Indie Awards: a neighborhood treasure

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Finalist: Washtenaw Soul

Treasure Mart

  • Owner: Carl and Elaine Johns
  • Founded: 1960
  • Full-time employees: 8
  • Website: treasuremart.com
Carl Johns | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Carl Johns | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Treasure Mart is one of those rare small businesses that was a success from the very beginning.

That’s not to say that Demaris Cash wasn’t taking a big risk in 1960 when she opened her consignment shop on the lower end of Detroit Street. “Back then, this was not a nice area of town,” says Elaine Johns, Cash’s daughter and current owner of Treasure Mart, along with her husband Carl.

Treasure Mart’s neighbors these days include the ever-popular Kerrytown Market & Shops,  Zingerman’s Deli and the twice-weekly farmers’ market. None of them existed in 1960, Elaine Johns said, “But right from the beginning, we’ve done well.”

She’s been a big part of the store’s successful run. She was a schoolteacher back in 1974 when she married Carl and agreed to help out around Treasure Mart as a summer job, then never left.

She’s seen a dramatic increase in competition over the years —from eBay, craigslist and several other consignment shops in town —but her 8,500-square-foot store never seems big enough to handle all the business that comes its way. At any given time the store features more than 1,000 consignors and more items for sale than either Elaine or Carl care to count.

Some of Treasure Mart’s consignors have done well, themselves. Elaine said a few of them have sold more than 70,000 items at her store and some have been known to net more than $10,000 a month after commissions.

Treasure Mart is like a community, Elaine said: “A lot of people come here every day” because they don’t want to miss any bargains amidst the rapid turnover of inventory. “Some people even come twice a day.”

Despite the Internet, things are trending in the right direction for consignment shops, which specialize in old items that are hand-crafted and solid compared to today’s factory-made merchandise. “Young people these days, they appreciate the quality,” Elaine said.

She thinks Treasure Mart is the longest single family-owned consignment store in Michigan, and possibly the country. But the run might be coming to an end pretty soon. Elaine and Carl said they’re getting tired of the hustle required in their decidedly hands-on business, and their two children aren’t interested in taking over. So they’re starting to think about selling out. When they do, the neighborhood will be losing a couple of treasures, indeed.

Kyle Poplin

Kyle Poplin is co-founder and editor of The Ann magazine.