For some, retirement means flying south, kickin’ back, and enjoying the golden years far away from work.
For Gail Kwiatkowski, retirement meant starting a new business.
When you first step into her shop on Michigan Avenue in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, it can be a bit overwhelming. Every surface and wall is covered with antique and vintage-inspired pieces like large banners advertising freak show acts, huge metal signs from ski lodges and pharmacies, and knickknacks from every era.
Appropriately named the Detroit Artifactry, the boutique seems like an organized mess. It’s also a bit of a treasure hunt, and that’s exactly how Kwiatkowski wants it.
While Kwiatkowski has gone as far as to hire an employee to help organize the storefront (who has advised her to declutter), she upholds the jumbled aesthetic won’t be changing anytime soon. “She constantly tells me … ‘No one can buy anything in here because they can’t see what you haveâ€…—â€…there’s just too much,’â€…” she says. “And I just say, ‘That’s just too bad. This is how I like it. This is my fun.’â€…”
And isn’t fun what retirement is all about?
The space is a culmination of a longtime passion for Kwiatkowski and her husband, John. They filled their two homes with eclectic and unique lost-and-found pieces from around the country.
Back in Detroit, their sons Dave and John opened Sugar House and later bought Honest John’s. (Dave is also involved in Wright & Co. and Cafe 78.) Kwiatkowski soon found herself in the city almost every day assisting with the businesses.
Across from the Sugar House on Michigan Avenue, she watched the long-defunct Duncan Speedometer building sit untouched. “Everyone told me the building was sold,” she says. Still, in 2011 she began drafting a letter to the previous owner’s widow expressing her interest in the property.
“I kinda forgot about it, and it hung around the kitchen for a while (and) got a little jelly on it,” she says. “So, I just put it in an envelope and sent it.”
Before long, she heard from the daughter of the widow and met her. She eventually sold Kwiatkowski the property. “And later I said, ‘What made you decide to sell the building to me?’ because she had offers,” says Kwiatkowski. “And she said, ‘I think it was the jelly on the letter.’ ”
Keys in hand, she began a multi-year renovation. The building housed the speedometer shop for some 40 years, accumulating a bit of “stuff.” Before being able to renovate, Kwiatkowski first needed to remove seven large trash bins full of debris.
With the space cleared, Kwiatkowski and her husband began planning to open a restaurant, but soon had another idea. “My husband and I had high-stress careers, and I said, ‘Let’s retire and do something fun.’â€…” And like that, Kwiatkowski left a career in finance and her husband left his advertising jobâ€…—â€…and the Artifactry was born.
“We took all of our collection and put it in here,” says Kwiatkowski. And although little of that original collection still remains, each new piece still holds that special place in her heart.
Kwiatkowski and her husband scour antique malls, garage sales, flea markets, and estate sales — very selectively. “There’s a method to the madness,” she says. She only picks pieces that speak to her. Something she would hang in her home, or could she could see in the home of her children.
Some pieces are refurbished. In their warehouse in Detroit, Kwiatkowski’s husband rewires old signs to restore them to their former illuminated glory. (A third son, James, helps with the restorations.)
Beyond the artifacts, the shop also sells variety of products from local artists and artisans, including photography, art, jewelry, candles, and gift items. Kwiatkowski says she not only wants to carry unique and one-of-a-kind pieces, but also staples and gifts customers can come to expect.
Kwiatkowski also wants to give back to those who have supported her. She says she’s begun using the space to host fundraisers and events for schools, charities, and community groups.
Not only do the events raise funds for the groups, but also “they get to shop and they get a discount,” says Kwiatkowski. “And it’s so much more fun than sitting in a restaurant or in an office building to have a meeting.”
The charity events are her way of giving back to the community. “The support that we’ve had is amazing,” she says, “We wouldn’t have it in any other community — nowhere could you get the support you have in Detroit.”
2135 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-974-7734; detroitartifactry.com
1. Skull snow globe $14.95 2. 1930s Rewired pharmacy sign $599 3. Cluster Fork Tea Towel $12.50
4. good morning from detroit mug $14.95 5. vintage film reel $75 6. REPRODUCTION METAL SIGN $34.95
7. antique royal typewriter $129 8. vintage lollipop microphone $129 9. deer jewelry stand $49.99 floral cuffs $29.95 rings $14.95 each skull $9.95