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Wednesday, July 20,2011

Secrets of the Old Town sisterhood

How women are remaking Lansing’s oldest district

by Lawrence Cosentino

Before quaint Old Town was quaint Old Town, it was a man cave called North Lansing.


You stepped off the train into five inches of mud and
smelled axle grease, kerosene and creosote. Sawmills howled and forges
pounded. Men smoked cigars in front of bars and drank in front of the
cigar factory.


Now, trip lightly to the intersection of Turner Street and
Grand River Avenue. Mmm, smells like lavender. And watch out for the
plants and wicker things on the sidewalk.


Antiques and boutiques, yoga and flowers, hair and more
hair. Stores with names like Love, Betti, October Moon, Grace and Polka
Dots Bead-A-Full Boutique. Attorneys, non-profits and design firms bring
a pinch of rough and tumble to the picture, but it’s pretty much
official by now: Old Town has turned into a woman cave.


Brittney Hoszkiw, director of the Old Town Commercial
Association, offered a “very rough” estimate, limited to the Main Street
district centered on Turner Street and East Grand River Avenue, of 42
women-owned businesses out of 91 — that’s about double the national
average.


And it shows.


“The female business owners definitely hold their own around here, and they’re extremely visible,” Hoszkiw said.


Around Christmas of last year, a man came into October
Moon, a gift boutique at 119 E. Grand River, with some out-of-town
friends. He told saleswoman Miranda Winchester that his father owned the
space as a liquor store in the 1960s and sold it after nine or 10 years
because he was shot while working there.


They walked to the back of the store, past the wall of handbags and the pyramids of sinful cake mixes and organic body oils.


“This is where we kept the beer cooler,” the man said, pointing to a corner.


“This is where we keep our ribbon,” Winchester replied.


With over 10 years in Old Town under her belt, October
Moon owner Aura Ozburn qualifies as a founding mother of the current
crop of women-owned businesses.


“There’s a ton of them, and those are the ones that are
successful,” Ozburn ventured. “Honestly, I think women can adapt better,
from the psychological standpoint.”


Ozburn called Old Town “a way of living and a way of life.”


“Financially, the majority of the businesses here would do
better if they were somewhere else, if that was their ultimate goal,”
Ozburn said. “But they’re not part of a neighborhood and not part of a
movement, in a way, to improve something.”


In 2000, hair stylist Kendra Cosme decided to open The
Head Room, a salon at 106 E. Grand River, over the objections of her
husband, a police officer. It was a homecoming of sorts. As a youngster,
Cosme ran errands at the pharmacy and the five-and-dime on “the north
end,” as it was called then. But the area got a rough reputation in the
1970s and 1980s, while an early cadre of pioneers like Robert Busby,
Terry Terry and Cheryl VanDeKerKhove laid the groundwork for a bohemian
(at first) renaissance.


Cosme’s husband told her the move would be dangerous,
especially for a woman — a warning almost every woman business owner in
Old Town heard from loved ones.


Now, she is celebrating 10 years in business with her three-woman staff.


“Women are ready to take a chance,” Cosme said. “We have a good intuition. We went with it and it’s paid off for all of us.”


For the first two years Ozburn was in business, her
worried dad came to the store every day, mindful of Old Town’s rough
reputation.


“He would pack a lunch, show up and drink coffee and read the paper for nine hours,” Ozburn said. “Very sweet.”


Ozburn met with no trouble, but Dad still came in handy.
On the first Christmas Eve in the store, she was puzzled by the
spectacle of over 50 men crowding the aisles.


“Honey, that’s when we shop,” her dad explained.


So she put out bowls of beef jerky and made it an annual Man Day.


There’s no such thing, of course, as a
monolithic woman’s take on business or anything else. When the stylists
at The Head Room are falling behind on appointments, they send people
next door to a place called Love, Betti to be wowed by high-end
consignment furniture and other stylish stuff.


Lansing native Kristin Olson opened the store only this
February, but she’s already lost 25 pounds lugging furniture as her
bustling store extends Old Town’s retail buzz further west. 


A former financial adviser, Olson seems almost taken aback by the soft embrace of Old Town.


“There’s an undercurrent of support and encouragement and
neighborliness,” she said. “It’s like the old-fashioned, ‘do you have a
cup of sugar?’ kind of thing. I’ve been in business my whole life, and
it’s hard to know how to embrace it.”


But the notion that there’s something special about women running a business doesn’t sit well with her.


“I never thought myself special just because I could lift a
lot of weight or heave a hammer. To me, that’s archaic thinking. I
don’t think anyone who knows me would say I’m not competitive.”


But many of the women of Old Town agree that the feminine touch has helped shape the area’s cooperative culture.


A few blocks west of Olson’s shop, in the newly renovated
superintendent’s house at the former Lansing School for the Blind,
Rochelle Rizzi runs a design firm with a staff of six full-time and
eight part-time employees. She feels like she is working in a
“neighborhood.”


