The New Face of Retail
Danielle Deboe looks like an ad for urban living.
She's sitting sideways on a bar stool at The Greenhouse Tavern on East Fourth Street, her legs crossed at the knees, her elbow resting casually on the concrete bar top. Wearing dark jeggings, Le Chameau rain boots and a dove-gray knit wrap sweater, the 34-year-old DeBoe has a Marissa Tomei quality to her — big eyes, a huge smile — that makes her look a little more carefree than she actually is these days.
In the past seven months, she's uprooted her successful Gordon Square boutique and moved it to larger digs in Ohio City. She's traded her happy life in the same neighborhood for a downtown apartment. And if all goes as planned, this month she'll open a high-profile lifestyle store across the street from where we're sitting.
"Downtown blew my mind almost instantly," she says. "Being down here seven days a week, it feels like a downtown."
On East Fourth Street, at least, that feeling is the result of good planning. Ari Maron, who developed the area with his father, knew that to bring people downtown, he had to offer an experience that can't be found in the suburbs.
His strategy was simple: To create unique places, you need unique people.
So Maron began recruiting the city's top chefs. He calls them "characters with real personalities." People like Michael Symon of Lola Bistro, Jonathon Sawyer of The Greenhouse Tavern and Zack Bruell of Chinato.
Last year, Maron determined it was time to try opening a significant retail store downtown, something no one has done in the nine years since Dillard's closed.
"Danielle," he says, "was at the top of our list."
Not only has she successfully run Room Service since 2007, but she also created Made in the 216, Cleveland's big semiannual local-shopping event. And that's just her résumé, not her personality.
In the course of a 30-minute conversation, DeBoe uses the word "passionate" 13 times. When work needs to be done, she gets on a ladder herself. She people-watches everywhere she goes and has developed a sense for not only what people will wear in Cleveland, but also what they will pay (mostly less than $100 an item). She cut her February vacation short by three days so she could get out of Rome and back to work in Cleveland.
On June 1, DeBoe will attempt to do what no politician or planner has been able to — bring retail back to downtown Cleveland. Pending permits, DeBoe will open a 4,000-square-foot store called The Dredgers Union with her business partner Sean Bilovecky. It'll be seven times as big as the first boutique DeBoe opened in Gordon Square.
It's the next step in downtown's growth, and in DeBoe's.
She moved to East Fourth to make sure it works. "The line between my business and my personal life is totally blurred," she says, wearing a bracelet with a tiny sterling silver Ohio-shaped charm with a star marking Cleveland. "I cannot even imagine being a business owner and not being vocal and out there."
DeBoe remembers coming downtown as a child and how small the city made her feel. There were so many possibilities. There was so much to imagine. There still is. "Downtown feels bigger than the neighborhoods," she says. "If feels older. It feels richer."
Four years of college seemed like an obstacle not a bridge to Danielle DeBoe's future.
She graduated from Euclid High School in 1995 and began studying photography at Kent State University. She dropped out in the middle of her sophomore year to move to California, where with no credentials, experience or education, she got a job working in set design for the entertainment industry.
"I was just ready to start my life," she says. "I have always preferred learning from doing."
The only problem was that she didn't know how to do any of it.
"I was 21, and people called me out on being green right away," she says. "I wanted these jobs, and I didn't want to let on that I didn't know how to do them. I had only myself to rely on."
DeBoe spent her days tracking down props in the old conversion van she shared with a musician ex-boyfriend. That meant fighting Los Angeles traffic to find, say, a microphone from the 1970s or spending the day at Dodger Stadium assisting with a Tiger Woods commercial for Japanese Asahi Soft Drinks.
She even spent two futile days attempting to track down a red and white gingham tablecloth with an out-of-town friend in tow. The best she could do were six alternatives. "The producers were super blasé about it," she says. "It was like they forgot what they even asked for."
But not DeBoe: "It kills me to this day," she says.
Word got around that she was good, and she began to get more work.
The experience began a pattern that persists to this day: DeBoe gets in way over her head, is anxious and terrified, works like a maniac to succeed, then ultimately gets bored.
"It's almost a sickness," she says. "Once you realize you can do an obscene amount, you can look back at the mounting feats. Once you look back at the feats. It's a weird high."
Still, LA just didn't feel right. She had friends but couldn't shake the feeling, as she drove around all day, that nobody really knew where she was or cared what she was doing.
When an offer came to work at the now-defunct Cottonwood furniture store in Chagrin Falls, where she'd had a part-time job before leaving for California, she took it. "I was really ready to be home," she says. After Cottonwood went out of business, DeBoe took a job as a visual manager helping to open stores across the country for Anthropologie.
