In 1967, three years after moving to Ann Arbor, Cynthia Shevel wanted to fill a niche in the city’s downtown retail market.
She opened Middle Earth on East Liberty Street, selling mostly drug paraphernalia, buttons and Patchouli oil.
“I didn’t really have a vision at that time,” Shevel said. “Elaine (Selo) and I had gone out to San Francisco, we were walking around Haight-Ashbury, and I said to myself, ‘Ann Arbor needs a place like this.’”
Over time, Middle Earth’s focus shifted; the shop stopped carrying drug paraphernalia and become a unique gift shop filled with cards, jewelry, books, accessories, candles, incense and other items. The store moved from East Liberty to South State Street, before settling into its current location at 1209 S. University Ave. in the 1970s.
Shevel announced this week she plans to close Middle Earth in December and retire to California. Many Ann Arborites are mourning the impending closure, and customers packed the shop this week as Middle Earth kicked off its going-out-of-business sale with 20 percent discounts.
“It has been really busy. It took us a little bit by surprise,” Shevel said.
The decision to close Middle Earth is bittersweet for Shevel; the store has consumed her life for nearly five decades. But leaving the store means Shevel and her partner, Selo, can retire to California and enjoy life.
The pair closed the 31-year-old Selo/Shevel Gallery at 301 S. Main St. in March and sold the three-story building.
Shevel and Selo watched the city develop around both Middle Earth and the gallery on South Main Street. More recently, a 600-bed student apartment building was constructed across the street from Middle Earth.
Shevel said she still loves Ann Arbor, but the city is changing. The downtown has grown significantly since the 1960s, when Shevel said there were no “decent” restaurants. Today, there are more than 200 restaurants and bars downtown.
Retail uses have declined downtown and Shevel said it is increasingly difficult to succeed as an independent retailer in Ann Arbor.
She identified a number of challenges facing small business owners, including competition from Amazon, or what she refers to as “the Walmart of the Internet.” In Ann Arbor specifically, Shevel said rising rents are pushing out independent retailers as more restaurants and chain stores open.
“I had reasonable rent (at Middle Earth),” she said. “If I had to pay $35 per square foot, forget it. It wouldn’t work. I think you’re going to get chains downtown. Who else can afford it?”
According to a report from Ann Arbor’s Downtown Development Authority, average rental rates for retail space on South Main Street are an annual $28 per square foot. Average rates on South University are $35 to $40 per square foot, while average rates on South State Street are $40 to $45 per square foot.
Shevel considered selling Middle Earth – it was listed for sale in 2007 – but she said there were too many challenges in selling the business, including higher rental rates on the next lease renewal.
Although Shevel is preparing to close the store in December, she has memories that will stay with her. She recalled a time when the shop was so busy at the South State Street location, customers had to take numbers and stand in line. One year, Shevel realized she had been purchasing feather earrings for the store from Lenny Bruce’s ex-wife, Honey Harlow.
Shevel and Selo have already purchased a home in California, and plan to move once Middle Earth closes. The store employs about six people.
Shevel said Middle Earth’s merchandise and store fixtures will be sold.
“I have been really impressed with the number of people who have come in and said, ‘I shopped here when I was 12,’ and now they are 40. There are just people who remember the store and want to take a piece of it home,” she said.
Lizzy Alfs is a business reporter for The Ann Arbor News. Reach her at 734-255-2638, email her email@example.com or follow her on Twitter.
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