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Posted on Sun, Dec 9, 2012 : 5:57 a.m.

How Ann Arbor's South State Street area is thriving as an apparel shopping district

By Lizzy Alfs


The Van Boven clothing store in downtown Ann Arbor has been reaching a younger demographic in the past few years.

Joseph Tobianski |

Clothing is a cornerstone of Ann Arbor’s South State Street corridor.

From longtime retailers like Van Boven and Renaissance to newer stores like Pitaya and Pink Pump, there are more than a dozen clothing shops in the few-block radius near the University of Michigan’s Diag.

And it’s no surprise retailers are attracted to South State, said Tom Heywood, executive director of the State Street Area Association: “Clothing has always played a part in this neighborhood because faculty and students have bought clothes forever.”

But the South State corridor, like other parts of downtown, has seen businesses come and go, including the flagship Borders store on East Liberty. Other retail spaces in the area have been converted to restaurants, such as the former Shaman Drum Bookshop.

In an age where consumers are spending less and turning to online shopping, the question is: How do brick-and-mortar retailers find success?

Here are some approaches the clothing retailers — some newer and some decades old — take to drive sales, attract customers and ensure longevity.

Create a community of businesses

It’s all about critical mass, Heywood said.

When one business owner finds success in an area, other entrepreneurs will be drawn there. It’s beneficial to create a community of like-minded businesses.

The Getup Vintage clothing store owner Kelly McLeod said it was that community feeling that convinced her to open her store on South State in 2005.

“It has become a desination to walk down State Street,” she said. “It really helped us having neighbors, even if it’s not similar apparel, it’s a shopping destination.”


Van Boven and Bivouac have been neighbors on South State Street for decades.

Joseph Tobianski |

For newer boutique owner Johnny Vaughn, business is about collaboration, not competition. Vaughn and his business partner, Wendy Chapman, opened two stores in Nickels Arcade in the past two years.

“A lot of us (business owners) are working together to try and get more ideas and to focus on State Street as an emerging fashion apparel area,” he said. “We have customers who shop at Bivouac, American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, but they still come to us for what we have to offer, too.”

Business owners also said supporting Washtenaw County’s Think Local First organization and the buy local movement in general is feeding that community feel.

Expand your market

Ed Davidson’s fashion and outdoor store on South State has gone through countless evolutions. Originally an army surplus store in the 1970s, Davidson has transformed Bivouac into a popular shopping destination.

Most important to his business model, he said, is that he’s able to capture both the student population and other Ann Arbor demographics.

“Basically, you have to have what people want — not just students,” he said. “That’s the ultimate answer. The students are only here September through the beginning of May, if I can’t do something that attracts non-students, it’s going to be a problem.”

On the other hand, Van Boven has been selling high-end clothes — and shoes at its neighboring store — to university professors and other employees for 90 years.

But employee Alex McEachern said lately, the family-owned store has been expanding its reach to a younger demographic: “I think it’s safe to say at this point, we have more college students coming into the store than ever before.”

Be trend forward

When Van Boven opened, McEachern said the store stocked some 600 suits. But as Ann Arbor’s tastes changed, so did the store.

“Now, we probably have less than 100 (suits) and that’s because Ann Arbor has gotten to be much more casual,” he said.

Stores like Pitaya, Urban Outfitters and American Apparel have been successful in capturing big business from the student demographic — largely because they stay on top of fashion trends.

Bivouac, also, is constantly changing its inventory based on people’s tastes.


In order to compete with big boxes and online shopping, Bivouac owner Ed Davidson will price match anything in his store. file photo

“I edit clothing lines to what I think the people in Ann Arbor want,” Davidson said.

Heywood added: “If you’re not constantly renewing your inventory and your styles, you can quickly get out of date. The one thing you know about clothing is people hate being out of date.”

Van Boven Shoes owner Rich Bellas, also board president of the State Street Area Association, said he’s gotten on board with Facebook and other social media sites to stay on top of emerging marketing trends.

Emphasize good service

There’s a common sentiment among small business owners: service is absolutely crucial to retaining customers and getting people in your door.

That’s why some stores — like Bivouac — will price match anything in the store with other businesses and the Internet.

“I want my customers to know they will not pay a nickel more to shop here,” Davidson said. “If I have to make 5 percent or 1 percent, that’s OK with me.”

McLeod said helping customers find things in the store, even acting as personal shoppers when a customer asks for help, convinces shoppers to patronize The Getup Vintage rather than buy online.

That good service, for many business owners, creates a fiercely loyal customer base.

“We have customers from all over the country and even beyond,” McEachern said. “Parents and alumni know Van Boven and they come back, especially during football season. We have customers that we see five times a football season and they’re coming in from San Diego.”

Community involvement

Bellas said participating in community events — like SHEI Magazine’s fashion show — help create awareness.

Also helpful, several business owners agreed, is reaching out to the growing number of office employees in the State Street area. Barracuda Network’s recent move to a building on Maynard Street brought 200 additional employees to the area.

“We have new Barracuda employees, Google, and all these high tech companies,” Bellas said. “Mobiata is in (Nickels Arcade) now. We’ve got these great businesses that we have to foster and get behind to support.”

