By MJ Galbraith
December 8, 2014
Zana Smith has played the waiting game before. It's part of running your own retail store; sometimes you just have to wait it out. It might be a day until you make a big sale, it might be a month until you break a new product. The key to success is that time in between, in being prepared for that moment when that next wave comes and being able to take advantage of it. Smith has seen new retailers come and go, people who didn't know what to do with that downtime. As Smith tells it, retail isn't about re-inventing the wheel, it's about paying attention.
She should know. Smith has run Spectacles, her downtown clothing boutique, for 30 years now. Her store is a landmark of Detroit fashion, drawing customers from Harmonie Park to Japan. She sells fashionable and casual clothes with an edge along with accessories, books, and records. It's that magnet status that's keeping her store open today. Smith is currently involved in another waiting game, this time with the M-1 Rail construction that's torn up the city's main artery, Woodward Avenue. Business is the slowest it's been for 30 years, she says.
“You have to love what you do. For me, I enjoy being a retailer, I enjoy servicing my community, I enjoy finding out what your needs are and fulfilling those needs,” says Smith.
Spectacles hit its stride at the dawn of the 1990s when, on a trip to New York City to visit her sister, Smith met filmmaker Spike Lee and the crew behind his 40 Acres and a Mule clothing line. As Smith tells it, Lee is a filmmaker, not a clothing retailer, so getting 40 Acres to ship product to stores outside of New York was difficult. Smith was soon filling her own car with 40 Acres products and transporting the clothes herself. It was the type of product that put Spectacles on the map, drawing people from all over the region and beyond to come buy the popular yet hard-to-find line of clothing.
Despite the recent lull, Smith is still breaking trends, like the now-ubiquitous "Detroit vs. Everybody" T-shirt. Now that shirt's creator has opened his own shop. But as downtown Detroit's character shifts from its funky spirit to a more corporate culture, Smith is unsure what that will mean for her store. It's not necessarily bad, she says, just different.
She hopes that the addition of designer fashion store John Varvatos might mean more customers downtown who are willing to spend more money on higher quality fashion. She'd like to branch out in her selection. But she's seen that movie before, too, recalling the designer stores that opened inside the then-new Renaissance Center in the late 1970s. Those stores didn't last much longer than a year, she says. After she opened her store in 1984, there have been plenty of hot new spots that have come and gone, and Spectacles still stands.
“Salesmanship is a talent and a flair, just like P.T. Barnum. The whole thing is about how you can make it interesting and fun,” says Smith. “Of course, when the person gets home with the product, they have to be in love all over again. It doesn't do them any good if they get home and they say 'Why did I buy this.' You gotta leave people with a good taste in their mouth and that creates the return client. I'm good at that.”
Smith has a rich entrepreneurial history and comes from a family of business people. Her grandmother had a boutique, her mother ran her own moving company, and her uncle had his own line of milk. In college, Smith was running a boutique out of her dorm room, selling Afro picks, Afro sheen, and sunglasses. In 1971, Smith re-opened Junior's Jazz Room, her brother's old record store at Dexter and Davison. In 1974, Smith opened her first boutique, Zana, at Seven Mile and Livernois.
After a few years of running Zana, Smith left retail to throw parties. Even though Smith decided to get back into the game and open Spectacles by 1981, it wasn't until 1984 that she opened her new store. Smith had found the perfect space, a storefront at 230 E. Grand River Ave., right off of Harmonie Park. The only problem was that the space was occupied. Nothing if not patient, Smith waited three years until the occupied storefront became available in 1984. It was the opposite of Smith's old Zana location. It was small and manageable and Smith could run it herself. It was perfect. It was worth the wait. 30 years later and Smith was right.
All photos by Doug Coombe.