The day after Christmas, I took a trip with a couple of friends to Midtown in Detroit. We spent an hour at the Detroit Historical Museum — worth a visit, I should add — and when we finished walking through the late 19th century replica town on the basement floor, we drove over to Traffic Jam and Snug for lunch.
Located on Second and Canfield streets in Cass Corridor, Traffic Jam and Snug sits next to several new stores and across from a crowded parking lot. These stores include Shinola, the Detroit-based watch and leather company, and Third Man Records, the Jack White-owned record store that opened in November.
In all respects, both Shinola and Third Man Records are destination stores; the carefully designed displays, good music and overall cool vibe makes them worth the 45-minute drive from home. But it wasn’t only the physical products (which at Shinola were well out of my budget) and the smell of incense wafting through Third Man Records that struck me as special or unique, though they are. It’s that both stores, aside from being saturated with an overwhelmingly white clientele — a topic for a different, serious conversation — appear committed to local manufacturing. That’s something you don’t see every day.
Shinola is in the middle of building a watch-dial factory, which when finished, will be visible to shoppers through a transparent window as they walk from the middle to the back of the store.
Tucked in the back of Third Man, shoppers will soon look onto a 10,000-square-foot vinyl record press which will manufacture records 24/7 for artists and bands signed with the label as well as other local acts. Right now, the space is effectively empty, but ideally by the middle of this year, eight presses imported from Germany will be operating and, according to Third Man co-founder Ben Blackwell, teaching the public — or at least those who walk through the building — that “all this stuff is alive and well.” This stuff meaning vinyl.
Of course, this isn’t the perfect story of homegrown, authentic Detroit manufacturing. Shinola was recently questioned by the Federal Trade Commission for the “Built in Detroit” mark on its watches. Why? Because even though it is accurate the watches are assembled within the city limits of Detroit, none of the parts are manufactured in America. Because they come from Switzerland, Thailand and China, Shinola could be violating the FTC requirement saying “all or virtually all” parts must be manufactured in the United States in order for retailers to claim their products are “Made in U.S.A.” As of now, Shinola maintains it’s not being misleading because it’s open about where its parts are from. That’s certainly up for debate.
Also, Shinola was founded by Bedrock Manufacturing, an investment firm based in Texas owned by Tom Kartsotis, a co-founder of Fossil — another watchmaking company! And the name Shinola comes from a half-century defunct shoe polish company — from New York.
As for Third Man, while no one should criticize Jack White for this, the company is based in Nashville. Furthermore, White hasn’t always had a strong relationship with Detroit, saying he left the city early in his career because it was challenging to live and create there. However, it’s worth noting that he did pay off the Masonic Temple’s $142,000 in back taxes in 2013 to keep the building from foreclosing.
From all of this, it’s easy to see how what these companies are doing can be perceived as merely opportunistic, taking advantage of Detroit’s gritty reputation and history of manufacturing to profit. Especially in the case of Shinola, where none of its founders are even from Detroit, it’s using this image of the city to sell madly expensive luxury items, products the average person cannot possibly afford or justify paying for.
For me, that’s uncomfortable and feels a bit like a farce. At the same time, though, I’m asking myself, “So what?”
No matter where these people come from or where the company is based, there is an immense value in bringing the value of manufacturing and hand-crafted goods to the forefront. For the people who will shop at these places (and again, there’s an entire conversation on the astounding and concerning lack of racial diversity at the stores), they’re going to be exposed to the creation of physical goods. They’ll see the records being pressed and the bevy of parts being carefully assembled into a wearable timepiece.
In a time when everything seems to be moving up to the cloud and it is way too easy to order whatever I want from Amazon, Shinola is saying timekeeping is an art not to be taken for granted. Third Man is musing that music shouldn’t just travel on circuit boards and servers. And both of those reasons make critiquing these companies extremely difficult.
I’m not quite sure how to balance this point with the questionable authenticity of these companies. Maybe it’s just a matter of trying to be a more informed consumer.
That said, there’s no doubt that as Detroit continues to progress economically, this balancing act won’t be going away. The people and leadership of the city need to ask themselves soon whether outsiders coming in should be given the absolute right to monetize its culture. The answer will define what kind of city Detroit is going to be.
The clock is ticking.
Derek Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.