Eventually, she began to imagine that she could do what she loved on her own and in Cleveland. In 2007, DeBoe opened a boutique in the pre-trendy Gordon Square neighborhood — before the Capitol Theatre had been renovated, before Marlin Kaplan opened a restaurant and before the sidewalks looked like works of art.
The tiny store, called Room Service, sold an ever-changing mix of old and new items with an emphasis on locally made goods. The one constant was good design.
Room Service, and the neighborhood, began to prosper. Restaurants opened. Movies played at the Capitol. Houses were renovated, and condos were built.
DeBoe lived near the store in an old house with pink walls, a vintage paisley sofa and a chalkboard in the kitchen where she wrote herself a reminder: "Try cooking. Supposedly, it is a pleasurable experience."
Life was good. Which, for DeBoe, is never good. "I'm the kind of person who likes having a lot on my plate," she says.
In 2008, she launched Made in the 216, a shopping event showcasing the work of local designers and artists. The more design blogs she perused, the more she was convinced that Cleveland was producing furniture, art, clothing and decor on par with places like New York City. But most people had no idea.
"It was code red critical information we had to get to people," she says. "People are making choices every day about whether to leave or stay. It could all be influenced by a more accurate depiction of Cleveland."
Future Made in the 216 events will be held in the vast and empty basement of The Dredgers Union, but early ones were located in vacant storefronts. DeBoe would leave her store at 6 p.m. then often work past midnight in the six weeks leading up to the event getting the space ready.
"When she gets into something, that's everything," says Bilovecky. "In Cleveland, there are a lot of obstacles and hurdles. You have to have that passion to overcome all of these obstacles."
From the outside, it would seem like enough. DeBoe was doing what she loved in a neighborhood she loved while also promoting the region as a whole.
That's why DeBoe's decision to leave Gordon Square was so baffling to so many. "Room Service needed to turn a corner," she says. "It couldn't grow in a 600-square-foot store."
She'd spent a few months last year looking for a bigger storefront in Gordon Square but couldn't find anything with both enough space and enough character. She found exactly what she was looking for in a 2,000-square-foot storefront across from the West Side Market and relocated Room Service there.
Her neighbors couldn't understand how she could leave. "You're abandoning us," is something DeBoe heard a lot. "They were kind of saying it joking," DeBoe says, "but they said it."
DeBoe, because of the way she's wired, had no choice. She could not grow in Gordon Square, and not growing makes her more anxious and miserable than any amount of work or stress ever could. "Change is so uncomfortable," she says. "But the lack of change is nauseating to me."
She wishes she could have made more people understand. "But I was so swamped," she explains. "You can't go around explaining your logic to everyone."
She had a store to open, and she wanted to do it in time for the holiday shopping season. "I was really skeptical that she could do it," says Eric Wobser, executive director of the Ohio City Near West Development Corp. "But within a month or two, she was open."
Then, while she was planning the June Made in the 216 event, she got the call from Maron about opening a store downtown.
She told him she needed six weeks to think about it. "I was emphatic," she says. "It just did not fit into how I had budgeted my time."
But she couldn't get the space out of her head.
She took the idea to Bilovecky, who had spent the last five years creating his own wholesale, U.S.-made clothing line called Wrath Arcane. He suggested designing a new clothing line that they would sell at The Dredgers Union. Because there'd be no middleman, they could compete pricewise with stores such as Banana Republic while still producing all of their clothes in the United States.
"You can't compete with Old Navy," he says. "That's a losing battle. But there's a middle market. We're at that price point, and our quality is crushing J.Crew or Banana Republic. That's a battle I can win."
DeBoe and Bilovecky came up with an eight-page development plan. The store would be 40 percent home goods and 60 percent clothing. About a third of the apparel would be their Dredgers Union line, including custom-made men's suits.
Three days after talking to Maron, DeBoe was sure. "Let's do this," she said.
It's a cold spring day seven weeks before The Dredgers Union is slated to open. There's no facade on the storefront yet, just a wood-framed wall. Inside, a dozen men are hammering and sawing the space into a store. "This is so exciting," DeBoe says, clutching the coffee she buys two or three times a day from the street's Erie Island Coffee Co.
When the work is done, the space will be as big or bigger than many suburban mall stores. "We're almost like a substitution for the department stores that used to exist here," DeBoe says.
You'll be able to buy a range of items, from locally made lip balm to a Dredgers Union men's shirt that's slim but with specially cut armholes that don't restrict movement — and it will all be stuff that isn't available anywhere else in Cleveland.
