The lights from the Michigan Theater have shone for more than 80 years, but its constant presence has been the exception rather than the rule for businesses on East Liberty Street.
In recent years the street has seen a shuffle of businesses, most notably the closure of the flagship Borders bookstore in 2011. But the transformation of the Borders space was one of many over the course of the street’s history.
Before Borders, Jacobson’s department store occupied the space on the corner of East Liberty and Maynard Street, until it moved to Briarwood Mall in the 80s.
When Susan Pollay, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, first moved to Ann Arbor in 1983 she could buy everything she needed to live downtown, noting the multiple clothing, food and service stores that existed in the area, including Jacobson’s. She added that you still can find a wide variety of shops downtown, but East Liberty in particular has given way to coffee shops and restaurants.
While Jacobson’s gave shoppers a reason to go downtown, Pollay said Borders provided an anchor for local businesses.
“It became its own kind of experience and, like Jacobson’s before it, Borders had an enormous advertising budget and an enormous ability to pull in those name authors,” Pollay said. “These huge names came to do book readings and from that again businesses nearby thrived because they sat off of the Borders space.”
Borders declared bankruptcy and left the street temporarily vacant, but it wasn’t alone: East Liberty has seen a lot of storefront turnover in the past few years. Some spaces, such as the former @Burger and Grand Traverse Pie Company space, saw two businesses come and go within nearly four years — each restaurant stayed in business for less than a year.
Pollay cited the Borders closure, the struggling economy and an increase in outlet and online shopping as the causes of the turnover on the street, adding that Ann Arbor isn’t as insulated from the struggling economy as people think.
“I think things were pretty fragile here for a while, and I don’t know that we all understand just how fragile it is to have an independent business,” Pollay said.
Though there are still a few empty storefronts, Pollay said she sees the street growing and evolving to support a different clientele than in the past: tech workers. Two tech companies, Menlo Innovations and Barracuda Networks, relocated to the East Liberty corridor in the past two years, which Pollay said will bring a more stable customer base than that of students, who aren’t in the city year-round and don’t necessarily venture down the street.
“The neighborhood is going to change because the new economy fortunately includes a lot of folks who are doing very well in tech businesses and those employees are now spending their money locally in that neighborhood,” Pollay said.
Anna Flynn of Menlo Innovations said though they have only been in their East Liberty location for about a year and a half, employees enjoy being close to all the shops and restaurants that State Street, Main Street and East Liberty have to offer. Flynn added that they are excited for the new businesses moving into the former Borders building.
“We love being downtown and close to everything and seeing Liberty grow and change,” Flynn said. “I think that East Liberty is in the middle of town, but it’s not on Main Street or on State Street so you can get the best of both worlds.”
Tom Hackett, who has owned the Afternoon Delight restaurant on East Liberty for 35 years, said the street has seen a steady decline in foot traffic and overall business since the 1990s. Hackett said he believes people don’t come to Ann Arbor to shop anymore.
Hackett added that because the area has become home to an increasing amount of restaurants in comparison to other properties, he has shifted the restaurant’s focus toward catering to offset the decrease in business.
Russ Collins, executive director and CEO of the Michigan Theater and an Ann Arbor native, said though the Michigan Theater has been a long-standing presence on Liberty, it has seen a long term decline in patrons.
The theater was almost shut down in 1979 after the company running it left following a 50-year lease, but Collins said the community rallied to save the theater.
Collins has seen a lot of change on East Liberty — including the departures of Jacobson’s and Borders — and he believes the Michigan Theater is the true anchor business on the street, given how long it has been in existence, the consistent customers it draws in and the vitality it brings to the street.
Having grown up in Ann Arbor, Collins said it’s hard to define exactly how downtown Ann Arbor and East Liberty have changed because the area never stops evolving. He added that while stores and restaurants frequently move in and out of downtown, that’s the nature of business.
“There has been constant change in Ann Arbor in general, but in the downtown specifically,” Collins said. “There’s an old saying that the only constant in the universe is change, and that is absolutely true.”