Downtown Detroit sprouts new vintage & thrift stores

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Erin Gavle threw over a coveted advertising job in Manhattan to open a thrift store in Detroit. If that sounds counter-intuitive, she's got no regrets.

"I don't ever judge people," Gavle says behind the vast wooden counter at El Dorado General Store, her vintage and second-hand emporium across from the old Tiger Stadium, "except for their response on hearing I moved to Detroit."

Dump on Detroit and she'll cut you off in a New York minute.

Livonia-born Gavle opened her store last May, the newest in a modest explosion of resale and curio shops around downtown Detroit. Also new in the past year are Savvy Gents in Eastern Market and Midtown's Thrift on the Avenue, both of which, along with El Dorado, join long-established enterprises like Savvy Chic and Norah's Vintage Loft.

A near-doubling of downtown thrifts within a year probably says something about Detroit's changing demographics, what with the recent influx of the under-40 set, for whom retro-shopping is both financially sensible and a deliberate lifestyle choice.

It's not for nothing, after all, that the long-ignored fedora is the most-visible symbol of hipster culture.

For Gavle, who does sell fedoras, part of the thrill is curating an eclectic mix of merchandise that speaks to her. She laughs. "I feel like I'm a foster parent for trinkets."

Shavarn Smith looks at the high-end vintage and modern clothes, shoes and ties at Thrift of the Avenue’s store on Cass in Detroit.

Some trinkets are odder than others. "Somebody specifically asked for a bear skull once," Gavle notes. "I said, 'Oddly enough, I can provide you with that.'"

Gavle also can provide you with cowboy boots, organic lip balm, rusty horse shoes, deer skulls, a loom, purses, guys' flannel shirts, cute hats and an accordion. She acquires most of her wares on car trips around the country.

She's still a little startled at how things have worked out. "Every day I'm like, 'This is actually working!' For the longest time," she adds, "this was just a dream. And now I have a store and am selling things."

Dreamers Christopher and TaNisha Prater opened their upscale resale shop Thrift on the Avenue last February, right next to La Feria tapas restaurant on Cass. Like many of these enterprises, getting it going was a labor of love.

"We did our entire build-out with no light or heat," Christopher recalls. "I know just how cold it was last winter. The mud on the drywall wouldn't dry till we got the heat on."

Thrift on the Avenue — or TOTA, as it's styled — started life as a pop-up on Livernois, but that only lasted for an eye-blink.

"Within a week of opening, we found out resale was illegal on that block," Christopher says. "We cried, prayed and hired a consultant who found this place on Cass."

Both TaNisha and Christopher are native Detroiters. Christopher calls Vernor's "pop," while TaNisha will tell you she's "a proud Cass Technician." The two had been in Atlanta a number of years before moving back in 2012. Not surprisingly, they were a little out of touch.

"I said to our real-estate consultant, 'The Cass Corridor? That's the armpit of Detroit!'" Christopher shakes his head. "I hadn't been over here since I got home. When I got here, I was like, "Whoa — this is Detroit?"

What the two created is a small, elegantly appointed store that carries both women's and men's clothes and accessories. Merchandise on a recent Thursday ranged from a $560 pair of Ferragamo shoes selling for $100, and a vintage Christian Dior woman's two-piece suit priced to fly at $39.

Thrift on the Avenue has carved out a unique niche, partnering with two social service agencies that work with the homeless — Detroit's Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) and Dress for Success Michigan. While they also source their own merchandise, if you donate clothing to TOTA, they'll donate 30 percent of the sale price to those two programs — a nice charitable touch to consider while doing your holiday shopping.

Karen Brown, whose store Savvy Chic was a lonely, non-meat, non-vegetable outpost at Eastern Market when launched 15 years ago, credits the younger residents who've moved into the city — and young suburbanites — for giving the second-hand market new fizz.

"They gravitate to anything that's kind of old in Detroit right now," she says. "Vintage goes up and it goes down, but right now it's a cool thing again."

And while the inventory she stocks, and that at the new store-within-a-store, Savvy Gentleman, is only partly second-hand, Brown's thrilled to have the additional stores nearby. As far as she's concerned, the more the merrier.

"It gives people more reason to come to Detroit," Brown says.

"It's a destination now: 'We're going to Detroit to go to all those cute little shops.' When suburbanites come here," she adds, "I always say, 'We have other stores. Lots of them. Before I had nobody to send them to."

El Dorado General Store

1700 Michigan Ave., Detroit

(734) 664-8633 or

Norah's Vintage Loft

314 E. Grand River, Detroit

(313) 656-8774 or

Savvy Chic

2712 Riopelle, Detroit

(313) 833-8769 or

Savvy Gents

2712 Riopelle, Detroit

(313) 833-8769 or

Thrift on the Avenue

4130 Cass Ave., Suite B, Detroit

(313) 694-7226 or