SUBSCRIBE NOW
Flash Sale! $39 for one year
SUBSCRIBE NOW
Flash Sale! $39 for one year

97-year-old business: A story of Detroit’s fall, rise

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Advance Plumbing & Heating Supply Company in Detroit survived the Great Depression, a freeway that cut the neighborhood in two, violence and crime — even the rise of Home Depot.

William Carter, left, 46, was the last customer — attended by Detroit branch manager, Fausto Perez, 38, and operations manager Justin Moss — at Advance Plumbing & Heating Supply Company before the store moved.

The small business at 2984 Grand River, just across from MotorCity Casino Hotel, finally closed its doors in late October after 97 years in business. But the closure is great news.

It’s still thriving — in a different spot — thanks to the casino itself.

Two days after the Grand River store closed, Advance Plumbing opened a new location among the tony lofts and apartments being built and renovated in Midtown. The company did so with the help of a $2.8 million check connected to the billionaire family connected to the casino.

In the spring, Advance Plumbing & Heating opens a new showroom on the northeast corner of Cass Avenue and Parsons Street, in the heart of a booming neighborhood.

“After 97 years, we feel excited as ever about Detroit,” said Jeff Moss, 52, current owner of the store. “For the first time ever, we are not just selling supplies to repair the city. Now, we are offering supplies that shows many businesses, home owners in Detroit are truly restoring homes, buildings in a great way. It’s wonderful, an honor, to be a part of that.”

Advance Plumbing & Heating is one small business that mirrors Detroit’s rise, fall and rise.

The plumbing and heating store opened on Grand River, just west of downtown, in 1919. It was founded by Henry Chernick, a licensed master plumber who sold supplies for the tens of thousands of steam boilers, bathtubs and toilets being installed throughout the surging metropolis.

At the time of the opening, Detroit’s population had doubled since 1910 and was on the verge of surpassing 1 million, thanks to the revolutionary $5-a-day being paid by Henry Ford and other automakers. That’s about $120 in today’s money. The factory wages ushered in the American middle class.

Advance Plumbing & Heating weathered many setbacks, starting with the Lodge Freeway being built next to the store in the late 1950s.

“My father used to say that was the first big blow,” said Moss. His father, Ronald Moss, was the son-in-law to store founder Chernick, who eventually bought the business from Chernick. “They built a freeway in the middle of a neighborhood and expected the area to rebound as if nothing happened.”

Then came the summer of 1967. About three miles from the store, police raided a party in an unlicensed after-hours bar for two black Detroiters returning from the Vietnam War. It sparked five days of citywide rage and violence. When it was over, 44 people had been killed, an estimated 2,500 businesses had been looted.

And the emptying-out of Detroit began in earnest.

“It changed everything. We had to brick up all the windows,” Moss said. The store owners always had a firearm on hand for protection, Moss said. By the mid-’70s, break-ins were commonplace.

Even as more Detroit small businesses closed and fled to the suburbs, Advance Plumbing & Heating had established too many relationships with longtime customers to move, Moss said.

“I remember my father getting asked why doesn’t he just leave like everyone else,” Moss said. “But my father and grandfather knew generations of plumbers. You don’t just walk away from that.”

The tough decades

By the 1970s, Advance Plumbing & Heating was becoming a niche store. “We really became specialists in all of the unique parts to fix up a city. So much of Detroit, like a lot of older cities, still operates on cast-iron pipes, radiators, steam boilers, valves — the same kind of equipment we sold when we first opened. The kind of equipment you can’t really get at Home Depot — or you really want to see, and return quickly.”

And that’s the key to Advance Plumbing & Heating’s longevity, Moss said: a loyal customer base, generational knowledge among the staff and unique products.

That’s what kept customers like Detroit resident Greg Moore, 52, coming back for decades. He first starting coming to the store in the 1980s with his father, Cornelius Moore, who had his own Detroit plumbing and heating business. “I remember back in the ’80s. Man, we were too afraid to even leave our truck out here alone.”

But, said Moore, “We never thought about going somewhere else because they always knew what we needed.”

Moore now runs the plumbing and heating business started by his father. He was there on Advance Plumbing & Heating’s last day on Grand River with his son, Lance Moore, 26, who now works in the family business.

In 1990, Advance Plumbing & Heating opened a location in Oakland County’s Walled Lake. That store isn’t about fixing old pipes and steam boilers: Customers are more inclined to buy the “fancier toilets” and other high-end fixtures, Moss said.

“By that time, we thought the divide between Eight Mile was pretty much always going to be that way,” Moss said, referring to the famous boundary separating Detroit and its more affluent suburbs to the north.

Detroit rising again

As Advance Plumbing & Heating prepared to continue pressing on in Detroit, something unexpected began in 1999: The MotorCity Casino opened right across the street from the store. The casino, which later added a 400-room hotel, are owned by Marian Ilitch. She’s co-founder of Little Caesars pizza franchise along with her husband, Mike Ilitch. The Ilitch family holdings include the Detroit Tigers, Detroit Red Wings, Fox Theatre and other downtown holdings.

Starting in 2008, entities related to the Ilitch family began to secretly buy up a lot of property not far from Advance Plumbing & Heating in the Cass Corridor neighborhood.

In June 2013, the Ilitch organization announced they would build a state-of-the-art new arena in Cass Corridor. That venue, which opens next year, would be the catalyst for a 50-block area that city officials and the Ilitch organization envision will pulse with new retail, office and residential space, as well as a hotel and parking facilities.

It was around that time the Detroit store of Advance Plumbing & Heating also began to experience something new. “There were customers who wanted the fancier toilets,” Moss said. That’s due to the surge of investors and new residents in certain parts of Detroit, much of it around the store.

In January 2015, Advance Plumbing & Heating accepted $2.8 million from an entity connected to the Ilitch’s Olympia Development of Michigan to sell its Grand River property and move.

On Oct. 29, 2016, a few minutes past noon, the Grand River store permanently closed. The final sale was for a single-basin faucet and valve — replacements for a nearby Detroit home likely built around the time the store first opened. “Ain’t that something?” said William Carter, the last customer, when reflecting on that fact with store manager Fausto Perez.

The business had no intention of leaving Detroit: It bought a much larger space in Midtown at 150 Parsons, which opened Oct. 31. Moss’ sons Joshua, 26, and Justin,.24, are now part of the business, making it a fourth-generation family firm.

“My sons would never want to move out of the city,” Jeff Moss said.

laguilar@detroitnews.com