Shop owner offers little bit of France in Eastern Market

Published on February 23, 2011 - 7:24 am

by DONNA TEREK-The Detroit News

February 20, 2011

Eastern Market, any Saturday afternoon.

You come for the fresh produce, the flowers, the fresh breads, or maybe for those sidewalk-vendor staples of incense and shea butter. Besides that, you come for the scene, the ethnic stew of people, the butchers walking around with bloody aprons, the feeling you're touching the true grit of Detroit.

But in this most Detroit-y of Detroit places is a little touch of France called Savvy Chic. Owner Karen Brown says her shop is "a little of everything," stocking housewares, furniture, clothing, jewelry, greeting cards and art. Some of it is new, some vintage, but most of it is French - if not in provenance, in spirit.

Brown stocks preserves, cookies, sauces - all French imports. There are tablecloths from Provence and glassware and dishes from France. Replicas of the Eiffel Tower are big sellers.

If you were looking for this type of shop, you'd think of Royal Oak or Birmingham, but here it is on Riopelle Street (how French is that?) at Division, separated from vendor Shed 4 by a parking deck.

"I think Savvy Chic is my French connection," says Brown. "I've never made it to Paris so I created my own little Paris right here on Riopelle Street." But it's not just the merchandise that transports you across the pond. The entire feel of the place is eclectic, relaxed and lets you imagine you are browsing a neighborhood shop in Montmartre.

Brown always has a pot of coffee on and something sweet on the footed glass cake stand set out for her customers. After 3 p.m., she opens a bottle of wine and sets out cheese and smoked meats.

"This is Karen's living room," says Deborah O'Brien, who came to the shop as a customer, became a friend and now works as Brown's part-time assistant.

The progression is not unique. Any given Saturday will find an array of interesting people - mostly, but not all, women - hanging out, snacking and talking, interrupting the flow of conversation occasionally to examine a knickknack that catches their eyes.

They may have started as customers, but all of them consider Brown a friend. And Karen always seems to know when a hello hug is in order.

Never been to France

Ironically, the Francophile has never been to France. "I was supposed to live there - twice," she says.

She and her best friend dreamed of moving to Paris where "she'd be a playwright and I'd be this fashion designer," says Brown. "So we planned this trip out, but we said let's stop in California first." That turned out to be a 17-year stopover for Brown. She married, owned a nightclub, and had two sons, now ages 18 and 21.

Her friend did make it to France and lived there for two years, but tragedy struck on her return to Detroit for a holiday visit. She was aboard the Pan Am flight that was destroyed by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland on Dec. 21, 1988.

"She achieved her dream and I'm proud of her that she did make it," Brown said. But she lost her natural connection to a life in France.

When a second chance to move to France came around, Brown had such a good job as a display designer for Nordstrom, she just didn't feel she could leave. Eventually, her marriage ended and she returned to Detroit, "where I belong," she says.

"San Diego was too clean, too perfect. I thought I would just die there of boredom," she says. "I'm not perfect. I feel better if it's a little dirty. It's just more interesting.

"When I came back to Detroit I came alive again. I hadn't painted in 17 years. And when I came back here, all of a sudden I'm painting again. I'm painting furniture, I'm painting pictures. I'm decorating. I'm doing all the things I should have been doing all these years. So I started late, but at least I started," says the 53-year-old.

Eastern Market was "a connecting place for me after living away from the city," she says. "Eastern Market is the place where you connect with people. So when I came here, I fell right back in place.

"I started coming so much that I said, 'Oh man, I've got to do something down here.'"

'What I was meant to do'

She started out renting a stall in the Eastern Market Antique Mall. When she outgrew that, she moved into her current space.

In a time when other businesses are struggling to survive Michigan's recession, Brown's nine-year-old shop is doing better than ever. Last year, she knocked through the wall into an adjacent storefront and doubled her floor space.

When asked why she thinks this is, she says: "People feel good about buying something for themselves." And she stocked more small items of high quality that were affordable. "I think the smaller items got me through the hard times." Brown comes from a family of female entrepreneurs. Her grandmother built a cafe onto her house in Georgia, and her mother and sister still run Unique Flowers and Gifts in northwest Detroit.

"I always knew I was going to be an entrepreneur," Brown says. "It was never a question to me what kind of job I would want, it was what kind of business I was going to run."As a teenager she had businesses and even now, running the store is not enough. She still has a home-cleaning business and does affordable decorating and organizing for those in the know. She doesn't advertise.

"I'd done a lot of business but never the one that I was trained to do or that was in my heart to do," says the former College for Creative Studies fine arts major.

"Finally, after all these years I've gotten to do what I was meant to do."


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