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If clothes are what you’re looking for, it’s a quirky treasure chest. You’ll find everything from shoes, specialty soaps, kimonos and the occasional, scary-looking leather piece.
“I actually had to say no to a lady who was trying to sell me some jewelry yesterday,” Ted Stewart said. “It was silver, and it was nice, but it was really more girly than what I was looking for. I’m looking for spiked, leather dog collars. If you have any of that, I’ll take it. I don’t want people to come in and see that there’s an $80 necklace that I’m going to have to describe to them. I can’t get them excited about that.”
Stewart, 49, is the co-owner of Metro Retro, a vintage thrift shop in Old Town. The Lansing-born shop owner lived in Los Angeles for a while with a similarly styled store, but recently returned home. Now, his almost 1-and-a-half-year-old, discount boutique is quickly making a name for itself as Lansing’s prime spot for the unique and wonderful.
Make the few steps up to the shop’s monochrome-tiled entryway and you’ll spot a sign that says, “I’m a MF ING Unicorn,” as well as a warning sticker on the door, “If you are racist, sexist, homophobic or an asshole … don’t come in.” And if you’re not any of those things, besides the unicorn of course, step onto the wooden floors and your eyes will have a sumptuous feast of thrift — but you might not know it. From floor to ceiling there is plenty of stock, but it’s organized in a way that makes it seem like Metro Retro is Urban Outfitters’ cooler cousin.
“My husband did all the décor,” Stewart said. “I like vintage overalls, anything leopard print and loud. I dress kind of basic but I’m drawn to stuff that’s kind of tacky but the right person can make it work, they can rock it.”
Walk further in and you’ll spot Stewart himself, comfortably handling the near-constant stream of a half-dozen customers. You’ll see him rock his own quirky gear. On this visit, he wore a T-shirt with the words “You jelly?” printed over some high-res images of donuts oozing the stuff.
Stewart said that there are two vital aspects of his store. First, people can find what they’re looking for in terms of quality and affordably.
“We want people to shop and not break their bank. I noticed when I worked at Golden Harvest, when I was going to work, all the shops seemed like they catered to more upscale customers and I just wanted to come in and undercut that,” Stewart said jokingly. “I just wanted people to be like, ‘Hmm that’s a good deal,’ and be excited about the prices. I try to keep a good quality of stuff to get excited about.”
And pricing is important. There are often sales, like $5 for any pair of shoes in store, and it’s a rarity to find something above $100.
“There was a Norman Rockwell hobo that I had gotten that was just a statue. He had a newspaper and a dog and a flask in his back pocket and he sat in my display case for I’d say six months,” Stewart said. “A bunch of people looked at him and thought about buying him. I looked it up, and even just a print of him was almost $100 and I got a good deal on it. So, I sold it for $50.”
The second most important aspect of his shop is the atmosphere. While browsing it’s not out of the ordinary to hear everything from ‘80s glam metal to the Evita movie score. On my visit, “Cherry Bomb” blared by the Runaways, followed by the Cars’ “Drive.” Stewart said that growing up he never felt like he fit in, and that was what he was trying to avoid in his store.
“I wanted a place where a trans kid could be welcome in here and try on clothes here and not feel any judgment. It doesn’t matter what gender somebody is, or for gay kids or little punk kids or sweet old ladies who want to come in and buy soaps,” Stewart said. “They’re not my biggest customer base but you know, I want them to feel comfortable in here.”
But as far as customers go, Stewart said there is no way to pin down the average person who might find themselves browsing Metro Retro’s aisles, just as there isn’t an average piece of clothing that might be hanging on a rack. In a little less than an hour, we saw people buying everything from shirts, stickers, handbags and soaps.
“I think the best compliment I’ve ever gotten is from people who came in here, actually people from Baltimore, they said it reminds them of something out of a John Waters movie. That was the highest praise,” Stewart laughed. “If I could grow up to be anybody, it would be John Waters or Divine.”
The comfortable atmosphere makes you more likely to envision yourself wearing even the most daring of clothing.
Sometimes the merchandise that sells surprises Stewart himself.
“This girl came in, she was a beautiful girl, and she was graduating. She was looking for a dress and she picked out this green, polyester pant dress. I thought was hideous, but I didn’t say that,” Stewart said. “And then she put it on and she rocked it! She was gorgeous. I was like, ‘Oh my god, you made this hideous thing, that I though was never going to sell, gorgeous.’ And she walked out of here with it.”
By the time you grab your clothes and reach checkout, you’ll have had an eyeful of every make, shape and model of trinket around. You may even be persuaded to sell or donate some of your own gear to the store.
“I buy most of the stuff. And even if someone does come in and try to donate something, I try to give them a trade or something like that,” Stewart said. “People kind of have that notion that everything in here is donated like the Goodwill or Salvation Army, and I wish it was the case, but I have to pay for everything.”
And by the time you leave, who knows, you might find you’ve walked away with your new favorite treasure. Or at least have found a way to fill up your afternoon.