Downtown Home & Garden, a store that carries everything from birdseed to Polish pottery, is a destination in and of itself. In the family of Ann Arbor businesses, Downtown Home & Garden is the grandparent. It sits from its lot on South Ashley Street and watches over the community with its all-knowing eye. It has been meeting the needs of Ann Arbor for over 100 years, and as a thank you, the community continues to tell its story.
Kelly Vore, who owns Downtown Home & Garden, says she hears people telling the story of her business day in and day out: an oral tradition passed on through the generations of Ann Arbor.
“All day long, customers bring people with them to come in and say, ‘This is the store I’ve been wanting to show you.’ I overhear customers tell their guests, ‘…And then there was the horse and buggy through the barn…’ To hear people’s pride in the space is probably my ultimate favorite thing,” Vore shares.
The shortened version of Downtown Home & Garden’s rich, intricate history is as such: It was built in the late 1800s and has sought to meet the immediate needs of the Ann Arbor community ever since. “The building started as Mann and Zeeb grain elevator to support the farm land that was west of us. This was an active railroad track,” Vore explains, gesturing to the space surrounding Downtown Home & Garden. “This was active farmland to the west of us, as far as you could see that’s what it was.”
In 1906, the Hertlers—three brothers and their sister, Emma—bought Mann and Zeeb. “Those guys ran it as the feed store general store. They added the horse barn which was designed for horse and buggy to roll in, not the SUVs that it just happens to very conveniently host,” Vore laughs. “So you could park your horse for 10 cents a day, and then at the base of that barn is where the stalls are that the Hertlers team used to use so they would go out, deliver grain, feed, etc.”
The business was sure to keep step with the city of Ann Arbor as it grew and industrialized, so it was always able to meet the immediate needs of the community.
“Shortly after that, the Model T was developed, so the horse and buggy vein of things started to change quite a bit,” Vore explains. “Carriage Works was across the street, so there was a lot of industry built on horse and buggy that changed radically. The Hertlers, however, went on to run the business to meet the changing needs of the community.”
In 1975, the Hertlers sold the business to Mark Hodesh, under the condition that he would keep serving the needs of the community in the same way the business had been for over half a century. “There were lots of people looking to buy the property to make it a bar or a restaurant, but [Emma Hertler] didn’t want to sell to them,” Vore says.
Over forty years later, Hodesh is still a huge part of the picture. “Mark bought it in the mid 70s, and ran it until 1985 when he and Margaret left and went to Maine, raised their daughter, and had a B&B. [During that time], he sold the business, but he still held onto the property, so he was the landlord…Then Mark and Margaret came back in 1995 and Mark bought the business back, but he didn’t have the name Hertler Brothers, so they had to rename it Downtown Home & Garden. So 1995 is when Downtown Home & Garden as we know it began.”
In 2014, Hodesh sold the business to Vore, who was his employee at the time. However, Hodesh retained ownership of the property as well as ownership of Bill’s Beer Garden, a business that operates on the same property as Downtown Home & Garden.
For Vore, running a business that has faithfully served its community for over a century is both a privilege and a crazy dream. “It’s a small business, but it’s a very large operation. A lot goes on here. Seasonally, we’re always changing. Not very many businesses have seven different entrances and exits, not many have car traffic, kid traffic, stroller traffic, bike traffic, cats, dogs…So there’s just a lot happening here all the time.”
Amidst all of the chaos, Vore never forgets how fortunate she is to live in a community where her business is thoroughly appreciated. “Our customers are our best ambassadors, and Ann Arbor, I think, is a community that does specifically support this kind of business,” she says. “There are lots of communities who would like to have approachable small business, but Ann Arborites legitimately patronize the business. It is not a hobby, we’re not a museum, we’re not an amusement park, we’re a valid business, so people genuinely patronize us, they genuinely want our goods.”
Perhaps this patronage stems from the intimate connection that Ann Arbor customers feel with the business: “We have people who’ve been shopping here for 45 years that still write checks to Hertler Brothers, and the bank will still take them, and then we have people who have never been here before, and everything in between. When Lewis the Cat, who lived here before Wallace the Cat, passed away, I think that Facebook post reached around 50,000 people worldwide. There are employees who have been here 20 years, 16 years, 18 years, there’s lots of long-time staff, Mark is still around, there’s a lot of recognizable faces. We’re all in this business together, and the community is just as much a part of our strength and existence as the staff who work here.”
Ann Arbor has grown a lot since the birth of Downtown Home & Garden. The city has had its painful growth spurts, its angsty teen years, and its blissful, idyllic years—and through it all, Downtown Home & Garden has remained on its seat on South Ashley Street between Washington and Liberty, quietly, graciously providing for the needs of its community. In a city that’s constantly evolving, it’s comforting to know that some things never change.