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I had a chance to sit down with Claire Nelson, owner of The Bureau of Urban Living recently, and boy did we have a lot to talk about. Her store, which she co-owns with her husband Francis Grunow, has been open for a year now and Claire has all kinds of plans in mind for the City of Detroit plus helpful advice for aspiring shop owners in the area.

City Speak: Claire Nelson

The D: So tell me a little bit more about the Bureau of Urban Living.

Claire: Well I live upstairs with my husband. And there’s like 35 lofts in this building. Some time around the time that we moved here and were getting married, I remember thinking that it was kind of evident that we didn’t have many shops downtown that catered to the people that were living and moving here. I moved here from New York in 2002, I lived in Brooklyn last and I just loved the little shops in Brooklyn throughout New York and Chicago.

Bureau of Urban Living

You do have a bit of a NYC vibe going on here.

Thanks, that’s the nicest compliment.

You’re welcome.

I just wanted to see more shops like this and I figured I may as well try it. It just worked out really well that this space was owned by a friend of ours, and since I live upstairs it was so nice to be able to start it here. The inspiration was kind of like, a modern general store for people in the city, where they can get gifts for their home, but also to share general information about what’s happening. I want to see more spaces where you can walk in and find more information about events in the city, like real estate for instance–people looking for places to live come in once in a while.

I saw on your website, that you guys even throw your own events.

Yeah we do something called “First Thursdays”, we stay open late every first Thursday, and give a percentage of our sales to local non-profits that works to improve the public realm. Organizations like City Scape Detroit, and Preservation Wayne. You know, people who care about the physical city in particular. And you know, we’ve done other events too. We have events where local designers showcase their artwork.

Who are some of the local designers that you work with?

We have a few. City Bird is one of the labels that we carry, the brand by Emily and Andy Linn, who are brother and sister team and are really passionate about The City. They make all of the stuff that has Detroit maps on it, like votive candles holders, plates, there’s a new tote bag, they do soaps that are really popular that have Detroit maps on it. And they keep making new stuff, they hand make it all—their great! They both have other jobs and do this on the side, but they do it because they really love the city and want to spread that love.

Bureau of Urban Living

We also work with other artists. Like the panels above were done by a designer friend of ours, who also makes the orange bags up front made out of salvaged construction fencing.

Carl Oxley is another artist who lives out of Hamtramck. We sell some of his pillows and baby items that have the monkeys, bunnies, and animals on them. He does murals, he’s a painter, but he works with his wife to do textiles as well.

More after the jump…

Bureau of Urban Living

Where do you get your inspiration? What are some of your favorite blogs?

Honestly Design Sponge is one my favorites, because it was one of the first blogs that I was introduced to. Before I opened the shop, a friend of mine sent me the site, and it gave me lots of ideas. But honestly because this is such a little shop, I have to be careful with the design blogs because there is so much good stuff out there– sometimes I get kind of depressed that I have such a little store and can’t fit everything that I want in here. So I go on and off with reading blogs.

When I opened the store, I kind of knew which brands I wanted to carry based on being in other shops around the country, I knew what I wanted. I have a background in design too, I was a graphic designer before I opened Bureau, and so I love cards and paper products. I’ve always kept an eye on which brands I like, and I’m always trolling for ideas. I go to a lot of trade shows in Chicago, New York, and Atlanta. Everyone from Atlanta is from Detroit what’s up with that?

I know, tell me about it. One of my sisters lived in Atlanta for like ten years before moving back home. I should have asked you this earlier, but how would you describe Bureau of Urban Living?

I would call it modern. But not high modern, there are alot of high modern shops like DWR. Our friends work at Mezzanine, which is a high end modern shop, and I LOVE them and I LOVE their stuff, but we don’t do that, that’s like another level. This is more like “everyday modern”. Our average price point in the shop is $18.

I love that! I think my readers have figured out by now that I’m cheap–I mean a “bargain hunter”.

Yeah, we’re sort of more of a place to get a $20 birthday gift than we are a place for…you know…we don’t sell high-end furniture. We try to pick fun things that are good gifts for housewarmings, showers, or weddings — we sell Mrs Meyer’s Clean Day cleaners. People love it because it’s green and biodegradable. We try to do a mix.

Bureau of Urban Living

So is your store GREEN then?

The goal is to get the store greener and greener every year, but you know, we started with those products. Some of our sheets and towels are organic, and even some of our candles.

