The Larchmere District – part Cleveland, part Shaker Heights – has community, commerce, and plenty of urban grit
By Jennifer Kuhel
In her college days, Lynne Alfred Hanson was a student of urban sociology. She studied the dynamics of city people and how they lived together, worked together, and transitioned together.
A half-century later, Alfred Hanson has the privilege of watching those lessons come to life every day from the windows of The Dancing Sheep, her gift and clothing shop on Larchmere Boulevard, a one-of-a-kind enclave that’s part Shaker Heights and part Cleveland.
The 75-year-old Shaker Heights resident and former First Lady of Shaker Heights (her first husband was 1980s Shaker Heights Mayor Steve Alfred), points out that her shop is halfway between Cleveland to the west and Shaker Heights to the east. She says “We are in the perfect situation to build relationships.”
Hanson extends her hand toward the $2.8-million state-funded streetscape improvement project that has the neighborhood’s sidewalks and benches temporarily upended. “This was like my own urban renewal project.”
This willingness to reach out, to build relationships, and to bring together two cities in a unified District has been the essence of Larchmere since its beginnings as a largely Hungarian and Italian working class neighborhood in the 1930s. Over the past 85 years, the neighborhood has taken many forms: a furniture haven, an antique-lover’s destination, and today, a unique collection of complementary businesses and restaurants that serves the needs of Larchmere residents while attracting visitors from all parts of Greater Cleveland and beyond.
What remains consistent for the people of Larchmere is an acceptance of its duality, tempered by a desire to celebrate its differences and to offer support for one another. That spirit is evident everywhere you look, from the businesses to the neighborhood, and to Larchmere’s future.
A visitor who still thinks of Larchmere as an antiques destination will be pleasantly surprised by its mélange of retailers and restaurants. While the District was an antiques destination from the 1970s through the 1990s, its offerings have broadened decidedly since then.
Today, gift seekers can head to Cleveland’s Fiddlehead Gallery or hop back across the street to Eclectic Eccentric in Shaker Heights. Crafty home improvement types can channel their inner artist with a chalk paint class at Shaker’s Metheny Weir. Need a new ‘do? Shaker Heights’ Martel Salon can help. Your canine need one, too? Across the street, Cleveland’s Groovy Grooming specializes in putting your pooch’s best paw forward.
“This amalgamation of different businesses makes the District more interesting,” says Harriet Logan, owner of Loganberry Books. But for Logan, amalgamation goes beyond having a good mix of entrepreneurial enterprises in Larchmere. As a retailer who subleases part of her building to a complementary company – Strong Bindery, operated by Ellen Strong – it’s also part of her business plan.
“When Harriet told me she was moving to her new space, she said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you moved over here to Larchmere?’,” recalls Strong, whose first Bindery location was in Cleveland’s Murray Hill. “It’s one of the best things I did. The reason being that when someone wants a book repaired, they either go to a librarian or a bookseller. Harriet can just send people down the hall.”
That cooperation, coupled with a spirit of empowerment for hopeful entrepreneurs – particularly women – seems to be the rule with Loganberry’s four Shaker Heights neighbors: Eclectic Eccentric and Two Crows for Joy, who share the space immediately west of Loganberry on Larchmere, and Metheny Weir and The Housewarmings, located in the storefront at the corner of Cheshire Road and Larchmere Boulevard. Each of the businesses is woman-owned and the two pairs, like Loganberry and Strong Bindery, offer customers products and services that are similarly themed.
Carina Reimers, a native of Hamburg, Germany and owner of The Housewarmings, says she was attracted to Larchmere because it reminded her of home. “This is almost as close as I could get to the lifestyle at home because of the individual shops, the window shopping, and the street events,” says Reimers, whose gift shop doubles as a showroom for her uniquely distressed chalk-painted furniture and home decorations.
“This is the kind of thing you can get in New York. You have so many people on the street and there’s vibrancy. It’s what I miss from Hamburg.”
Reimers, who lives in Fernway, subleases the front of Kim Metheny and Sue Weir’s space. When she decided to move from her first location in the back of Juma Gallery on Chagrin Boulevard, she wanted a front-facing window but she didn’t want to sign a long-term commitment. “I’m grateful that they offered me the space without having to sign a full year lease. I didn’t want to throw a lot of money into a new business.”
Today, she jokes that her inventory is crowding Metheny Weir’s space. But Sue Weir and Kim Metheny enjoy the chemistry they have with Reimers. The positive relationship and their well-known location have enabled their business to grow and recently, to open a second location on the West Side in Rocky River.
“We like Larchmere. It’s convenient. Everybody can get here,” Metheny says. “We wouldn’t be in business without each other,” adds Reimers.
The story is similar next door at vintage and consignment shop Eclectic Eccentric, owned by Tracey Hilbert, and Two Crows for Joy, owned by children’s clothing designer Anne MacGilvray. Being neighbors in Fernway originally brought the two together, though Hilbert was already familiar with MacGilvray’s clothing line, Adooka Organics.
