Massaging the Motor City
While Midtown is increasingly populated with trendy new restaurants, converted lofts and funky shops, one woman is aiming to add a holistic health vibe to the mix.
"Most people see massage as a luxury," says Jenaveve Biernat, who opened Metaphysica Therapeutic Massage on Woodward and Alexandrine earlier this year. "I think it's a necessity. I'd like to see Detroit become known for its healthy habits, like Denver or San Francisco."
Biernat, 36, admittedly is starting very small — her business is in a tiny space, the size of a motel room. In fact, it is in the former motel now home to Detroit Community Acupuncture, People's Records and Be Nice Yoga Studio. The area is so hopping, with Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co. across the street and the M-1 rail streetcar eventually running right outside her door. Biernat, who, with her jet black long hair and blunt chopped bangs, bears a striking resemblance to Abigail "Abby" Sciuto (portrayed by Pauly Perrette) on "NCIS," wonders if it might be too hot an area. With the requisite, tranquil zen music drowning outside construction noise, she asks: "Maybe I should have picked a place that's a little more peaceful?"
But then, she might not have garnered the clientele who come here regularly; the list reads like a Who's Who in the new Detroit scene. Among them: Alexandra Clark, the chocolatier behind Bon Bon Bon in Hamtramck; Elysia Borowy-Reeder, executive director of Museum of Contemporary Art-Detroit; Richie Wohlfeil, owner of Lo & Behold! Records and Books; Gregory Ducharme, owner of Detroit Vintage Collective; Amanda Itria, chef at Katoi; and Anahi Hollis of Anahi Hollis Design.
Massages improve health
Beirnat, who lives in Corktown, practices therapeutic massage, which differs from relaxation massage. "Therapeutic massage has been proven effective in lowering blood pressure," she says. "It increases your flexibility and circulation. It can alleviate chronic and acute pain."
Anyone can benefit. "I get a lot of parents who bring their kids in for anxiety," she says. "I've done 7-year-olds with knots in their shoulders like you wouldn't believe."
One regular client is 98 years old. "I love her! She wakes up every morning and says 'thank you' to her feet and to her toes, and then names every body part. We all should treat our bodies like that. But unless you seek out physiology or anatomy classes, we don't even know the names of our muscles in our body."
Raised in Clinton Township, but with deep ties to the city ("Both my Italian and Polish grandparents emigrated from Italy and Poland directly to Detroit"), Biernat had tried several other places on for size during her 20s: New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, even Spain for close to a year, but "I kept coming back."
Biernat began training to become a masseuse over a decade ago when her cousin, who was then a student of massage, asked if she could use her for practice. She was hooked. "I never knew I could feel so good," she says.
While practicing massage on the side, Beirnat spent eight years working for the Macomb County Friend of the Court as a custody investigator. She was charged with interviewing divorcing couples and then recommending custody arrangements to the judge. "I was miserable. It took a huge toll."
So she quit in 2012, intending to move to San Francisco and set up business. But when it came time to leave, she couldn't say goodbye — and it not because of the weather.
"Honestly, it pains me, this weather. But there is so much to be said for being close to family," Beirnat says. "I come from a huge family. And my connections here, too. The spirit of the people here I don't think you'll find anywhere else. People here, they have soul."
In one year, Biernat has been able to employ four other massage therapists and is open seven days a week, all without any advertising. She doesn't even have a sign. She credits word of mouth. "It's been like a domino effect."
"When I completed my training back in 2003, they said 'You will always have an income because of the way people hunch over their laptops. I wouldn't have believed it then, but I see more people now who work at desk jobs than I do those who work at manual labor. We're not supposed to be all hunched over, you know."