ANN ARBOR – The cancellation of Ann Arbor Art Fair for the second straight year has deep impacts for both the artists and the organizations that operate the fairs, but there is another group of locals who rely on the event that packs the city with people for four days in July.
It’s one of the biggest weekends of the year for the college town business owners, who benefit from the sharp increase in foot traffic while students are home for the summer.
The State Street Art Fair is the retail hub of the event, with stores expanding their inventory onto the street alongside artist booths.
“In the State Street District, our tradition of Art Fair goes all the way back to Bargain Days 60 years ago,” said executive director of the State Street District Frances Todoro-Hargreaves. “Retailers did sidewalk sales and had a few artist to come join them.
“It’s become part of their business model so they can order what they need for the winter when the students are here. And then any inventory that’s left over is sold for discount at Art Fair.”
As COVID case numbers drop and vaccination rates continue to rise, State Street merchants said they were surprised when the directors of the fairs made the decision to cancel the event.
“I was pretty sure Art Fair was going to happen,” said co-owner of The Getup Vintage, Lindsey Leyland. “To miss that two years in a row is kind of heartbreaking. Honestly, it’s one of the highest-grossing weeks for us.
“That is a little heart-wrenching, too, because we don’t have that little extra that we know we’re going to get in July.”
Leyland said she spends each year purchasing vintage items from individuals and estate sales with Art Fair in mind.
“Now I’m sitting on two years of Art Fair stuff,” she said. “I’m paying to store these things that otherwise I would have maybe passed on or would have moved. After Art Fair, we do ‘Fill a Bag for $5.’ It’s a way to offer really affordable vintage, and for us to not have to pass on things and clear our storage unit.”
Aside from losing Art Fair for a second year, Leyland said the recent closure of Urban Outfitters a few doors down was a blow to business.
“Losing Urban Outfitters was one of the worst things that could have happened on State Street,” she said. “We had a huge amount of foot traffic from Urban Outfitters. Even if you weren’t coming for vintage, you’d walk out and come over.”
Owner of Bivouac, Ed Davidson, said Art Fair is key to refreshing inventory for the apparel and camping supply shop.
“Knowing that the Art Fair is coming, you can overbuy and you can get rid of it at Art Fair so that you’re not caught with too much inventory,” said Davidson. “Without that cushion, it’s very difficult to recover. The volume is so great.
“(Art Fair) is a huge, huge boom to the local economy. Every restaurant is full all the time, every hotel is full. We’re packed from dawn until dusk, so it’s a huge loss to the community.”
Although University of Michigan’s graduation was virtual this year, some families did come into town to celebrate their graduates. Davidson reported a strong commencement weekend with sales close to what they were in 2019.
“We were shocked,” he said.
The retailer with the largest presence on State St. during Art Fair is The M Den, which reserves a 700-square-foot area on the street for its sale tents.
Owner Scott Hirth said the announcement to cancel Art Fair was a “kick in the gut” and said he felt it was too early to call given Michigan’s improving COVID numbers.
But although business will take a hit in July while the streets remain relatively empty, Hirth said he is focused on the next big event that takes place six weeks after Art Fair: U-M’s first home football game.
“The question is how many folks are going to be in Michigan Stadium on Sept. 4,” said Hirth. “Art Fair is a harbinger, but the key for me and all of Ann Arbor is that it’s students returning and football is normal. That is the part that would be devastating for us.”
While The M Den operates five locations permanently throughout the year, on gameday weekends the shop opens 13 additional locations.
Although online sales have helped M Den pull through the pandemic, Hirth said the loss of in-person events had a significant impact on his Michigan-themed store.
“You just can’t make up those in-person events online,” said Hirth. “A big part of what we do is based on the buzz of those events.”
“Someone had told me a couple years ago that football brings $89 million in seven games to the city, so you can imagine it does for the merchants and the hotels,” said Davidson. “That’s the last piece of the puzzle to return to normalcy. I’m optimistic that it will happen by September.”
In the meantime, Todoro-Hargreaves said plans are in the works to host an outdoor shopping event in the district later this year.