The Mercury Burger Bar on Michigan Avenue has become one of Emily Gail's regular stops when she's visiting the city she famously said nice things about. (Neal Rubin / The Detroit News)
It’s been 28 years since she lived here, but the first customer Emily Gail walks past at the Mercury Burger Bar stops her for a selfie.
If that’s a tribute to how young she looks a month shy of 68, it’s also a measure of what she still means.
“Say nice things about Detroit,” she said in the old days, and said and said and printed on T-shirts and even airborne banners.
It rolls far more trippingly and memorably off the tongue than the official mottos of Detroit (“Spreamus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus”) or Michigan (“Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice”).
It even sounds good in Latin: “Dic nice circa Detroit.”
It was a mantra in the 1970s, when she opened her little shop on Congress Street and downtown was a mausoleum with parking meters. And it still resonates today, when the business district and Midtown are livelier than she could have imagined.
To the postal service and the IRS, Gail is a Hawaiian. She sells real estate and hosts a sports radio show on the Big Island.
In her heart and in everyone’s memory, she’s a Detroiter.
Back in the D
She missed her annual summer visit last year because a big sale was in the works.
This year, she found associates to pinch-hit while she flew east for some Tigers games.
She’s seen old friends and made new ones. At a Berkley Art Fair kiosk selling someone else’s “Say nice things about Detroit” gear, a woman said, “There used to be a lady who did this, and she just loved Detroit.”
Gail introduced herself, and a man who overheard stepped up and hugged her.
On the empty lot the city created in place of Tiger Stadium, she met the Troy Mudhens youth baseball team and interviewed some of the players for her show.
In her booth at the Mercury, where people stopped by to share memories and optimism, co-owner Tim Springstead told her, “I can close my eyes and still see the store.”
Emily’s Across the Street sold hot dogs, ice cream, T-shirts and hope. She and partner Herb (Pooh) Squires sponsored fun runs and pitched the city as much as their merchandise.
They were on vacation in Fort Lauderdale in ’79 when her signature phrase took wing. After a few days of bumping into people from back home, she paid $400 for a small plane to tow a greeting.
“Hi Detroiters,” it said in capital letters. “Enjoy Florida. Say Nice Things About Detroit. Emily.”
Phrase lives on
She found out not long ago that Pooh had died, in October, in California.
It crushed her. Their marriage didn’t work out, but he remains the love of her life, the confidante who gave her the confidence to make herself a public figure.
Their legacy is the phrase, and she’s protective of it — not so much financially, but historically.
Shinola, the Detroit-based retailer, has adopted #SayNiceThings as a hashtag. No problem there. But it described her old admonition as a “word-of-mouth campaign,” which stung.
Gail met with a Shinola executive a few days ago, and breakfast turned into half a day and a tour of the watch factory.
“You don’t burn a bridge,” she says. “You just keep rebuilding a bridge.”
Christopher Gorski, 44, began printing and selling Say Nice Things shirts a dozen at a time when he was a student at the College for Creative Studies.
Gail “really was my inspiration for my whole enterprise,” says Gorski, owner of Detroit GT. When she finally contacted him two years ago, he was relieved to learn she wasn’t after royalties. She only asked him to affix her signature to his bumper stickers and coffee mugs the way it was decades ago.
“All I wanted was to continue the legacy,” she says. Hers, yes, but also the legacy of faith in Detroit.
She travels the city with a stack of Gorski’s bright yellow stickers. Outside the Mercury Burger Bar, there’s a fresh one on the security guard’s weathered van.
There’s another on her white Chevy Sonic. The car is rented, and she’ll only have it for a few days, but you never know who will see it or how hard they’ll squeeze her in 20 years.