About 20 miles southwest of Lansing, the rural community of Charlotte is undergoing a significant cultural and retail revitalization. Focused primarily along Cochran Avenue, the main drag running through the city’s downtown, this growth has been spurred by #CharlotteRising, a grassroots association interested in generating economic momentum in the city. This energy, fueled in part by recently announced historic renovation and multimillion-dollar new construction projects, has also inspired a flurry of new small businesses to set up shop in long-vacant downtown storefronts.
One of these new stores is Dragonfly Boutique & Salon, which is set to open next Friday, March 3. Owner Shelly O’Connor said the store, which deals primarily in upcycled home décor, was designed to offer the kind of experience that could potentially anchor the fledgling shopping district. And she’s excited to be there.
“It’s amazing to be part of this,” O’Connor said. “It’s one of the reasons we zoomed in on Charlotte in the first place. (Dragonfly Boutique) is just what this area needs, and it will hopefully bring a lot of new folks to the area who might not normally come here. We want to help make Charlotte rise again.”
That idea of rebirth is the central tenet of upcycling, a craft that involves repurposing discarded furniture, homeware and other found objects into objets d’art via paint and creative reuse. An old teacup and saucers can become a birdfeeder; the blades of an old ceiling fan can be transformed into the wings of a dragonfly wall hanging; and a candlestick can be glued to a charger table setting to become an upright toilet paper dispenser.
“My favorite thing about upcycling is that some old thing can be transformed into the coolest part of a room,” O’Connor said. “It’s about taking something old and giving it a life that someone else couldn’t see. I’ve always enjoyed bringing life to old things. I think that everything is beautiful and has a purpose.”
O’Connor, 45, says she’s a self-taught upcycler (“I was doing it before there was a word for it”) but never considered making it into a career until three years ago. In June 2014, the Eaton County native and her husband sold all their belongings, including their home, and moved to Arizona to be closer to her mother following her father’s death. Before the move, she spent 24 years building up a home cleaning business and working for more than a decade as a dental assistant. In Arizona, she finally found the time and space to turn her hobby of home decorating into a full-time gig.
“This had always been my dream,” O’Connor said. “But it was never about making money. It was about doing what I want to do, and helping people make their homes a true reflection of their personalities. I really think that’s the heart of what (upcycling) is all about.”
She took the store’s name from a premonition she had after touring a property she considered turning into her first boutique.
“After my father passed, I was always looking for signs from him,” O’Connor said.
“I had just looked at this store and I knew I could do something with it, but I wasn’t sure. I said, ‘OK Dad, if this is what I should do, I need a sign.’ And then I saw two dragonflies on my car, and I knew.”
The store was a success, but a family emergency in mid-Michigan brought her home again last year. It didn’t take long before the entrepreneurial bug bit again. Now that she had a knack for running shop, she was looking to revive Dragonfly. She said she’d often visited Charlotte while growing up, but hadn’t been there in years and was surprised by the amount of activity downtown. That’s why she chose her new storefront along Cochran Avenue.
O’Connor is working with two other upcycling designers, Michelle Tellier and Cindy Zenker, to stock her showroom floor. Another corner of the space has been transformed into a one-chair hair salon, which will be operated by her best friend, Jeanette Miller-Halmich. Next to the salon station, O’Connor created a children’s play space that’s dedicated to Miller-Halmich’s granddaughter, Luna Younger, a Holt girl who died last fall; her stepfather is accused of killing her.
“It’s called Luna Land, and it’s a way to keep her memory alive,” O’Connor said. “There will be books to read and fairy wands and bubbles — all the things that Luna loved.”
In addition to upcycled goods, Dragonfly Boutique will also sell vintage and new items, including boots, clothing, handbags, jewelry, paper goods and handmade knickknacks. O’Connor will also allow small groups to rent out the space for private parties. The coming week, however, will be all about loading in the merchandise and staging it.
“It looks amazing in here — it really is a dream come true for me,” O’Connor said. “And I know that I’m in the right place, because I recently found out that Charlotte was incorporated into a city in 1871. I was born in 1971. With me, it’s all about history.”
Last week, Cara Nader announced that she will open a second location for her thriving 3-year-old café, Strange Matter Coffee Co., in downtown Lansing this spring. The new shop will set up in a 500-square-foot space at 337 S. Washington Square, on the corner of Washington and Kalamazoo Street.
“I always envisioned a place downtown,” Nader said. “I wanted to be more walkable and more community-oriented. I was just waiting for the right space to open up.”
That space is one-half of the former location for Crafty Palate, which closed last year after 20 months of business. Before that, it was home to Restaurant Mediteran, which held down the corner down for 10 years. The opening of the new Strange Matter is the lone bit of good news for downtown recently. Henry’s on the Square and Crafty Palate closed last year. Sarnie Shoppe and Hot Chicken Kitchen closed recently after five months. A deal to build the proposed two-story restaurant/bar, Lansing Beer Exchange, fell through earlier this month.
“That was a huge disappointment, hearing that wouldn’t be happening,” Nader said. “I’m super bummed that the rotation of downtown businesses keeps happening, but I think we can fix that.”
Nader opened the original version of Strange Matter in 2014 at 2001 E. Michigan Ave. in Lansing’s Eastside Neighborhood. This fall she will move that business across the street into the new Venue at East Town mixed-use development, which is currently under construction. The new location will have a kitchen that will produce scratch doughnuts, which she also plans to sell at her downtown café. She said when the big move occurs, there will temporarily be no east side Strange Matter because of health inspections.
“I need to rotate equipment in, so there will be a short window where both [the old and new east side locations] will be closed,” Nader said. “But thanks to the downtown location, there will always be a Strange Matter.”
The new Strange Matter will feature batched coffee in addition to Strange Matter’s signature pour-over selections, as well as pastries from Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor. But even if it is a success, Nader said she’s pretty sure this will be the only other Strange Matter location.
“My mission has always been to get people to connect with coffee in a way that they had never experienced before,” Nader said. “And to that, you really have to focus on quality. The idea of opening a Strange Matter in another city stresses me out. I wouldn’t be able to be there to ensure quality. ”
Dragonfly Boutique & Salon (opens Wednesday, March 1)
119 S. Cochran Street, Charlotte
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday
(517) 997-6057, facebook.com/dragonflyboutiqueandsalon
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