Leon & Lulu puts international spin on holiday gifts

By: Chris Jackett | Royal Oak Review | Published December 12, 2012

 Leon & Lulu in Clawson offers a wide variety of gift ideas from around the world.

Leon & Lulu in Clawson offers a wide variety of gift ideas from around the world.

Photo by Chris Jackett

CLAWSON — Finding the right gift for the holidays can sometimes be tough, but one local business is bringing a variety of items found across the globe to local shoppers.

Leon & Lulu, 96 W. 14 Mile, offers everything from clothing to furniture, decorations and toys, many which would be hard to find in Michigan or even the U.S. Most of the items in the store are either locally made or imported from distant shops and locations that co-owners Mary Liz Curtin and Stephen Scannell find while traveling the globe.

“We love buying handmade stuff,” Curtin said. “It’s great to buy things from the indigenous people. We buy a lot of things off the street in India and Peru.”

Curtin estimates that at least 15 countries are represented on the shelves of the Clawson shop, which has been located within the former Ambassador Roller Rink since 2006. The rink was originally built in 1941 and was empty for several years before it was purchased and cleaned up in 2005.

“We kept as much of the flavor of the place as we possibly could,” Curtin said, noting that many of the 350 pairs of skates left behind are hung up on display. Additionally, employees don roller skates to serve hot cookies, popcorn and coffee on weekends or during special events. “The building needed a lot of work. The building was big enough for a furniture store. Clawson is so centrally located that it was a good choice.”

Traveling to three or four countries per year to find products, Curtin said she visited Italy, India, Peru and France in the past year. She plans to travel to England, India and the Philippines in 2013. Not every product she brings back is a winner, but many receive an overwhelming response.

“As a buyer, if you don’t have some flops, you’re not trying hard enough,” Curtin said. “You’re never going to find the really great stuff until you really reach a little further. Our goal is to have good prices, great design and a lot of fun, so there’s always people downstairs laughing and giggling at the silly stuff we sell.”

Royal Oak resident Lisa Kargol was browsing the store for the first time last week with her mother, Carolyn Kargol of Fenton, and the duo was surprised at the variety available.

“I had lived here and never been here,” Lisa Kargol said. “It’s eclectic and fantastic. It’s an extremely unique product you won’t see at a Wal-Mart or Target. You just don’t know what you’re going to find. I think it’s an undiscovered gem of Clawson.”

Clawson resident Fran Neelands first visited it just after it had opened in 2006. She said the unique inventory was much larger upon her second visit last week.

“I think it’s an experience,” Neelands said. “There’s something for everyone.”

Although Leon & Lulu, named after a pair of former pets, has only been open for a little more than six years, Curtin and Scannell bring a bevy of experience, since Scannell owned the Cargo Hold in Birmingham for 26 years until he closed it at the end of 2001.

“At the end of 2002, we did not have a store at Christmas and it was just not the way we celebrate Christmas,” Curtin said. “He got the bug to open a new store. We spent every nickel we owned, really, on the build-out and the inventory.”

The unique store also has a unique feel about it, as the wood floor still has rubber skid marks from past roller-skating and roller-hockey use. As customers peruse the aisles, each section is completely different from the next.

Additionally, Spot the friendly triple purebred Shepherd/Labrador/ Pointer can be seen strutting about, often at Curtin’s side.

“I think this is just a very happy place,” Curtin said. “Our goal is that everyone who comes in here leaves happy; whether if it’s with a bag or without a bag, we want them to have a good time. Our goal is complete customer satisfaction.

“One of my proudest things about my store is that people often come here when they’re feeling blue, because it’s a fun place to be. Even husbands like this place.”

Starting with a 263-person email list in 2006, Curtin said the store is a destination location with a two-hour radius of loyal customers that now total more than 20,600 on the list. Many have been hooked during the venue’s dozens of charitable event gatherings. Leon & Lulu has hosted 86 events in 2012, including a pet adoption, blood drives, artist markets, book shows and an indoor farmers market.

“It’s a great way for us to give back to the community,” Curtin said. “We’re in a great position to help people raise money, and we’re delighted to do it. We’ve done all kinds of charities, plus we do weird stuff. It’s fun. We love having parties. And we love sharing.”

Next on the agenda for Leon & Lulu is an expansion into the former Clawson Theater in the building next door to the west. A former auto part supplier and café in past years, Curtin said renovations should be under way in a few weeks and she is hopeful the former theater will become a coffee shop with additional retail space for Leon & Lulu by late spring 2013.

“That building is really a wreck, and that will take a lot of work,” Curtin said. “We’re really delighted that this store has brought a lot of national attention to the retail in the Detroit area. We think good design is something that shouldn’t be confined to big cities on the coasts, and a good shopping experience can be anyplace.”

For more on Leon & Lulu, visit www.leonandlulu.com.