Store practices collaborative community
Elevated Grand Rapids houses about 25 local vendors that sell antiques, handmade goods, art and upcycled items.
What started as a hobby for Heather Nowakowski has grown into a supportive community of vintage, antique and artisan dealers in the Clyde Park neighborhood.
Nowakowski started Elevated Antiquities with Laurie Boyer and Wendy Winn in 2018 at 1111 Godfrey Ave. SW as a hobby business. Nowakowski had a full-time gig manufacturing and selling foot braces, but she had the opportunity to sell the business the same year she and her team started Elevated Antiquities.
“I was like, I never had vendors before,” Nowakowski said. “That’s a big change. It was always just one business — all of our stuff — and I wanted to do something bigger.”
Nowakowski landed on the building that would house Elevated Grand Rapids, an extension of Elevated Antiquities at 1750 Clyde Park Ave. SW. The historic building affords Elevated GR and its vendors 8,000 square feet.
The Clyde Park building was built in 1929 as a filling station. From the 1950s through the 1970s, it served as a United Automobile Workers union building for the Kelvinator plant across the street.
“This building was really part of this neighborhood in a big way,” Nowakowski said. “A lot of people that lived in this neighborhood — and still do — were employed by the Kelvinator plant, and they remember this building as a social place for dances and quinceañeras and things like that.”
When Elevated GR closed on the building in May 2019, it had fallen into disrepair, Nowakowski said. The floor was covered in oil and grease from when it served as a chop shop through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and Nowakowski and her team had to work to return it to its original form. Elevated GR had its grand opening earlier this month.
Nowakowski said she chose the building specifically for the neighborhood. The team looked in the obvious places, like Fulton and Cherry streets, but she wanted to be in a place where a business like Elevated GR could bring value to the neighborhood.
In addition to vintage, antique and artisan dealers, Elevated GR also houses Photo House Inc., a photo studio, which partners with Nowakowski for the Little Heroes of Hope nonprofit.
“I always say it’s a different kind of marketplace,” Nowakowski said. “We have vintage and antique goods and then we have Michigan makers, artists and artisans.”
The “different kind of market” is not based on any other business model Nowakowski has seen. She said she was inspired simply by the understanding of people wanting to integrate into a community.
The goods are curated together by category, instead of separated into each vendor’s booths. Nowakowski said she wanted the store to have more of a retail experience for customers, as well as inspire vendors to work together.
“Part of what I want to do here is that community is what makes us better,” Nowakowski said. “If you’re encouraging someone else to do better, then that helps you do better.”
In addition to a collaborative community, vendors benefit from free Wi-Fi, a package and shipping service for online sales, professional photographs, advertising via Elevated GR’s social media, a point-of-sale system providing an online portal with real-time updates, a kitchenette and free coffee provided by Grand Rapids Coffee Roasters.
Elevated GR currently houses about 25 vendors.
Nowakowski said her love for vintage was inspired by her upbringing. Growing up, her family had very little and moved around frequently, which encouraged them to repurpose things other people had cast off.
“I was always connected to the story behind the building, the story behind the object, the story behind what it was I was using,” Nowakowski said. “How long it had lasted was appealing to me. There were some roots involved. I didn’t have that, so I sort of started connecting to things that had a past.”
As an adult, however, her love for collecting vintage goods began to fill up her house, and at her husband’s requests, she moved into the vintage business.
In today’s climate, reusing rather than buying new is now seen as a more ethical lifestyle choice, Nowakowski said.
“There’s something so much more important than just, ‘I love the look and history of vintage,’” Nowakowski said. “I think that’s what brought me into it, but then knowing I can save something from the landfill, repurpose it … take something that’s going to last another 100 years and get it back into circulation.”
The vintage and antique business in the U.S. is booming, but it’s rare for people to make a living, Nowakowski said.
Having vendors, like Nowakowski and her team, all in the same place and with similar goals makes the business model more viable. Many of the vendors, like Elevated GR, are owned by women who are supplementing themselves with additional income.
“We’re all little businesses. We’re all trying to support each other, so in this environment, I’m like, ‘come in!’ You’ve never sold a painting, but you’re an artist? Give it a shot!” Nowakowski said.