Bellas also noted that when a business owner gives back to the community, the community will, in turn, want to support that store.

Davidson added: “Ann Arbor likes a downtown. It’s not typically a mall community…(people) want a vibrant downtown.”

Lizzy Alfs is a business reporter for Reach her at 734-623-2584 or email her at Follow her on Twitter at



Mon, Dec 10, 2012 : 5:12 p.m.

"The Van Boven clothing store in downtown Ann Arbor has been reaching a younger demographic in the past few years." The only reason this is happening is because the 1%ers are moving to town into the lux student high rises. Any kid whose parents can afford these $1000/bed lux places can afford the overpriced Van Boven clothing.


Tue, Dec 11, 2012 : 7:30 p.m.

Well said, AEM.


Tue, Dec 11, 2012 : 4:39 a.m.

JRW, that's such a simple way of thinking about this article. You might take a step back and realize that not every store is meant for the masses. U of M produces many alumni that come back and are happy to spend money in the Ann Arbor area. Van Boven is a special place that exists thanks to the wealth that U of M spreads and alumni decides to spend here. Without it there might be another massive hole like you see where Borders and Campus Book & Supply used to fill. Before you knock down a high end store like Van Boven - which has survived 90 plus years, the Great Depression, etc. - you might take a step back and appreciate the number of employees it has housed over the years and the amount of charity it has provided the area. The 1% that you mention actually isn't as evil as you think it is.


Mon, Dec 10, 2012 : 4:40 p.m.

While tecnically that is the Sourth leg of State Street my first thought was this is going to be a holiday article about the Salvation Army Family thrift shop (1621 and Stimpson). What a surprise! But now I am wondering what developers' really have in mind when they talk about monkeying around with the S. State St. corridor.


Sun, Dec 9, 2012 : 8:58 p.m.

I was browsing in Van Boven in late November. When I commented to one of the employees there about the high price of a nice looking shirt (it was $195), he replied that that's what shirts are going for nowadays. Maybe in his store they are. I thought it was outrageous.


Wed, Dec 12, 2012 : 12:55 a.m.

They did not qualify for any discount as they are not affiliated with UM (or any university) in any way.


Tue, Dec 11, 2012 : 7:28 p.m.

Were your friends able to get the 5% discount on their son's shirt?


Tue, Dec 11, 2012 : 7:26 p.m.

So sorry.


Tue, Dec 11, 2012 : 11:50 a.m.

Skeptical? What, do you think I made it up? I can assure you I did not. Two friends I was with (married couple) decided in fact to buy a "less expensive" shirt at $175 for their son as a Christmas present. I subsequently asked a woman I know how much a nice woman's blouse went for, curious because commonly women's clothing is more expensive than an equivalent item for men. The cost ranged quite widely but averaged about $100-$150 (she checked some catalogues she had). By the way, the shirts in question at Van Boven were not made in the USA (to address your China/Walmart comment). I can't remember exactly where they were made but I think it was somewhere in Europe.


Mon, Dec 10, 2012 : 5:49 p.m.

Skeptical about your account of the employees response. Check out Walmart, made in China. Some real bargains on "nice looking shirts".


Sun, Dec 9, 2012 : 4:01 p.m.

I know that Huron is the division between north and south on State St. But I imagine most people think of South State Street Area as south of Hill, or Stadium. Indeed, isn't that what is now being studied as an entrance to the city as part of the South State Street Corridor Study? Beginning south of Stimson... I always thought of the area being discussed here as central State or Central Campus Area.

Kitty O'Brien

Mon, Dec 10, 2012 : 5:57 a.m.

Agree, DJBud. I thought 'What clothing stores are there near The Produce Station'.


Sun, Dec 9, 2012 : 5:43 p.m.

The name of the street is South State Street...


Sun, Dec 9, 2012 : 3:12 p.m.

My wife and I enjoy visiting and shopping in and around the Nickels Arcade area. Van Boven, Bivouac, Wendy's, etc. have always shown that high-level of personal service you simply don't see any more. And Comet Coffee is definitely the best coffee shop in Ann Arbor. There was a time when the panhandlers gave the area a less than safe feeling. However, thanks to Councilwoman Jane Lumm and a few other city officials, that is no longer seems to be an issue.


Mon, Dec 10, 2012 : 5:14 p.m.

No panhandlers around the Arcade? You and I must be living in different AA bubbles. I'm down there a lot and always see the usual panhandling suspects.


Sun, Dec 9, 2012 : 3:07 p.m.

Great article! There is more to downtown than wonderful restaurants. Nickels Arcade is a wonderful destination. I shop on State St more now than I ever did as a student.


Sun, Dec 9, 2012 : 3:01 p.m.

I have not walked downtown Ann Arbor in ages. But when I was there there other day, I walked thru the old Nickels Arcade. It still had its old world charm. The nick knack store at the other end is still there and brought back memories of an 11 year old wanting everything in that store. The used bookstore is still our favorite. I have to attest to the fact that if it is still needed? It won't go out of business. Now, what are they going to do with the old Kresege and Border stores I wonder?