"With so many choices," DeBoe says, "it's unfathomable that any of us should be duplicating product lines." If she learns another boutique starts carrying one of her lines, she'll replace it with something new.
Maron says he feels downtown and East Fourth Street, in particular, finally have enough foot traffic to support retail. "In the initial phase, something like a Gap doesn't make sense," he says.
Down the road, however, he can imagine retail thriving in a much broader way. "As we continue to develop a retail program for downtown Cleveland, those types of stores can be part of the mix."
The room is narrow and deep and, right now, a blank canvas. But DeBoe can see it all in her mind.
When she was younger, DeBoe was constantly rearranging the rooms in her house, trying out new layouts for the furniture and rehanging artwork. She had a cart in which she put every cleaning product she could find. She'd make the room sparkle then get to work.
In her mind, she'd create a scenario then design to accommodate it. "I would think, I want to clean and arrange this place as if the president of the United States is coming over," she says.
The scenario these days is that shoppers are coming. DeBoe gestures to the right side of the room: the home section. It'll be mostly "great grab-and-go" pieces like a lavender table lamp with a multifaceted glass base, a contemporary wood and steel occasional table, or a candle from one of the 12 lines the store will carry.
Just more than half the store will be devoted to apparel, including a back denim wall with brands like Paige Denim, known for slimming hips and lifting derrieres, and Henry & Belle, a current celebrity favorite. All jeans will range from $58 to $158.
DeBoe has spent 10 months picking out clothing for The Dredgers Union. A photo of every piece she's selected hangs on her office wall. There are sundresses, floaty tanks, hip T-shirts, cargo pants and skirts. The most expensive brands will be Velvet and French Connection, but most of the pieces will stay under the $100 mark. DeBoe's most excited about the Dredgers Union line.
"We designed it, so it is exactly what we like," she says. That means, above all, great cuts and quality fabrics. The pieces project the same image as DeBoe: urban, stylish, creative, without being too young. "I'm not in my 20s anymore," she says. She defines chic as "something that appears effortless and unintentional."
As in, "Oooops, I just happen to be really chic," she says, laughing.
Deboe's phone vibrates. It's a text wishing her a happy birthday. And it makes her feel guilty. "My friend has a 6-week-old son who I haven't even met yet," she says. "And she remembered my birthday."
DeBoe's life has its casualties.
"You miss friends' baby showers and birthday parties. You feel horrible," she says. DeBoe has a serious boyfriend, local architect Wes Harper, and wants someday to have children, but she does wonder how it will all intersect.
She has chronic sleep issues, especially leading up to a store opening or an event. "I don't sleep more than three hours at a time," she says. Before she goes to bed, she often records a list of everything she needs to do the next day on her cell phone.
"It's a hideous thing to hear the next day," she says.
This week it's ordering hangers and designing bags. "It never ceases to amaze me all of the little details, and you are the one who has to do them," she says.
One of her new rules is that she doesn't look at her cell phone after 8 p.m. Exercise used to help, but she doesn't have time anymore. She tries to trick herself into feeling calm by giving herself one task that can be completed each night — like ordering the mannequins she and Bilovecky forgot to budget for. (They cost about $400 each and they need 24 of them. The budget for her next project, she says, is going to have a line item called "Forgetful," and it's going to be "a huge chunk of money.")
Knowing that her goal is important also keeps her going. DeBoe is just old enough to have experienced what it was like to head downtown for an exciting day of shopping. Her grandmother worked in the beauty salon at Higbee's, and during the holidays, she shopped at the Twigbee shop. "I've had a romantic notion of downtown since I was a kid," she says.
The Dredgers Union is the first attempt in years to bring some of that back, but in a different way. "She's a pioneer in a national trend of telling a unique local story," Wobser says.
Will it work? Maron believes that DeBoe, like the culinary mavericks on the street, has the personality needed to draw people in. She's the new face of retail in Cleveland.
"I never consider the negative when starting a project or embarking on anything new," DeBoe says. "I always operate on the assumption of success."
So far, that approach has worked. DeBoe's on a roll. East Fourth Street is on a roll. "This," she continues, "is the time to do it."
Once The Dredgers Union is up and running, will that finally be enough for
"Definitely not," says Deboe, intercepting the question.
"I will become a big fish," she says. "It's inevitable that at some point I will also conquer this and need some new challenge."
Maybe it will be more stores. Maybe it will be a new event.
"Maybe it will be something I haven't even conceived of yet," she says, her voice gaining momentum. "The motivation is the thrill of the unknown.
"My life," she says, "will always be about taking something new on."
in the cle
12:00 AM EST
May 18, 2011