Mercantile market stops in Detroit, helps give back

Mary Chapman
Special to The Detroit News

The hip, airy industrial space in The Eastern near Eastern Market is being converted this weekend to a hip, musically infused shopping spot for the socially conscience.

In an event, being called the Mercantile, organizers are incorporating chic booths for the vendors, designed by HGTV’s Emily Henderson, and making Detroit part of a nationwide tour that includes stops in Los Angeles and Nashville, Tennessee.

Shoppers can select from a variety of products in the many booths that will occupy the renovated complex that was the former home to Hook and Ladder House No. 5 and the Detroit Fire Department Repair Shop, while enjoying craft cocktails and even rocking to the live pop-funk sounds of the Nashville-based the Shadowboxers at the Sunday event.

The Shadowboxers are the scheduled entertainment at The Mercantile event on Sunday in Sunday.

The brainchild of event is producer Matthew Ford, a Detroit native who now lives in Nashville, says the goal is to set up a format that would attract prospective buyers who wish to support socially conscious brands, vendors and retailers. The idea is to bring together, in a cool, fun environment, entrepreneurs whose business philosophies emphasize community betterment, he adds.

Nearly two dozen sellers are expected at the Detroit Mercantile, Ford says, which is about the same level of participation the event attracted recently in Nashville. Ford said about a third of the vendors this weekend are locally based, and he and his business partner, Steve Fortunato, are trying to sign up as many retailers as possible for the nationwide effort.

Matthew Ford

Ford says the idea was to develop an environment of sellers who are committed to give back to the community. The participating companies run the gamut is size and scope of products. “The important thing is actively helping their communities,” Ford said.

The shopping floor at each event follows a similar design of a basic aesthetic that includes vendor booths made of maple wood and copper.

“What we didn’t want was the normal boring trade-show booths that would make it feel corporate and sterile,” says Henderson, an author and host of HGTV’s “Secrets of a Stylist.” “Nor did we want to task the makers with a huge decorating or installation task.”

Emily Henderson, author and host at HGTV.

The Eastern is a 5,000-square-foot multiuse building with polished concrete floors and 18-foot steel ceilings, which is just the sort of organically cool space the organizers were seeking.

Providing the musical entertainment at the Mercantile events has been the high-energy Nashville-based band, the Shadowboxers, whose members are noted for their soulful vocals and tight harmonies. The group’s latest album was produced by superstar Justin Timberlake.

“We saw how they really took time to cultivate each aspect of the event,” says Matt Lipkins, vocalist and keyboardist for the group, recapping the Nashville event. “From craft cocktails to cause-related vendors all in a trendy urban space, they thought of everything. And we like to think that our music gets people in a good mood and connects all ages and backgrounds.”

Ford said he is regaining the kind of gratification he used to get from his days working with a nonprofit organization in London. “I always wanted some way to give back, it’s a huge part of who I am,” he says. “I just really want to bring value and something that means something, and the Mercantile makes me want to get out of bed each morning.”

Ford adds there is nothing shameful about selling. “So often, commerce is the elephant in the room,” he says. “But this is not a maker’s faire. These people are providing really beautiful items.”

One participating company at Sunday’s show is Detroit-based Lazlo. In addition to selling fine T-shirts constructed from custom organic fabric, Lazlo hires men — with the help of the Michigan Department of Corrections — who had been trained to sew in prison, and pays them a living wage.

Lazlo offers this description of its mission on its website: “We have tried to keep business simple. Invest in your employees, invest in your community and make products you feel good about. Some companies see this as a burden. We see it as an opportunity.”

Christian Birky, co-founder of Lazlo, hires men who have been trained to sew in prison.

Other Detroit-based companies among the more than 20 that are signed up include:

■Rebel Nell, a jeweler that employs disadvantaged women and educates them on business and life skills;

Graffiti jeweler Rebel Nell employs disadvantaged women and educates them on business and life skills.

■Branded By Detroit, a home goods and apparel retailer that uses materials reclaimed from deconstructed Detroit buildings;

■Douglas & Co. Detroit, a new leather goods store committed to the city’s new buzz area, Milwaukee Junction; and

■Better Life Bags, a custom handbag company whose mission is to hire women who have various barriers to employment.

Rebecca Smith, the 33-year-old co-owner of Better Life Bags, says it is the combination of elements that makes the Mercantile unique.

“It’s totally an experience, a fun way to spend the evening,” she said, adding that Detroit has a loyal population of local shoppers. “I think it’s fun to get us all in one place.”

She said she’s excited to be able to connect with other community-minded companies. “I think most people coming to this event know about many of these brands, but we as owners don’t often get a chance to network.

Ultimately, Ford said, it’s about doing well and doing good.

“This city is rich with talented and inspiring and capable people, and I wanted to come back and celebrate that. Detroit is a very proud city, and that’s what I’m loving about how the Mercantile is shaping up here. So many of these brands are focusing on revitalizing Detroit.”

Mary Chapman is a Metro Detroit-based freelance writer.

The Mercantile

with The Shadowboxers

2-8 p.m. Sun.

The Eastern, 2424 Russell, Detroit

$15, advance; $22, door.

themercantileevent.com

HGTV’s Emily Henderson helped design vendors’ booths for Mercantile’s tour that had stops in Los Angeles and Nashville.

At the Mercantile

Here is a partial list of the vendors at Sunday’s event:

-- The Giving Keys, thegivingkeys.com

-- Fashionable, livefashionable.com

-- Society B, societyb.com

-- Jonas Paul Eyewear, jonaspauleyewear.com

-- Mutual Adoration, mutualadoration.com

-- Douglas & Co. Detroit, douglasandcodetroit.com

-- Wesley & Kemp, wesleyandkemp.com

-- Sharklion, sharklionstudios.com

-- Tribal Fare, tribalfare.net

-- Rebel Nell, rebelnell.com

-- Better Life Bags, betterlifebags.com

Rebecca Smith, co-owner of Better Life Bags, says the company’s mission is to hire women.

-- Buy The Change, buythechangeusa.org

-- Owen & Abbey, etsy.com

-- Love Travels Imports, lovetravelsimports.com

-- Lazlo, lazlo.co

-- Branded By Detroit, brandedbydetroit.com

-- The Children’s Center, thechildrenscenter.com

-- The Forge, indiegogo.com

-- Roma Boots, romaboots.com

-- Yumbitz, yumbitz.com

-- Lead Head Glass, leadheadglass.com