By Angie Landsverk
A Distinctly Detroit Store
When Brigid Beaubien opened Urbanum in Detroit’s New Center neighborhood, it was one of a couple small businesses on the block. Four years later, the area is full of businesses in this north anchor of Detroit’s greater downtown. The thriving neighborhood includes shopping, dining, entertainment, and historic buildings.
Brigid is a second-generation shopkeeper and proud of it. “As a young adult, my parents owned a store very similar to mine called The Kindred Spirit. My mom’s design aesthetic is amazing,” she said. “I would go to gift shows with her and then help her display them in the store. I learned from the best.”
Her parents’ store was outside of Detroit, in Wyandotte, Michigan. Brigid was a public school teacher then and sometimes helped at the shop.
For the City
Brigid’s inspiration to open her own store can be traced back to more than 10 years ago. It began when she and her husband, Tim Costello, opened 8º Plato Beer Company, a high-end beer and wine store in Ferndale, Michigan. A few years later, they opened a second location in Detroit.
“When we opened the second one in downtown Detroit, I used all reclaimed designed products and was nominated for a UNESCO design award. I began thinking about opening a store at that point,” she said.
The store opening became a reality in September 2018. Brigid explained the meaning behind its name. Urbanum is derived from the word “urbane,” which is about being of or for a city, she said.
Being connected to the community is important to Brigid and Tim. “We are part of our community. My husband and I live in the community we own businesses in. We financially support neighborhood events,” she said. “We volunteer in our neighborhoods. We see our customers at the grocery store, gas station, and voting booths. We’re involved and entrenched.”
A Sensory Experience
Brigid’s customers say Urbanum has well-curated items. “I really focus on products that are distinctly Detroit and city-driven design, with merchandise combining the familiarity of industry with the comfort of found objects,” she said.
The product categories in her store include home goods, stationery, lighting, artwork, small pieces of furniture, gifts, bath, baby, books, plants, and barware. “I don’t think I can keep enough books or candles in the store! They both fly out of here,” Brigid said. “For lighting, I have Regina Andrew and that does well. Also, I have vintage rugs and they do very well. Live plants got us through the supply chain issues. We’ve just begun to add a few women’s accessories.”
The barware includes a large selection of glassware, as well as bitters and cherries, complementing the couple’s beer and wine store. “So, people know there is a connection there,” she said.
At Urbanum, Brigid said they “aspire to touch all the senses when a guest arrives. We want the shop to look exceptionally beautiful, smell good, have great music on, and have some tasty nibbles. Customers tell us this sensory experience makes our shop a favorite after a long week or a treat after going to a scary doctor’s appointment.”
Weathering the Storms
Brigid was a Detroit public education teacher for 15 years and is now a full-time education professor. She balances being both a small-business owner and a professor with the help of her staff, which includes her sister.
Crediting her parents for much of what she does, Brigid said there is a “great deal of pride that comes from a customer saying how much they had loved my parents’ shop and that Urbanum is as special as The Kindred Spirit was.”
Since opening Urbanum four years ago, Brigid has faced her share of challenges. “The first winter I was open, there was a polar vortex with temperatures below -20 for over a week. There were six days when not a single person walked into the shop. That was so hard,” she said. “Then there have been four complete dust outs from construction in the properties on either side of the store, two dramatic basement floods, and a pandemic. It hasn’t been smooth sailing — LOL!”
As she looks back on the last several years, Brigid attributes surviving the pandemic to two things — her customers who stuck by her and the infrastructure that was in place in the city of Detroit, which paid small-business loans for three months. Not a lot of cities had that type of infrastructure, she said.
Her marketing strategies have varied. Early in the pandemic, Brigid was among the first in her area to use Facebook Live. “At different points, I’ve advertised with the local NPR station, taken out ads in the local paper, and done Google ads,” she said. “However, Instagram is my No. 1 driving force — to the point that it is the only place I put advertising dollars now.”
