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4240 Cass Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48201

Joe Posch

By Tunde Wey
December 19, 2012

The more things change, the more they stay the same. A truer aphorism might not exist, especially in retail where “location” is all that matters now, then and forever more. Most of Joe Posch’s professional career as a small business retailer has hinged on this notion; on this maxim he has prospered, continuing to reinvent himself and the idea of retail in Detroit.
Posch, with his seasonal grey speckled beard, is a handsome man with a smile that would not be out of place in a vintage Hollywood film. It is fitting as Posch’s new venture HUGH pays homage to that era. HUGH, which opened on November 15, sells barware, cocktail accessories, personal items, housewares, furniture and lighting all inspired by mid-century classic bachelor pad style.
For Posch success in the fickle, attritional small retail industry is hinged not just on location but also a healthy dose of experience. Of the latter Posch possesses an enviable degree; however, the question of location is a lot trickier than most would assume.
“Location” is not simply about geography. It is the confluence of physical and emotional space led by proper financial sense. If the issue of location has been made to seem sufficiently complex, then we can finally begin to understand the talent of a certain Joe Posch.
His first store Mezzanine was, as Posch describes it, “a vintage midcentury modern store that branched out into contemporary design.” He sold furniture, housewares and personal accessories with a focus on design. Mezzanine, which opened in 1998, was located in downtown Ann Arbor on Main Street. For a while the location was right for Posch’s business, but after seven years the question had to be revisited.
“I was there for 7 years and then moved to Detroit; the character of the street was changing, the retail mix and customers were changing.” Around the time Posch chose to relocate Mezzanine to Detroit, he was already spending considerable time socially in the city volunteering on the Detroit Institute of Arts Founders Junior Council and visiting with friends.

Recognizing opportunity is almost as important as the realization of potential crisis. Posch is a fellow with a penchant for both. In 2004 Posch, who was relocating his business downtown, was met by the euphoric winds of Super Bowl XL which was to be hosted in Detroit. It was supposed to be a surefire bonanza for the city; the games would bring in an impressive number of people from around the country, guaranteeing retailers substantial business. Except for one thing: the price of well-located retail space skyrocketed as result of what landlords perceived as a concomitant spike in property demand.

“When I started looking for space around 2004, the Super Bowl was on its way and it seemed like every downtown landlord felt that they had hit the jackpot with ground floor retail. People were asking a per square foot price similar to what I was paying on Main Street in Ann Arbor. It wasn’t a price a small independent retailer could afford, especially with no foot traffic.”
Already committed to opening his business in the city, Posch recognized he had to reconsider his retail strategy. “I found some space with a price I could work with but it was in an older building that I had to put $35,000 into … and it wasn’t ground floor retail, it was second floor. I was basically doing a showroom.”
This shift in his business model proved successful, albeit for a time. Posch was able to do well in his new location, at least until the recession.  A pragmatic fellow, Posch decided to close up Mezzanine, but not without some valuable lessons and an idea for something called “pop-up retail.”

While the pop-up concept is now routinely adopted in vacant and low-vacancy commercial spaces, when Posch decided to launch HUGH then as a temporary – pop-up – store in 2009, the concept was almost foreign. Only a few landlords were willing to extend short term leases. However Sean Harrington, a local business and property owner, was sold on the idea after Posch approached him with his pop-up concept. Harrington offered Posch a six-month lease and thus HUGH, and a new retail concept along with it, was born in Detroit.
“Everyone is pop-up crazy right now, but three years ago Mark Maynard and I were talking about pop-up retail. He wrote a blog and we talked about how pop-ups are different in Detroit. Before, pop-ups were used as a marketing and branding tool. In Detroit I did a pop-up to test out a market – to see how an idea works, to activate a space and see how people thought about spaces.”
Posch’s pop-up bet succeeded in a couple of noteworthy directions. After proving the concept for his store he won a $50,000 grant from the first-ever Hatch Detroit retail competition, and the former temporary location of HUGH has now welcomed a new business Hot Taco.
HUGH opened to a packed house; champagne, laughter and well-deserved praise poured from glasses and lips. Next door to HUGH, another design store called Nora, opened just a few days later. Posch is a partner in this store with locals Toby Barlow and Liz Boone. The upstart pop-up idea that Posch popularized in the city has started a revolution, a retail revolution. At this juncture of cautious optimism for retail in Detroit, a toast is more than deserved for Joe Posch, for HUGH and for urban innovation!

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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  • Hatch Detroit
    Hatch Detroit is a vehicle to champion and support independent retail businesses in Detroit through funding, exposure, education, and mentoring.