Less than a mile from where the Red Cedar and Grand River converge, what once used to be an automobile showroom has become an intersection of unique and unconventional stores, run by an eclectic ensemble of small business owners.
The REO Town Marketplace opened in 2017 and is currently home to seven different stores. Marketplace owner Jean Husby said she had wanted to make the space “more available” to the neighborhood.
“I thought if I made space available to small retailers that we could make this an extension of Washington Avenue,” Husby said.
Among the stores at the marketplace is the only fully woman-owned record store in Michigan. Heather Frarey started The Record Lounge in 2008 after she and her husband got into a motorcycle accident. Frarey was a dental assistant then, but her injuries from the accident made it difficult for her to stand for long periods.
She opened her store in East Lansing and moved to REO Town in 2017. Since moving, her business has been thriving, she said.
“It’s more of a diverse group of people we have coming in here,” Frarey said. “I thought I was going to lose business –– like, walking business –– but it’s actually loads better over here.”
Frarey has also enjoyed seeing new small businesses grow in the marketplace, such as Wayfaring Booksellers, a queer-positive, women-owned, independent bookstore.
“We started out super tiny, just as a pop-up, with maybe 300 books and now we have two thousand,” Eleanor Richards, the co-owner of Wayfaring Booksellers, said. “It’s been lovely being in this space because we were able to start so small, grow gradually and sort of expand with the space.”
Although the space at the marketplace is limited, John and Jenifer Harris have been making the most out of every square foot they have.
The Harrises are intrigued by paranormal activities and objects. They collect an assortment of antiques, haunted objects and other paranormal memorabilia.
In January 2022, the pair opened Voodoo’s World of Oddtiques at the marketplace. They also opened The Otherside Paranormal & Mortuary Museum earlier this year, where they display haunted objects and mortuary equipment.
Both have been drawing in a diverse crowd of people, they said.
“People you wouldn’t think would be interested in this, they’d come down here … and they’re so into it. You get young teenagers that love it, college kids, professionals, the emo crowd, the gothic crowd, the witchy crowd and then some of the real conservative crowds –– I think we shock more of the conservative crowds,” John said. “Some people don’t know what to think of this place.”
Some stores expand out of the marketplace and into their separate stores, like Vintage Junkies. Amy McMeeken was among the first business owners to have a store in the marketplace, but moved out in 2020. Her store is currently about a two-minute walk from the marketplace.
“I knew I needed more space –– I was outgrowing my space at the marketplace,” McMeeken said. “I had wanted more space at the marketplace or to move somewhere, and it worked out better for me to move.”
Some business owners, however, go different avenues and get out of business altogether, Husby said.
Katie Kuran, who owns Monkeystuff Jewelry, will be closing her store at the end of October. She cited a drop in sales as a contributing factor, but her business acumen has not changed. She said she will be shifting to consignment and selling online.
“I’ll be having a lot of my stuff, actually, at Vintage Junkies down the road,” Kuran said. “And just explore more spaces. I loved having my own space, but I’m excited to see other spaces, sell in other spaces.”
Husby also owns UnHinged Artz at the marketplace, which provides a space for local artists to share and sell their works to the public. She said an effect of the COVID-19 pandemic was venue spaces for local artists became more difficult to find, so, she wanted to help with providing them that space.
“We’re trying to bring those artists that we don’t see a lot of,” Husby said. “It’s just to be that place where people go find something cool.”
The Harrises describe the community as being a big family. John said that the storeowners want each other to succeed and always try to work together. He also said the pair have met some of their “best friends” since opening the store.
“They just came in as customers and now we go out to dinner, we go out to their houses, we go out to events,” John said. “They are literally a part of our family.”