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Ain't no party like a De-troit party store

MT Photo: Ryan Keberly
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Published 10/18/2006

“You mean, like, where you buy balloons and shit?”

That’s the sort of lame response you’re likely to hear if and when you find yourself jonseing for not-so-fine wine, liquor or a lotto ticket — if you’re looking for a “party store” — far from the Motor City. Apparently “party store” — the words assigned to innumerable area corner markets — is local lingo. It’s our understanding that liquor stores and 7-11’s aren’t in the business of selling knock-off Nikes dunks and cheap flasks next to their meat counter, but what do we know? Call it what you want, but you know where to go for a can of frijoles, a flavored Blunt wrap, a tire brush or a case of Bud.

An employee of a major tobacco company — who requested anonymity so as not to get fired — clocks in a lot of time at local party stores. It’s his job to sell them cigarettes. As one of his friends says, this guy’s got stories to beat the band.

“A retailer wanted to increase his cigarette sales for the start of Wayne State University’s fall semester,” the cigarette salesman says, “so he asked if my company would pay him to rent a giant inflatable gorilla, put it on his roof and drape a huge banner in its hand advertising a cheap cigarette price. I told him ads over eight square feet are illegal in the U.S., and anyway, why would we pay him to do this?”

In Hamtramck, these one-stop shops are gloriously twisted visions of American consumerism. At Steve’s Party Store on Caniff, for example, you can cash your paycheck on a pizza with two toppings or purchase a cell phone. We are beyond just birthday cards and bags of Better Mades here; Steve’s also sells ornate wristwatches and multi-hued beepers. An elevated nook displays a fun summer scene with an overstuffed dog on a lawn chair, drinking Cook’s under a beach umbrella; it’s a wistful image in lean winter months, to be sure.

The Conant-Caniff Market showcases plaques celebrating gangsters. Yes, gangsters. The store also sells “Top Shot” liquor. The bottles are mounted near the sales carousel, behind the party-store-ubiquitous bullet-proof Plexiglas at the front counter. Top Shot comes in special bottles, one shaped like a sword and another a pistol, so swilling from the bottle means putting a gun to your mouth. Neat!

But the best party store is Lawndale Market (on Lawndale near Chamberlain) in southwest Detroit. Amad Samaan, who hails from Baghdad, has owned this joint for about 30 years. In the last decade, he’s plastered his small bazaar in about 10,000 Polaroid photos of customers. The snaps line the wood-paneled walls and hang like little oblong chandeliers from the ceiling.

This people promotion began back in 1995, when a local boy saw pictures of Samaan’s grandkids taped up behind the counter. The kid came back with more than a few of his own photos, so Samaan proudly displayed them. The owner probably had no idea what he was getting into. “I do it for the people,” he says.

Samaan has a good deal going with local kids: If they receive all A’s in school, he’ll post their report card next to their photo and give them $5 to spend in the store.

But adults like his hobby too. “One couple came in hugging and kissing and wanted their picture taken,” Samaan says. “A week later, the woman returned and threw $500 cash on the counter. She had broken up with her honey and wanted the photo back — so she could burn it. I told her to keep the money. I knew I’d see her in a week.” Sure enough, the woman returned after the couple reunited.

The Polaroids share store space with headshots of a holy few, such as Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Elvis (an entire back room is dedicated to the King) and Marilyn Monroe. And Samaan inscribes “God loves you” on every snapshot.

Lawndale Market is a place where literally thousands of us “hang” out every day. So, non-Detroiters: What would you call that but a party?

Rebecca Mazzei is arts editor of Metro Times. Send comments to rmazzei@metrotimes.com.

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