Mackerel Sky: Witness to Downtown Changes
Mackerel Sky has functioned as a kind of “anchor store” to East Lansing’s downtown shopping district from the time it was founded in 1990. Since 1969, husband-and-wife team Tom and Linda Dufelmeier, Mackerel Sky’s owners, have worked almost continuously within a one-block radius. This means they have witnessed four decades of change in East Lansing’s downtown. While they are troubled by the current state of downtown (as noted below), what has not changed is their affection for the regular customers of their business.
Mackerel Sky has been at its current location, 211 MAC Avenue (across the street from Omi Sushi, next door to Twichells Dry Cleaners) since 2010. The shop’s mission is “to bring art to articles of every day life.” Visitors will find housewares such as handcrafted wooden bowls and wooden cooking spoons, salt and pepper grinders, elegant corkscrews, and ceramic serving bowls, as well as artful glasses and mugs. Clothing options include women’s coats, hats, and scarves, and the display cases hold an extensive collection of unique jewelry.
Customers often come to the shop specifically to look for a unique gift card—gift cards make up a significant part of the store’s sales, because the collection is so unusual—or for a gift for a wedding, birthday, housewarming, or celebration of a new baby. The store currently has baby blankets, baby socks (jokingly sold in sets of five), children’s books, and soft-glow lights with rotating paper inserts that give off colored silouettes of animals.
Mackerel Sky also functions as a downtown art gallery by having a dedicated space for shows of individual artists. Shows last about six weeks and open on the first Sunday of even-numbered months. (The store’s website includes information about these shows.) Currently on display are the paintings of Freshteh Parvizi, and past shows have included the work of photographer Kim Kauffman and children’s book illustrator Kate Darnell, an East Lansing resident who maintains a studio over P.T. O’Malley’s.
Using a “fair trade” model of commerce, Linda and Tom deal directly with most of the artists and craft-makers whose work is sold at Mackerel Sky. The store was the first wholesale account for the internationally-known Ann Arbor-based Motawi Tileworks. The store also features finely-made boxes from Mikutowski Woodworking of Menominee, Michigan, and Michigan-themed items like coasters from City Bird in Detroit, along with City Bird’s book, Belle Isle to 8 Mile: An Insider’s Guide to Detroit.
I asked Linda and Tom about their experience of owning a downtown East Lansing business. Tom replied that “the last few years have been a struggle,” with little support from the City in terms of improving the attractiveness of the area. The streets and sidewalks around the area are cracked and lack attractive plantings. Linda said that aside from commercial outdoor seating associated with chain eateries, there are few places to sit in shaded comfort. She is concerned that the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) plan, if it involves cutting down all the trees and removing the green space in the Grand River Avenue median, “would totally destroy the ambiance.” She added, “The city hasn’t done anything to improve our quality of life.” Tom and Linda lived two blocks from the store for twenty years, but had to move because of the overtaking of their neighborhood by poorly maintained, overcrowded student rentals.
Tom and Linda are willing to do the hard work to maintain a unique shop downtown because they value the relationship with their long-term customers. “Over all we feel this is our home,” Tom told me. “We understand the community.”
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