For a city with as much bad press and negative mojo as Detroit, it’s interesting that there is a growing number of stores that specialize in selling Detroit – Detroit art, curios, photos, fashions and more.
A new one opened last month. I wondered how it would distinguish itself from the other Detroit stores in town, and I think it hit on something.
Walk into the Detroit Mercantile Company at Eastern Market and you’ll eventually be drawn to a large, antique map hanging against the south wall, even if you’re not into maps.
Dated 1877, the map depicts Detroit when it had about 100,00 residents, and it shows everything from the old waterworks to the new waterworks to the east-side race track to the future site, at Dix and 24th, of a zoo.
I asked Robert Jameson, the store’s co-owner, how much it cost.
“Seven,” he said.
“Damn, I wish I could spend $700 on a map,” I said.
“Seven thousand,” he responded.
I’m not sure I have ever seen a map that cost $7,000, and I know I have never seen a map of Detroit that cost $7,000, even on Ebay or in DuMouchelles, the fancy downtown auction gallery.
The 1877 map is hardly the only thing that stands out at Detroit Mercantile. It’s a cool store in a cozy space, a former fire department service garage that has books, curios, artwork and unique items such as shirts emblazoned with names of Detroit bus routes, past and present.
But that kind of merchandise is also available at City Bird, Pure Detroit’s three stores, the Detroit Shoppe, Rust Belt Market, Everythingdetroitstore.com and wherever else Detroitacana is for sale.
Like the map, some of the goods in these stores are nostalgic, looking back at Detroit's supposed “golden” times. But these outlets carry plenty of contemporary objects, so the city’s current electricity clearly is also a draw. Detroit Mercantile also carries goods from outstate.
Whatever the case, the $7,000 map is a beauty, and its aging brown color and slight water stains only add to its charm. It measures about four feet by five feet – the scale is 1,000 feet to the inch -- and the city 135 years ago was small enough so that the map shows surprising detail.
“We get people who just stand and stare at it,” Jameson said. “They point and say, ‘Wow, that’s where my grandmother lived.’”
Indeed, I looked at Elmwood Avenue and E. Congress, an intersection that was long ago paved over by 20th Century development, and saw Our Lady of Help, the Catholic church, built in 1866, where my grandfather and his family worshiped in the 1890s.
The map shows farms in Springwells Township to the west and Hamtramck Township to the east that the sprawling city was quickly gobbling up. The land on Belle Isle, still in private hands, was owned by people with the names Campau, Willis, Piquette and Mitchell.
There are the long-gone street names of Mother Street and Father Street on the East Side and Lover’s Lane on the West Side. Mack “Road,” not avenue, stops at Gratiot, and Michigan Avenue beyond the city limits is called the Chicago Road.
“It’s like a portal to another world,” said Robert Stanzler, Detroit Mercantile’s co-owner and the designer who created the Made in Detroit clothing brand.
But beyond the many changes the map displays, there is also considerable continuity. Many streets have the same names and go in the same direction, especially Michigan, Fort, Grand River, Woodward, Gratiot and Jefferson, the famous radial avenues.
The map is titled “Detroit and its Environs,” and appears to have been published as part of a reference book about Detroit. The back of the map, which you can’t see in its present position, contains information on old farms, old maps, fire alarm boxes and real estate.
Jameson said he found the map at an auction and had it restored by a Detroit-based firm, Conservation and Museum Services. The map consists of paper on linen and is covered at the store by a glass shield. While the map is extremely legible, Jameson said he soon will install a large magnifying glass so customers can really examine the city’s past.
Has the $7,000 map had any nibbles?
No, said Jameson. But he’s not unhappy. He knows the map is an attraction in itself.
“It’s priced so that it stays around,” he said.