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Small Biz Saturday: Caravan Gift Shop takes its handmade gifts online during pandemic

“Buy local, or bye-bye local”

Caravan Gift Shop has been in Nickels Arcade since 1927.
Caravan Gift Shop has been in Nickels Arcade since 1927. (Sarah M. Parlette / WDIV)

ANN ARBOR –  The Caravan Gift Shop is like a little Art Fair that happens all-year-round, according to Bailey Ahles, whose family has owned the historic shop in Nickels Arcade since 1992.  

Known by the gold camels on its front windows, the 93-year-old shop in downtown Ann Arbor specializes in handmade gifts by 100 different artists. 

“It’s definitely been really hard, I would say. Like most of the businesses in the Arcade, everyone is probably operating somewhere between 25-50 percent,” said Ahles.

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Caravan Gift Shop was 100% reliant on walk-in traffic but it had to close to in-person shopping for 14 weeks.

Although you wouldn’t know it from looking at the thousands of items on its shelves, Ahles said that the closure caused Caravan to hold back on some of its orders from artists.

“And that’s the part that is actually heartbreaking,” Ahles said. “The people that we carry in the shop, their passion is being an artist. You know, it’s not something that has probably ever been a lucrative career for them, so they are definitely feeling the hit of all of that.”

She said that the artists have been flexible with the shop’s orders but it’s hard to call artists and postpone things because it is so impactful.  

The gift shop sells thousands of handmade items including dryer balls, wallets, glassware, wooden bowls and gift sets.
The gift shop sells thousands of handmade items including dryer balls, wallets, glassware, wooden bowls and gift sets. (Sarah M. Parlette / WDIV)

To continue offering eclectic handmade gifts to shoppers, Caravan GIft Shop built a website that has many of its items. The shop also started offering personalized shopping over video chat services, which Ahles said has been fun for clients. They get personalized recommendations and get to go through the whole process of selecting gifts, gift bags and extras, but from home.

Caravan has also put together gifts sets for different holidays and for friends to send each other during the pandemic. It started a stamp-and-send program for cards. Clients select a card and Ahles handwrites their message, then sends the card on its way.

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Although it’s not the same as connecting with clients in-person, Ahles said that making the move online has been a good way to reconnect clients and Caravan. She said that some clients, who visit during the U-M football games or during Art Fair, now follow the shop online and connect with it that way. 

Shoppers who visit Caravan Gift Shop can still expect to see a myriad of gifts like jewelry, ceramics, funky lamps, wooden bowls, dolls, wind chimes and glassware, among the thousands of other things found in the display cases. 

Ahles said that the shop grows with its clients as they return year after year. Many have told her they remember seeing the animal figurines the shop keeps in a window display by the front door. Some clients even have the same figurines at home, which Ahles said have been made by the same family business for decades.

Growing with Caravan is something Ahles knows well. Before her parents bought the business, her father worked in the shop and she would sleep behind that counter when she was younger. 

Ahles said that customers are particular attracted to the uniqueness of the globes sold at Caravan Gift Shop.
Ahles said that customers are particular attracted to the uniqueness of the globes sold at Caravan Gift Shop. (Sarah M. Parlette / WDIV)

Although it was one of the first shops in the Nickels Arcade, the future of the Caravan is uncertain. Ahles said the family-owned and operated business isn’t sure what changes it will have to make.

“We’re just continuing to keep planning and adjusting as things keep changing. It’s hard because its like a moving target and you don’t know what you’re going towards.”

Ahles said the shop pays a premium to be in its location and without the certainty of students and their parents returning to the area in the fall,  there’s really no way to predict what things will look like. 

She said that community members should remember “buy local, or bye-bye local” -- a slogan used by community organization Think Local First of Washtenaw County before it disbanded in 2016. 

Ahles said as shoppers begin to venture out, they need to support local businesses or those businesses might not be around for much longer.

Caravan Gift Shop is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturday but video appointments can be arranged outside of those times as well. 

Find it at 3 Nickels Arcade #1 326 S. State St., or at www.thecaravangiftshop.com/

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Bailey Ahles behind the counter of  Caravan Gift Shop in downtown Ann Arbor.
Bailey Ahles behind the counter of Caravan Gift Shop in downtown Ann Arbor. (Sarah M. Parlette / WDIV)

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