I heard you were going to be speaking at the Model D Event this Friday. Tell me a bit more about that.

They are an e-magazine, they like to showcase positive stories about The City. They have been really great with telling the story of our opening. There were a few articles on their site that shared our business with their readers. They are really big on new creative businesses and attracting new young professionals and speaking to that kind of an audience.

Yeah, I see a lot of that happening now: A big emergence of groups and organizations attracting younger professionals. Didn’t you start a group of your own?

Yeah, my friend and I started a group called Open City. My friend Liz Blondie, she owns a doggie daycare called Canine to Five, when I wanted to open this business she coached me because she had just done it herself. We both got a lot of advice from Jackie Victor at Avalon Bakery and Shawn Santo of Pure Detroit. So there’s a nice community of people who have done this retail things before. It’s hard since there’s not a lot of shops downtown, so you sort of don’t know what the heck you’re doing and want to be able to talk to people– Liz was really great at doing that for me.

So when I opened, I had so many cool people coming in saying “I want to open a shop. Where do I open?” or “I sort of have this cool idea what do you think?” I thought wow, there are so many people that want to do this, but it’s scary, and it costs a lot of money, and you have to like, navigate the process. So we started this group and said “let’s call a bunch of our friends and people who have expressed interest to get together once a month at Cliff Bell’s bar downtown” , we do it the third Tuesday of every month. And it’s just to share experiences and talk. We don’t have money to give, but we can point people in the right direction: it’s networking. We took off for the summer to strategize, but we’ll be back in September. There’s no cost, no obligation. You just show up. We have different topics each month, and we invite speakers to come in. The website is

Bureau of Urban Living

That’s incredible what you guys are doing. Aside from recommending that they join Open City, what advice would you give aspiring shop owners in Detroit?

I say  #1) Start small. I did that here. I wanted to have a shop at least twice this size, and with twice as much stuff but that would have been a huge initial investment and would have been scary too, you know? So I found a space where I could sign a lease for a year, test it out, and I knew the Land Lord–that brings me to #2) Work with someone who wants to see you succeed. Not someone who wants to rent out a space and be done with you–because you have to have a good relationship, especially when you’re a small retailer just starting out. You have to have someone who trusts you, and you trust them.

#3) Cluster. That’s my big thing that I try to keep saying over and over again. We’re on this isolated block, we’re next to Brewery, we’re next to Avalon, and there are other shops. We need to get more density, three or more shops in a row, to get more foot traffic between them. Anyone who’s opening up a shop, should talk to other shop owners, try to find the best spot for them, but try to get close to other businesses because the city is so big and so spread out. I think midtown–I’m partial–but I think midtown is a great place to open a small shop if that’s what people are thinking about. It’s close to the University, and you have a little bit more walking traffic going on.

Downtown obviously is great too. I was a little afraid of downtown, because I thought it would be too expensive, and I felt like the spaces were too large for me..I didn’t think I could fill it all up. That’s important too; you don’t want to look like a little store in a big wide open space. Try to find a small space, make it look full, and look good.

Well I think you have certainly achieved that here.


What’s in the future for the Bureau of Urban Living?

My biggest goal is to get more retail in our neighborhood, so we can start developing a REAL retail district, were people can walk and park. I think when you’re scattered it’s hard. People like to go to downtown Royal Oak for a reason. That’s #1. And #2, just evolve the collection, listen to our customers see what they want. I would love to make the place larger at some point. But for now it’s a good scale. We just need to drive more people in, and make more people aware of what’s going on.

Well The D in Decor will certainly help generate a bit of buzz for you guys that’s what it’s all about. Thanks for sitting down with me!

You were great, thank you!

…If you haven’t already, head on over to the Bureau of Urban Living shop guide.*

2 Responses to “City Speak: An Interview with Claire Nelson of Bureau of Urban Living”

  1. The D in Decor | Detroit Dwelling, Design, & Culture. » Blog Archive » Events this Weekend: AMC, Model D, sales, and more…

    [...] Model D is having their Speaker Series & 3rd Anniversary Party featuring Claire Nelson, whom I interviewed earlier this week, Hamtramck’s HATCH artists will be [...]

  2. The D in Decor | Detroit Dwelling, Design, & Culture. » Blog Archive » Shop Guide: Bureau of Urban Living

    [...] Click here to read my full interview with Claire Nelson, as well as see bonus photos of inside the shop. Close this WindowBookmark and Share This Page Save to Browser Favorites [...]

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