It used to be a supermarket; now it’s a leather goods store. It went from ground beef to a celebration of hides, hats and more. The story of Will Leather Detroit is that of transformation, and its upscale addition to the neighborhood will be yet another subtle uptick in the city’s revitalization.
For more than a year, the Will Leather Goods Detroit team has thought about how to turn the former Tomboy Market into a high-end retail destination. The team brought together longtime Detroit architects McIntosh Poris Associates along with founder William Adler and his daughter Shane, who worked together to find the best of this lifestyle brand and bring it to Detroit.
They also brought in Architectural Salvage Detroit to find great pieces of city history into this new remodel. That way, the heavy farm beams from Will Leather’s beloved Oregon that show off the building’s high ceilings could be matched with the natural beauty of the wood recovered from some of Detroit’s reclaimed houses.
At 9,000 square feet, this is Will Leather’s largest store. They chose Detroit to show off everything Will Leather could be, bringing its best to the city. It is a tribute to Will’s brother, Bob, who ran an apparel chain in Metro Detroit. It was Bob who encouraged his West Coast-based brother Will to put a store in Detroit. Before his death in 2014, Bob showed Will around Detroit’s up-and-coming retail district in the Midtown area and beyond, cajoling his sibling to bring his successful company into the city and do his part to ensure whatever magic this is that has brought so many back to Detroit remains firmly in place.
Look, you can moan about the loss of a neighborhood grocery store; I get that. You can rightly wonder who is going to buy these fine leather goods in a city where the median income is still significantly less than its neighbors in Oakland County and elsewhere. You can debate the differences between “old” and “new” Detroit until you pass out. I will listen. I will nod along. I’ll agree – for the most part.
But I also appreciate what Adler, Poris and the rest of the Will Leather Detroit team did to open this new location. Will Leather Goods has eight other locations nationwide, and it is expanding in population-heavy spots such as New York, San Francisco and Portland. It really didn’t need Detroit – it could have easily set up shop inside the Somerset Collection in Troy or Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi and felt perfectly comfortable (and profitable) there. But it brings something to Detroit that it needs: Investment. A reason for people, both neighbors and visitors, to come to the city. A destination store. A place to sit a spell, even if you’re not buying something. A beautiful landmark. An experience. Something you won’t find in the suburbs. You get the point.
I appreciate that Will and Shane Adler brought their “A” game to the Detroit store. They merchandised the heck out of this place. There are budget-friendly items there as well as the more extreme, such as a $1,200 vintage mail bag. You can find something to buy within the store no matter what your income level. And, not to sell the stuff, but it is guaranteed for life, so if you need a replacement, Will Leather is going to make it very easy on you to keep its goods in your closet. They not only kept some of Detroit’s history, they thought about how to enhance the store, the neighborhood, the city. They didn’t just slap up another version of their other stores; this location says Detroit. It isn’t gritty; it’s eclectic, beautiful, stylish, sophisticated, smart.
I appreciate that Adler could have put his goods in every square inch of this space – but he didn’t. Instead, he, Poris and others thought about how this large 9,000-square-foot space could be used. So there is a coffee station, which the rest of the Will Leather stores have, blending the amazing smell of Oregon coffee with the rich scent of leather, infusing the two in some sort of heady musk that lingers. Next to the coffee bar, which is made of reclaimed counters and wood from Detroit firehouses and the like, there is ample seating and great Wifi. Come in, have a cup, use the Wifi, head out to your next destination. That’s why it is there.
Beyond that, there is the gallery – a large meeting space with a separate entrance onto a parking lot. That means there is room for art, for conversation, for meetings. Detroiters can come in, sit in the well-appointed leather chairs, within the sizable tee-pee in the middle or in the gallery to talk, to collaborate, to discuss next steps. These spaces are open to the public both to enjoy and to use as needed, Adler said, hopeful that his old hometown will not only buy his goods but accept his hospitality.
It may seem strange to laud the opening of a retail store as a gathering place for the community. It make feel alien to celebrate a new chain location as a beacon for redevelopment in a bruised city. But so much of Detroit’s revitalization involves suspension of disbelief, a willingness to cheer people’s investment in abandoned hulls and an acceptance that rising tides WILL lift all ships, given time.
In other words, go see Will Leather Detroit. Take a class. Bring your kids to draw and be inspired by the artists within said gallery. Have a cuppa Joe alongside your fellow city dwellers. Will Adler wants your money, but he also wants a better Detroit to honor his brother, honor the work his daughter did and to put the success he’s enjoyed because of his Detroit roots to work for the city.