Defining the Brand
Like many small retailers, the pandemic forced Brigid to pivot and then think about what made the most sense for her business. “In the height of the pandemic, we opened an online store, and it just became too much. I’m also a full-time professor, so I have to really think about what makes my shop special and focus on that and not all the other things. An online store became a third full-time job, and I just couldn’t keep it up. What makes us special is the seasonality of the shop and how it impacts the senses. Those are in-person experiences,” she said.
Brigid said that before the pandemic, she was trying to be everything to everybody. That helped get her business off the ground, but the pandemic made her think about what and how she was doing things. “I was on the right track with a lot but overextending what I did to engage customers. In addition to being open seven days a week, we were doing tons of special occasions. The pandemic really made me rethink what I had the time and energy to do and how I wanted to do it,” Brigid said. “As I focused on clearly defining my brand, I sent surveys out to customers and their input was so helpful. That entire process got us to streamline events and products and really helped us become Urbanum.”
By surveying her customers, Brigid has learned what they like best and what products they want to see in Urbanum. She has done three customer surveys, with the first one taking place during the pandemic.
Patterns have started to emerge. For example, Brigid initially carried few women’s accessories in the store. One woman who answered a survey said she can hide the purchase of a purse or earrings but cannot hide the purchase of a piece of furniture. Due to feedback like this, Brigid has added some purses, jewelry, and scarves to the store’s mix.
In addition to defining Urbanum’s brand, Brigid has also tried to figure out who the store’s typical customers are. “When we opened, we thought we would have a very clear customer base and we really don’t. Our customers are a cross section of our community, and we love that,” she said. “A year ago, we had hoped to really define our typical customer, and business students from the University of Michigan helped design a survey tool and studied our sales data to determine our primary customer. They came to the same conclusion — we have a wonderful mix.”
Store Hours and Events
Brigid has tweaked Urbanum’s hours since opening the store four years ago. “I am doing fewer hours and fewer in the winter,” she said. “Sales grew last winter.”
The store was initially open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Today, its hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with Sunday’s hours remaining noon to 4 p.m.
The winter hours go into effect the second week in January, with the store then open from Thursday through Sunday. Detroit’s cold winters and the number of people still not working full time in offices were reasons for enacting winter hours.
Three large events take place at Urbanum each year. They are a spring open house the first weekend of March, a summer sale at the end of July, and a holiday open house the first weekend of November.
“The coolest thing we do is we close the store for a week leading up to the Christmas open house,” Brigid said. “There’s nothing that is not touched with holiday magic.”
People line up outside Urbanum’s entrance on that Saturday for the holiday event. Last year, a preview party was added for the first time on the night before the one-day Christmas open house — an idea Brigid received from a friend. The result was expanded sales, and it is taking place this year as well.
The preview party includes appetizers, champagne, and the opportunity to shop. The ticket is $25, with 100% of last year’s proceeds supporting a homeless shelter for women and children.
Brigid said that before the pandemic began, Urbanum hosted several events and classes per month. “They included speakers on architecture, Detroit history, race, and design,” she said. “We held cookie and cake decorating classes.”
Since the pandemic, the seasonal open houses have continued and there have been a few book signings. Brigid said they continue to be careful about having large groups in the 1,800-square-foot space.
The Balancing Act
Brigid remembers her own experiences as the owner of a new business. Her advice for those who recently opened a store is to “work on balancing what you can do and will do with the needs of the shop and your customers. If I had kept stretching to be everything to everyone, I would have burned out. Find your lane and make it yours.”
For example, one thing Urbanum is known for is its customer service. Brigid believes customer service happens in the details and said they go “above and beyond to do the little things.”
When Brigid and Tim were creating their first beer and wine shop in 2011, they spent hours exploring other small businesses and talking about what they liked and did not like about them. “In the end, we agreed that we held warmth, graciousness, and hospitality at the core of what we did,” Brigid said. “That’s how we want folks to feel when they are in the shops. We work very hard at being exceptional hosts.”
Facts at a Glance
Business Name: Urbanum
Location: 6545 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48202
Size: 1,800 sq. ft.
Trade Shows Attended: Atlanta, Dallas, NY NOW, and Shoppe Object
Product Categories: Small case goods, lighting, gifts, art, bath, baby, books, stationery, plants, barware
Social Media: Facebook, Instagram
POS System: Square