Note: This article was written for Model D and was first featured on their website.
Disclaimer: Michael Boettcher is an area tour guide for Pure Detroit and other private clients.
Before Detroit was the new anything, before Detroit was vs. anybody, or hustled harder, Detroit was Pure.
Pure Detroit opened its first shop 20 years ago, on Thanksgiving Day 1998. Today, the company that bills itself as “Detroit’s Original Culture Shop” is a collection of six locations in landmark buildings around Detroit selling merchandise and experiences that celebrate the city.
Starting out with $2,000, founders Shawn Santo and Bill Atwood first opened Pure Detroit’s doors in a storefront in the David Whitney Building selling hot chocolate to entice parade-goers to check out their brand new little space full of Detroit-themed goodies for sale. Around 2000, Santo’s husband Kevin Borsay joined, and the couple has been the driving force behind the business since then.
“It wasn’t about being retailers,” Borsay says. “It was about loving the city.”
This year, the owners let the anniversary itself pass quietly, but they plan big things for “Pure Detroit 20” throughout 2019.
Borsay had been an electrical engineer for GM for a time, and Santo had previously published a magazine called the Left Bank Publication. “We wanted to help the city and one of the key ingredients in a healthy city is a vibrant streetscape. So we opened in a storefront on the ground level of a historic building on a main street. We envisioned it as a gathering place and it became a retail location.”
That storefront hosted the Watkins Cigar Shop for decades before Pure Detroit arrived in 1998. Watkins left behind an original cherry wood humidor and pipe display that Pure Detroit reclaimed for its merchandise, and a second story mezzanine with leaded beveled glass windows for selling collectibles.
As charming as it was, the shop had to move in 2000 when the building became too costly to maintain and the owners shut off utilities. The store decamped to the historic former State Savings Bank on Fort Street.
In 2001, Santo and Borsay opened their flagship store in the former Forster Laidlaw Florists space in the Fisher Building. The downtown store moved to its current Guardian Building location in 2004, and a sister store opened in the Renaissance Center the same year. When the Belle Isle Aquarium reopened in 2012 after seven years, Pure Detroit carved out an outpost location near the entrance. The 2016 redevelopment of the Strathmore Apartments also provided a perfect opportunity to create a Midtown presence.
Santo and Borsay have added other niche brands as well, including Vera Jane women’s boutique, Stella Good Coffee, and Workshop, which specializes in reclaimed wood furniture from deconstructed Detroit homes. Each of those shops calls the Fisher Building home.
Most recently, they’ve gone farther afield and opened Enjoy Michigan, a Michigan-themed shop with locations in Northport and Traverse City, and Porcupine, selling home goods and more, also in Northport. The latest adventures are Dendrophile, a gift shop selling all things tree-related at the Fisher, and another Pure Detroit at Cobo Center.
Throughout all the moves and store openings, the couple has stuck to what they came to call “mission-driven retail,” to celebrate Detroit, its culture, history, spirit and style. That style attracted Ben Affleck, seen on YouTube sporting a Detroit City t-shirt designed by Borsay. Eminem bought Pure Detroit “313” t-shirts for the entire cast and crew of “8 Mile.” Detroit musicians like the Dirtbombs and Amp Fiddler have been known to rock their Pure Detroit gear on stage around the world. International acts like Bette Midler and Avril Lavigne have done the same.
Pure Detroit’s style even attracted the State of Michigan, who found inspiration in it for its own “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign that it launched in 2008.
Alongside the stores, the couple experimented with some creative endeavors like Pure D Vinyl, a temporary popup shop inside the Fisher Building store that sold all-genre local records, and Pure Detroit Design Lab, a limited-time retail boutique showcasing local fashion designers in the State Savings Bank Building. The Design Lab gave out mini-grants to support Detroit fashion designers and scholarships to Wayne State University fashion students.
Another creative endeavor, Pure Detroit Art has presented exhibitions of work by Detroit artists in the Fisher and Guardian Building lobbies, along with commissioning murals by artists like W.C. Bevan, Ouizi, Fel3000ft, Malt, and Kobie Solomon, who created live onsite large scale paintings at the Dally In the Alley and Movement festivals.
Pure Detroit sponsored a stage at the Comerica TasteFest for a handful of years, where they also helped Cityscape Detroit curate the City Living Tent, bringing in Preservation Detroit (then Preservation Wayne) and similar partners to highlight Detroit’s growing residential and cultural options. They were the official apparel sponsor and created the merchandise for several years of Movement. They even helped create and sponsored the City to City Ride, an annual bike ride from Detroit to Chicago to raise money for cystic fibrosis research from 2007 to 2011.
For Pure Detroit’s 14th anniversary, the couple decided to offer free tours of the historic buildings it occupied. The first Fisher Building tours began in February 2013, followed by Guardian tours that April. Borsay and Santo saw tours as a natural extension of their mission to celebrate Detroit. The tour program has ballooned into a year-round calendar of themed tours downtown, in the Fisher Building, and the Packard Auto Plant, as well as custom tours.
The Pure Detroit family of companies has grown, weathered storms, and thrived for two decades now. As Detroit gains prestige as a brand, competition has increased as well. With more and more Detroit-themed t-shirt and jewelry labels, Pure Detroit has its eyes on what’s next. And who: Borsay’s and Santo’s 13-year-old son has already produced short videos for Pure Detroit and a t-shirt design that’s become a popular item at Enjoy Michigan stores.
So after a quiet Thanksgiving anniversary, stores will be busy for the Christmas season, then it’s on to big stuff in 2019. Some of the first #PureDetroit20 special anniversary items have been released, with more to come soon, including new, limited edition clothing items.
Along with new merchandise though, Santo and Borsay also want to get back into the community. They’re exploring hosting special performances of Detroit musicians and are talking with artist Fel3000ft about doing a new mural project in the spring. An upgraded website will feature a regular blog of articles on Detroit history and happenings.
From humble beginnings, Pure Detroit has helped create a market for Detroit as a brand. After 20 years, it’s not done yet.