MacGilvray had been scaling back her business, which was largely online, but decided to change directions when Hilbert presented her with an opportunity to sell Adooka Organics inside her store.
“This wasn’t part of my plan, but Tracey was offering me such a rare and flexible opportunity to come in and experiment,” says MacGilvray.
““I’m really excited about Larchmere … It’s a live-work neighborhood. Its entrepreneurs are doing their thing. So there’s a lot of personality.”
Gentleman’s Quarters and Frog’s Legs, in Shaker just west of Kendall Road and Larchmere Boulevard, also operate seamlessly under the direction of business partners Walter Thompson and Susan Geller. The duo specializes in selling high-quality European clothing and offers customers tailoring services for their clothing.
They have worked together for more than 30 years with Thompson managing the men’s business (Gentleman’s Quarters) and Geller managing women’s clothing and accessories (Frog’s Legs). Originally, Thompson worked solo, but in 1985 Geller decided to explore other careers after working as a teacher, so Thompson offered her the flexibility to work 19 hours a week.
“It takes someone special to sell a $700 sweater,” Thompson says. “Our merchandise is what it is. Once an attorney came in and asked, ‘Who buys these sweaters?’ and Susan looked him square in the eye and said, ‘Your clients.’”
“We’re not for everybody, but we don’t want to be for everybody,” he says, which may be the secret to his four decades of business in clothing, as well as a lesson to other Larchmere merchants.
Building community is a priority for both the residents and the businesses in Larchmere – which is why the District hosts events year-round, all designed to engage the community, foster camaraderie, and market
Larchmere to potential customers beyond the East Side.
Shaker resident Katharyne Starinsky was a founder of Larchmere’s PorchFest, modeled after the PorchFest in Ithaca, New York. The concept is simple: 30 bands on 30 porches.
“We wanted to find a way to promote the assets of Larchmere – front porches, community, walkability, transit-oriented development, and local businesses,” says Starinsky, economic development specialist for the City of Shaker Heights. (She’s involved in PorchFest as a private citizen.)
“We felt this was a great model to use to get people out of their cars and experience what urban life is like in
Larchmere.” The June festival recently celebrated its sixth year. The Larchmere Merchants Association (LMA), a member-run organization that also operates with the help of the Shaker Square Area Development Association, hosts several events, including the Thanksgiving weekend Holiday Stroll, two annual sidewalk sales, and a plant sale. The LMA also holds the Larchmere Festival, an all-day event held over the Fourth of July holiday that brings together entertainment, food vendors, and kids’ activities to celebrate and showcase the District’s vitality.
The association’s events have been consistent successes, but LMA president Susan Rozman, who owns Fiddlehead Gallery and lives in Larchmere’s residential area, says those successes don’t come without hard work and making an effort to keep both the Shaker and Cleveland contingents on each other’s radars.
“We are sensitive to the entertainment that we put on the street. We make sure that we put music, crafts, and kids stuff at both ends,” she says. “You have to tell people how hard you are working at being equitable; it’s not an issue that always wants to be discussed.”
But as long as a steady stream of merchants and residents continue to join the conversation of inclusion and
working together, Larchmere will continue to maintain its positive reputation. The Larchmere Lofts in Cleveland, developed directly across the street from The Dancing Sheep, has successfully attracted tenants.
Single- and two-family homes on both the Shaker side and Cleveland side of the boulevard have sold to residents looking for the urban experience.
Harriet Logan, for example, lives just a block and a half from her store. And Margaret Mueller, who opened the restaurant Felice on Larchmere’s western end, liked the area so much that she moved from her Shaker home on Endicott Road to a renovated two-family home directly across the street from her restaurant.
“We like Larchmere. It’s convenient. Everybody can get here.”
Mueller has passed on the reigns to the restaurant to a management team that includes her daughter, Felice
Pierce, who lives in Fernway and is the restaurant’s namesake.
“I’m really excited about Larchmere,” says Pierce. “It’s a live-work neighborhood. Its entrepreneurs are doing their thing. So there’s a lot of personality.” She adds, “My mom eats her breakfast at Big Al’s and dinner at Felice or Academy Tavern and she hangs out on the front porch waving to the neighborhood kids. She couldn’t be happier.”
Fourteen years ago, Donna Cornett also moved to Larchmere’s Cleveland side from her Shaker Heights apartment.
“It’s culturally mixed. And we have a lot of students and people from Case Western Reserve University. They can pick up the bus or just walk or bike down to University Circle. We have a mix of ages and different types of people,” says Cornett, who is a past president of the Larchmere Community Association and still an active board member.
“Larchmere Boulevard runs right down the center of the neighborhood, so I consider the merchants to be the
focal point,” she says. “If we didn’t have a commercial strip, it would be very different. Having restaurants and shopping helps draw people from the outside to come see what our neighborhood is all about.”