Branching out

When Christmas comes in a couple days, Tony Woods' favorite present might be the number on the bottom line of a sales tally.

This is the busy season for his small, bare-bones garden center, and if he's sold enough Christmas trees this month, he can make it through the lean times of winter. If not, his new business could be in trouble.

"February and March are going to be tough for us," the tall, 52-year-old Woods says. "So we gotta generate as much revenue as we can now."

His store, called the Garden Station, is so far little more than a dirt lot and a shack attached to an empty building that once housed a stenograph machine business. It's next to a gas station on the busy intersection of State Fair and Dequindre on the east side. He started the store about a year ago, a shot at the classic dream of working for yourself and not having to answer to anyone else.

He's an autoworker at Ford, the kind of job that can vanish at any time these days, and he knows he has to start looking out for himself.

"That's what I worry about, that they might downsize and I get the tap on the shoulder and they say goodbye, so I thought I need to start something new," he says "There was the urgency to start doing something else."

He has escaped the recent rounds of layoffs, though at a cost. "I got downgraded," he says. "Still working, but my responsibilities increased but with a drop in pay and status. But that's cool," he says in a tone making clear it's not really cool at all. Then he utters the mantra of most workers nowadays: "At least I've still got a job."

So he and Clifford Johnson, his 70-year-old father-in-law, rented this little spot, got a few dozen Christmas trees from a dealer a couple of hours north, and put them inside cinder blocks that act as tree stands. They added some bags of rock salt and bales of straw, and some wreaths and crafts made at home by Woods' wife Charlotte.

"We gotta create our own jobs, especially in these economic times," says Charlotte Woods, 49. She had her own crafts store in Livonia Mall a decade ago. Then the entire mall closed. Ever since, she's been making things at home and selling them on the side to her old customers — until this opportunity arose.

Woods and Johnson took a few squares of Christmas wrapping paper with such iconic holiday imagery as snowmen and snowflakes on them and taped them to the stark black wall of the shack to give it some life. They strung tree lights along its roof, and garlands mask the barbed wire atop the fence around the lot. It all adds a festive touch to the spot, setting it off from the gray street.

Their advertising budget is zero. Their heating bill is for kerosene for a space heater in the shack and is measured by the dollar and by the gallon. Lights are two fluorescent fixtures that are usually kept off. The only professional sign is the faded one projecting from the roof and over the sidewalk, announcing the long-gone steno shop. Woods is still trying to figure out how to launch a business with no big signage and no advertising, and without much money right now for either.

"I got that little display out there today," he says, pointing to a stack of straw bales with some hand-lettered signs leaning against them. He's made photocopied fliers that he leaves on windshields in parking lots and at senior citizen centers around town.

"I got some more signs that we're making up. I'm just trying to experiment with different things, and see how it works out."

Years ago,
the city was full of side, small and start-up businesses like this. Someone could make things or perform a service and do it from a little space. Back then, though, guys like Woods and Johnson usually didn't have to compete with behemoths like Lowe's and Home Depot, massive stores that can buy wholesale and sell things cheaper than small stores can even purchase them, undercutting the mom-and-pop shops and driving many to extinction.

Woods thinks he's figured out how to survive despite them. "I think what we can beat them at is in our overhead costs," he says, huddled outside the dark shack in the wind and the dimming light. "And there are some people that live in the neighborhood, they might spend a dollar more for something that's close by versus going to the Home Depot five, six miles away."

He enrolled in a fast-track entrepreneurial class at Wayne State University a while back to learn how to do it right. They taught him how to budget, how to make a business plan, how to advertise and market.

"I'm kind of practicing my classroom experience with this," he says. "It's kind of like something that's been an aspiration of mine to have my own business, and this is a neat way of kind of starting out."

A stocky, older woman pulls her car up and parks it on the sidewalk at an angle. There's no parking lot here and you can't park on the street, so you make your own spot. "Somebody recommended y'all, said y'all was reasonable," she says. "I need a tree for my grandkids and some hay for a dog house."

In the city, it's not uncommon to own a backyard dog to guard the property. They need straw in their doghouses to keep warm in the winter. The woman says she got a Rottweiler-German shepherd mix after a break-in. "I was forced to get him," she says. "We had a dog house built but it's not comfortable. It's cold and it's not right to keep the dog like that." She bought a bale of straw for $7 and a tree for $25. Johnson helped load them into her car's trunk, and tied it down with twine.

If this store makes it through the winter, Woods says he wants to open others like it in the city. "That's kind of my vision, make it a community-based retail shop in terms of providing plants and stuff like that and doing it in a competitive basis, have competitive prices with Lowe's and Home Depot and offer more personal service."

Johnson says they may add more crafts from his daughter, a few flower arrangements, maybe some Hallmark cards on shelves inside the shack. "But first we gotta get one thing making money before we jump into another." 

In the spring they plan to have flats of flowers and vegetables, hanging houseplants and rolls of sod. But there's a long winter between now and then, and getting through it depends on moving a lot of trees and wreaths this month. 

They're determined to make it work. Johnson had a garden business like this once, but it folded. This time, he says, he's wiser. "We've taken it one step at a time. We just gotta see how our money's running." 

His breath comes out like steam in the cold December air as he stands in the yard, shuffling from side to side, waiting for the next customer. Christmas is just days away, and, so far, sales are promising. Most trees are gone, and they can't keep enough straw in stock to meet demand.

"I say it's coming along," he says, guarded but optimistic. "We'll get it together. Next year we'll be running smooth."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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