local population as well as the students.”

Tom Yon, owner of Tomukun Noodle Bar at 505 East Liberty St., said he turned the challenges of his business into opportunities for improvement and vitality.

“As a business owner, you can’t just sit back and relax and think people are just going to start pouring into your door and buying your stuff,” Yon said. “You’ve got to keep fresh and be on your toes all of the time.”

Yon, who opened Tomukun in spring 2010, said he thinks for a business to be successful in the area, it needs to be “unique and fresh.”

“People want something that they like and something unique — not just the same old burger place or Middle Eastern restaurant, or the same old candy shop,” he said.

Two stores on East Liberty — clothing store Poshh and candy store This & That — closed within the last week. Poshh owner Wendy Batiste-Johnson identified her desire to spend more time with her family as the main reason for the store closing. However, Andrea Graef, owner of This & That, cited an increase in panhandling on the street and nearby competition as factors in her store’s closure.

Batiste-Johnson, whose store closed on Oct. 30 after 10 years of business, said when she traveled to New York and Los Angeles to buy clothes for her store, she would specifically look for unknown designers and unique brands to keep shoppers’ interest.

“My goal was to find the new designer,” Batiste-Johnson said. “And I can honestly tell you that over the 10 years we have been here, we have been one of the first retailers in Michigan, and in the country, to sell certain designers who have completely blown up.”

Batiste-Johnson added that a friendly staff and high-quality customer service are important parts of having a successful business.

“(Something) that is known at Poshh is we really pride ourselves on making sure all of our customers are happy,” Batiste-Johnson said. “If you provide customers with that type of dedication to their service, then they will in turn give you dedication.”

Batiste-Johnson added that she has been more than happy having her business on the “vibrant street” that is East Liberty.

“For me, it was a bridge between the University and the city,” she said. “I think it’s the connector street so that you can attract a larger clientele.”

Abraham Hejazi, owner of Allure Boutique located at 607 E. Liberty St., echoed these sentiments and said creating a loyal customer base keeps the business afloat even when the economy suffers.

“In order to be successful in business, you have to have friends,” Hejazi said. “You have to get the students to like you because if the students don’t like you, (you) suffer because this is a student town.”

Yon added that being located in the working district of Ann Arbor attracts more customers to his restaurant.

“Being next to Google, being next to a lot of the offices, it definitely helps out,” he said. “When I thought about opening in Ann Arbor, this was where I wanted to open. I can’t complain.”

Hejazi said one of the reasons stores have been closing on East Liberty Street is the high rent rates.

“What happens is every year it goes up 1 or 2 percent,” he said. “With this economy and the lease going up so much, if you think about it, it’s really not worth it.”

Hejazi, whose boutique has been a part of the East Liberty Street community for 11 years, said he plans on relocating his business to somewhere on State Street in the future.

“Liberty is a great location because of the Michigan Theatre,” he said. “It was a good location because of Borders, but I don’t think Liberty is really a great location anymore. If I could, I would move tomorrow to State Street.”

Welton said Borders is currently trying to sell its lease, which stretched into the next decade. He added that it is possible the space could be split into three business areas. In terms of the businesses that will occupy the empty space, Welton said there is no definite interested party.