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The tough road for a small biz in vacationland

Boat on Northport Bay, Lake Michigan
Mark Brush
Michigan Radio
Boat on Northport Bay in Lake Michigan

On every great vacation, there’s that moment when you think: hey, we should move here! No really, I’m serious this time!

We’ve all been there.   

Heck, northern Michigan is littered with B&Bs, cafes and art galleries run by vacationers who never left.

New ones open every summer. And every summer, some of them go bust.

So we hunted down some of the folks who are actually courageous (or crazy) enough to make the leap.

Turns out, locals see this kind of thing all the time.

Bonnie Hill, a kitchen designer in Harbor Springs, lives up north year-round.  

“People want to do bees, or cider, or hard cider. ‘Oh, let’s get into that business, I’ll just read a book and be able to do it!’” she laughs.

But she has a sympathetic heart for the lovelorn transplants. “What people want is just to be up here. They just miss being up here.”

The three things stacked against your romantic, bayside biz

But there are three things stacked against any business owner up north.

Let’s look at art galleries as the example. Not only are they a wildly popular fantasy job – so romantic! Beautiful art!

But because they’re a sink or swim business.  

When asked why so many sink, one veteran gallery owner can’t resist a quick moment of snark: “Bad art.”

Margaret Tvedten laughs at her own frustration. “I’m sorry!”

For 18 years, she’s owned Tvedten Fine Art Gallery in Harbor Springs.

Which is especially impressive when you realize that here, gallery years are like dog years – the life spans are just so short.

“Every summer, galleries close,” says Tvedten.

"Sometimes they last a year. Sometimes they last two or three years. They think they can just put a couple paintings on the wall and that’s it."

“Sometimes they last a year. Sometimes they last two or three years. They think they can just put a couple paintings on the wall and that’s it. That’s not it.”

One reason why? As a resort town business, you are totally disposable.

“I don’t sell, you know, bread and milk. I sell luxury items that people don’t need,” Tvedten says.

“I mean, I think they need them, because everybody needs beauty in their lives.”

But unsurprisingly, the recession hit galleries hard.

You will resent sunny days

Compound that with problem number two: you’ve got six, maaaaybe eight weeks to make nearly all your money for the year.

That’s how short peak season is.  

Which means you’re actually the only people who HATE sunny days.

Bernie Shaffer, a handsome Austrian who now does real estate in Harbor Springs, knows all about this.  

“On sunny days, people are on their boats, on the golf course. It’s not good for business! It’s not. We like a rainy day. Rainy days are great!”

We’re sitting in his wife’s spacious, light-filled gallery downtown.

She’s Elizabeth Pollie, an award-winning artist and owner of the (appropriately named) Elizabeth Pollie Fine Art gallery.

They take time out of their lunch breaks to chat about the similarities in their businesses.

They’ve both got to build personal connections (which may or may not turn into sales), scout out new products (ditto), lure in big customers (could be some sales here!) and just generally pour hours of work into deals that may never pay off.

So I ask Shaffer, is there anything that’s actually harder about your wife’s gallery business than the real estate industry?


“She has to educate people more. You have people who buy art because it matches their couch,” he says.

“She’s trying to tell people that it’s not about what’s in it. It’s about the quality. You have to like it. It doesn’t have to fit your house.”

Then Schaffer looks up at his wife’s face, realizes this is a less than flattering description of customers, and laughs, “I’m probably going to get slapped for that.”

“You are definitely going to get slapped! I swear!” Pollie’s laughing too, but you can tell she’d rather this kind of honesty not come out when a reporter’s in the room.

But Shaffer has a point: up north, fine art sellers are all competing with each other to make the sell.

And there are only so many summer home people with thousands of dollars to drop on a painting…much less several paintings.

And there are only so many summer home people with thousands of dollars to drop on a painting. Much less several paintings.

So new businesses, almost by definition, just don’t have the connections and reputation they need to survive. 

That may be the case for Blagojce Stojanovski.

His gallery is only a few blocks away from the others. It’s got good foot traffic outside, classical music playing, large paintings covering the walls.

His work is, admittedly, far more “out there” than what you usually see up north.  

Not so many boats and harbors, and a lot more abstract paintings of children huddled in groups.

So, is he selling enough to stay open?

Stojanovski shakes his head. “No. The way things are going, I think we’ll move someplace else.”

After opening in January, now he says he wishes he hadn’t fallen in love with Harbor Springs.

“I feel like I got stuck. We spent $40,000 or $50,000 and there’s just no business.”

But for some other gallery owners, there is business. It’s just not easy. Or romantic.

Still, the siren song of a life up north? That’s not going away anytime soon.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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