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Emily Gail talks about the positive effect of the 'Say nice things about Detroit' movement. Neal Rubin, The Detroit News

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You can still say “Say nice things about Detroit," and Emily Gail hopes you will.

What you can't do is put it on a T-shirt, bumper sticker, keychain or refrigerator magnet, because 39 years after she dreamed up the unofficial city motto, she's finally had it trademarked.

The trademark won't make her rich. At times, it will make her feel awkward. But it will give her a certain measure of control over her past and her future.

Besides, she says, "I need to pay for my trips here." She lives in Hawaii now, on the volcano-free west coast of the Big Island, but her heart is still in Detroit, and the rest of her follows three or four times a year.

Ten percent of the price of a postcard won't buy an airline ticket, but it's better than nothing, and lots better than a sneer.

A few years ago, she says, she came across a young artist selling merchandise built around her catchphrase. Technically, she already had a common law trademark with moderate clout in Michigan, but he didn't know or care what that was and she didn't know how to press the issue.

"Just do what you want," she finally told him.

Now she has a national brand and an attorney who can be more forceful.

"I have some clients who tell me, 'If you see anything, shut 'em down. Get a restraining order,'" says Kelly Burris, 53, of Burris Law at Stroh River Place.

That's not Gail. For years, she has simply asked borrowers of her intellectual property to give her credit. That's what happened at the Whole Foods market in Detroit, where "Say nice things about Detroit" appeared on an exterior wall and managers invited her to come sign it.

"Her approach is her approach. We're not going to change that," Burris says. But the vendor Burris came across a few weeks ago, selling "Say nice things" bricks at a Royal Oak art fair?

She has photos, he has Gail's contact information, and he's been warned.

Gail, who turned 72 Monday, became locally famous in the 1970s after she opened a little downtown gift shop called Emily's Across the Street. Between white flight, a recession or two and the new Renaissance Center sucking tenants from the older skyscrapers, the streets were so deserted that she and her beau used to grab their baseball gloves and play catch in the middle of Shelby.

Undeterred, she sold trinkets, hot dogs, ice cream and hope. She founded a fun run that grew from 100 participants to 20,000. And on vacation in Fort Lauderdale in 1979, she and Herb "Pooh" Squires came across so many familiar faces that she paid $400 for a small plane to tow a greeting:

"Hi Detroiters. Enjoy Florida. Say Nice Things About Detroit. Emily."

The shop ultimately lost its lease. Gail and Squires moved to Hawaii, married and divorced. In 2013, he died.

"Say nice things about Detroit" carried on, with and without Gail. Across the decades, the sentiment went from hopeful to mocking to obvious.

Parts of the city are rocking like it's 1965. The New York Times is so smitten it's practically stalking us. Say nice things?

At Ink Detroit, Steven Mansour is saying it with T-shirts ($25), V-necks ($34),  rustic wooden signs ($30), coffee mugs ($12) and lanyards ($7.99). Coming soon, Gail says: long sleeves and hats.

Mansour, 41, was a toddler when Gail began making an impact. But he recognized her at a downtown event a few years ago and gave her one of the I (Heart) Detroit wristbands he sells at TheGreatLakesState.com and assorted stores, including the Detroit Shoppe at the Somerset Collection.

Now he's the only authorized manufacturer for "Say nice things about Detroit" merchandise. He's moved more than 1,000 pieces since November, he says, with growth in the works since the trademark became official in March.

"The key thing is, there's so much history behind what she's done," he says.

She'll tell you that's one of the reasons he finally decided to chase a trademark: She wants to catalog and archive all the film, clippings, merchandise and attendant memories she's been dragging around in cartons every time she moves.

That will require money, and however much she let wash away over the years without a trademark, her introduction to Burris by mutual friends last year made her realize she needed to plug the dike.

By all means, she says, say nice things about Detroit. But if you want to print that, the two of you will need to chat.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: nealrubin_dh

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