“I have a lot of strategic partners,” Rizzi said. “I don’t have any competitors.”


The sentiment echoed from the opposite end of Old Town,
where Jen Estill and Amy Moore co-own Redhead Design Studio at 408 E.
Grand River.


“We want everybody to do well,” Estill said. “‘Competitor’ is a weird term.”


A year ago, Rizzi hosted a get-together of women business
owners. “There’s something to be said for women in business,” Rizzi
said. “We all get it. We want to see each other succeed.”


The mutual support starts with referrals and cross-promotions, but goes far beyond that.


“Outside work, they’re helping each other find dogs and
pull weeds,” Rizzi said. “They’ll hold your baby while you shop. It’s a
small-town feeling that got lost somewhere in translation in the grand
world, but we have it in this little town, this little speck.”


Estill agrees: “Business owners water each other’s flowers, buy each other baby gifts. It’s a neighborhood in the truest sense.”


When Rizzi has a big event to attend and needs to get
fixed up fast, she calls Summer Schriner, owner of Grace Boutique at 115
E. Grand River, near the heart of Old Town, for a “private shopping
experience.”


“She finds something that fits and makes me feel
glamorous, when on the inside I feel like the world is upside down,”
Rizzi said.


Some of the connections among Old Town
businesswomen go back many years. Cosme used to do Ozburn’s hair at
Personal Image salon on Michigan Avenue in the mid-1990s. They opened
their Old Town businesses a month apart in the fall of 2001, without
knowing about each other’s ventures.


In the 1990s, Ozburn, Schriner and Jamie Schriner-Hooper,
longtime director of the Old Town Commercial Association, worked the bar
at Moriarty’s Pub, near downtown Lansing. The trio used to come to Old
Town to eat ice cream at Tate’s Freeze and admire the 1860s
architecture.


In those days, women usually got unwanted attention on the
street, but Ozburn shrugged it off. “There has always been a beautiful
energy here,” Ozburn said.


Now Schriner, Ozburn’s best friend for 20 years, owns Grace boutique, two doors down from October Moon.


“We drink wine together, talk about business,” Ozburn said.


In the past year, mainstays like Grace and October Moon
have been joined in by a new wave of women-owned shops like Love, Betti
and Katalyst, an art gallery and gift shop opened last September by
artist Sarah Christiansen.


“Sometimes you find that people might have a little
animosity toward a new business, especially if it’s an art gallery
towards another art gallery,” Christiansen said. “But everybody has
welcomed me with open arms.”


Lamb’s Gate antique shop, at 1219 Turner St., opened in
May 2010, with Ashley Lamb managing. Ashley’s mother-in-law, Carol Lamb,
owns the shop, an offshoot of a store in Grand Ledge.


Ashley Lamb called the proliferation of women-owned business “a testament to Lansing.”


“Lansing has been a very male dominated town, with the
automotive industry and manufacturing, and now women are coming in and
taking positions of leadership — not just business owners, but in
executive roles, like Brittney,” Lamb said.


Five women work at Lamb’s Gate. “We don’t have any men who work here, actually,” Lamb added, as if she had just realized it.


Babies also bind women business owners together. Estill
has a favorite story about being a woman and a business owner. When her
business was still young, both she and Moore got pregnant at the same
time: Their babies were born six days apart.


Nevertheless, when Estill’s son, Spencer, was 12 days old, she still cranked out a proposal for a new client.


“We couldn’t say ‘Sorry, maternity leave — can we get back
to you?’ because we would have lost the account,” Estill said. “They’re
still our client and we have a great relationship. Male business owners
would never, ever, ever have to go through that.”


Several women said Old Town’s village spirit makes it saner and more natural to raise kids while owning a business.


“We let ’em run the streets,” Estill joked. “Just send ’em to the ice cream place.”


Ozburn’s son, Alexander, started life as October Moon’s — and Old Town’s — “store baby.”


“He lived his first two years in the store,” Ashley Lamb marveled. “That shows how invested people are in Old Town.”


Alexander, now a worldly 6, comes to October Moon on some weekends and serves chocolate to the women.


“He’ll go over to Summer’s store and talk dresses to the
ladies,” Ozburn said. “Or you’ll find him under that desk, playing with
spaceships and Lego.”


The Old Town baby mantle passed two years ago to Ashley
Lamb’s son, Jackson. Hundreds of customers have stopped to coo or walked
past Jackson’s sleeping form next to the jewelry counter.


Owning an Old Town business doesn’t guarantee a fast buck.
But what is it worth to have neighbors that watch your back while you
raise kids, have emergencies or take vacations? It’s impossible to pin
down whether women have a special business mystique, but it’s easy to
see that the cooperative Old Town spirit attracts women seeking balanced
lives. 


“People that don’t want others to succeed — they just
leave themselves out,” Ozburn said. “It’s not a community for them. You
can’t be all about yourself. People in Old Town really get that.”

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