By Andrea Poteet
Shopping centers and strip malls are crammed with stores offering an array of furniture, decorations and other items for your home.
But for Mary Liz Curtin, co-owner of Clawson-based Leon and Lulu, stepping inside them shouldn’t feel like shopping for your home, it should feel like being at home.
“We’re selling happiness and a lifestyle,” says Curtin, who owns the store with her husband, Stephen Scannell. “We want customers to come in here and have a great time.”
To that end, Curtin and Scannell try to crank up the homey atmosphere with snacks and coffee always on hand. Loyal customers often swing by just to spend the day snuggled into a favorite armchair, and some even celebrate birthdays at the store.
A retail space that doubled as a party site was the dream of Curtin and Scannell when they opened the store in April of 2006.
“We put in our business plan we were hoping to do an event once a quarter,” Curtin says. “My husband is kind of a hermit, and I was actually lying because I planned to do an event once a month, but I thought that might terrify him.”
The couple has averaged 65 events a year, from artist’s markets and author’s nights to events for charities including AIDS Walk, Gilda’s House and others. More than 50 of the events held each year benefit charities.
“It’s wonderful to be able to be in a position to do nice things for different segments of the community,” Curtin says.
The couple, who met at a trade show and have been married for more than 22 years, share a common bond in their love of retail. Curtin grew up at The Merchandise Mart in Chicago on the heels of her mother, a shopkeeper and interior designer, before graduating to consulting and wholesale as well as writing and speaking professionally. Scannell owned The Cargo Hold in Birmingham for 26 years until it closed in 2001.
“We thought we were done with retail,” Curtin says. “But then in 2002, we didn’t have a store at Christmastime. We weren’t used to making cookies, going to parties and bugging the kids; we were used to working.”
The downtime urged Curtin back into the shops – this time working at a Crate and Barrel.
“I had a great time, I learned a tremendous amount,” she says. “So he said, ‘I’ll do it too.’ He got a job at another store in the mall and while I was having fun and learning so much, he was saying, ‘I can do this better.'”
So the couple searched for storefronts, a search made more difficult by a very specific list of requirements: affordable and easily-accessible from any place in metro Detroit, large enough for a furniture store and with proprietary parking.
The search led them to the former Ambassador roller rink, which the couple bought in 2005 and renovated in 10 months.
Named after their beloved late pets, “neighborhood alpha cat” Leon and Rotweiller Lulu, who both acted as store greeters, the store has been profitable since its fifth month, thanks in part to its loyal customers and the humor Curtin and Scannell inject into everything from store emails to whimsical displays. Novelty toys like a singing pickle often can be found near treasures gleaned from the couple’s trips around the world (including India and Peru this spring).
“There’s a lot of laughter in this store,” Curtin says. “In the first year we were open we had two women who had recently been widowed who would come to just walk through the store when they needed a lift. We have a sense of humor in a lot of the things we do.”
That easygoing atmosphere also extends to the four-legged staff. After the loss of the store’s namesake pets, Spot, a shepherd, labrador and pointer mix, took the reins as the store’s official greeter, welcoming new and returning customers at the door.
Curtin said, for her, it all comes down to making people happy.
“If somebody leaves here with something she can’t wait to give her friend,” she says, “or we help somebody with a new outfit, and she knows that she looks like a million bucks, we’re thrilled.”