Farmington Hills bookstore carves out niche

Small business spotlight

Anti-corporate vibe gives customers a personal touch

Maureen McDonald/ Special to The Detroit News

Farmington — Zombies, vampires, steampunkers and the former customers of the defunct Borders store in Farmington Hills helped Off the Beaten Path Bookstore and Café here project a profit of $60,000 for this year.

“We’re one of the only steampunk stores in the country,” says Salathiel Palland, 39, owner of Off the Beaten Path which stocks more than 40 books, DVDs and a variety of hats that celebrate the newest fad that combines Victorian costumes, strange-looking machines and punk accents.

She carries new and used fantasy, science fiction, mystery and horror books in her 2,400-square-foot store dubbed “the airship.”

The first anniversary celebration on Oct. 30 will include people in zombie costumes walking from her store to Riley Park in downtown Farmington and people in angel costumes walking from the historic Governor Warner mansion on Grand River. At least 60 people have pledged on in-store signup sheets and Facebook to converge on the park for a flash mob choreographed to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”

“We’re out to create a community space where people come and talk with others about genres that interest them,” said Palland.

She runs classes in hula-hooping, belly dancing, corset-making, drumming and chain mail design. Visitors play steampunk-themed board games while sipping a variety of teas and coffees as soft techno music plays in the background.

Palland exemplifies a trend to niche stores, said Paul Bensman, CEO of Details in Retail, a Southfield-based retail consulting firm.

“There are a whole slew of anti-corporate customers who want the personal touch,” Bensman said. “They want stores that carry their kind of merchandise and they want to talk with like-minded people.”

Yet a business must run as a business, no matter how creative the merchandise, he said.

“Entrepreneurs must pay close attention to their books and their spending patterns,” Bensman said. “Now is the perfect time for them to thrive. Landlords may be inclined to offer discount rates. Customers may buy up used and consignment merchandise that keeps inventory costs low.”

Palland has a background in retail, working in the 1990s as a bookseller for Borders in Novi and Birmingham.

“The timing was right for fantasy readers. The economy wasn’t going to get any worse. If I didn’t jump in, I’d be sitting on my dream forever,” said Palland, who used her savings and family loans to power her fantasy into reality.

Her retail experience taught her that books alone won’t bring customers back. Some of her best experiences in crowd generation came from serving coffee at Starbucks in New York City.

“I find people who march to the same drummer as me,” says Sue Stahl of Dearborn, who enjoys the Thursday stitch-and-complain event at Off the Beaten Path. “This place has a nice eclectic atmosphere. I get ideas for new costumes and sewing tips.”

Kristen Staubitz of Highland Township joins her husband Mark on frequent evenings at the bookstore and café. “We got involved in the steampunk culture and this was the best place to find books,” she said. “We are avid readers.”

The notion of a fantasy-horror bookstore is not alone in Metro Detroit. Used on New Bookstore in downtown Mount Clemens, a new storerun by former Borders employee Lisa Taylor, will combine with its tenant Weirdsville to stage a zombie weekend Friday and Saturday outside the store. Festivities include a dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and a late-night parade led by a hearse and kazoo band.

On the west side, Palland markets the store with public events like the zombie parade and social media, especially Facebook. She posts almost daily with new pictures, reviews, information about herself and the customers.

“Pepsi-Cola and small entrepreneurs have the same point of entry on the Web,” Bensman said. “This is the place people can project a large outreach on a small budget.”

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