Detroit's small gems

Oct 17, 2007 at 12:00 am

Detroit is a treasure trove of small restaurants and stores tucked deep inside neighborhoods, shops too small for advertising budgets or media attention. While hundreds of independently owned and family-operated businesses have closed their doors over the years, several places across town have kept going, getting by on loyal regulars and word of mouth in an age of mega-malls and superstores. Often, the people behind the counters are the owners, who have devoted decades of their time and resources to these humble places, located in modest buildings, in crumbling neighborhoods, outside downtown.

On, I've been profiling a number of them as an alternative city guide. Here's a handful of the best:

Nature's Products, 20020 Conant St., Detroit; 313-891-3900, a bulk herbs store, has been in this location, a lone storefront on Conant just south of Eight Mile Road, for 29 years, quietly catering to the needs of the area's black residents, who've used herbs for years as part of their health care. "The people in this neighborhood, they know about the herbs," says Gary Wanttaja, the store's 48-year-old owner. "They grew up on it, or their parents used it, or their grandparents used it." Hundreds of jars fill his shop, exotic powders and crumbled leaves that comprise a world of alternative medicine largely unknown outside the neighborhood. The most popular are goldenseal and echinacea, a mix popular for treating colds. "There's a lot going on here in the city, but you'd never know about it unless someone points it out to you," he says.

Minnie's Cakes, 15974 Wyoming, Detroit; 313-864-8118, is a tiny bakery on Wyoming, run by Lemuriel Delthina Woods, the diminutive, energetic, 67-year-old owner, who single-handedly bakes Southern pound cakes in 36 flavors, such as ambrosia, sweet potato and chocolate, ranging from loaf-size to $1 mini-cakes, using an old southern recipe. Despite spare surroundings and modest means, her sweet cakes are among the best in town. "We just need people to know we're here," Woods says.

J.W. Westcott Headquarters and Bookstore, 12 24th St., Detroit; 313-496-0555, at the river's edge, is a cozy, charming, nautical-themed bookstore that's also the headquarters of the world's only floating post office, with boats delivering mail and packages to and from passing ships. The business offers weary sea travelers reading material, as well as snacks, maps, flags and T-shirts. "It turns out to be a pretty essential service, I guess, especially for some of these guys that have been out there two, three months at a time," says Bill Redding, 50, one of the company's dispatchers. This is the bookstore for anyone interested in nautical lore. "We try to supply as many good books as we can, just about anything boat-related," he says.

Nortown Bakery, 7531 E. Seven Mile Rd., Detroit; 313-892-0880, is a relic from an old Detroit of patchwork ethnic neighborhoods and businesses that catered to their residents. Located in a formerly Polish enclave, Nortown survives by selling Romanian bread and sandwiches, cakes and cookies, and imported European jellies. Vasile Sirca, 55, perseveres, despite his customer base all but vanishing from the area. "It's kind of a shame," Sirca says. "You got no business and you try to survive."

Detroitblogger John writes about culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]