When 9-year-old Paul Nielsen dipped into the magic kit his Uncle John gave him for Christmas that year, he quickly got hooked on the thrill of having an appreciative audience.
“The tricks inside there were really awful,” Nielsen recalls. “But my parents acted amazed.”
His parents nurtured their son’s interest, permitting their miniature Houdini to buy one trick from the revolving racks at Stuckey’s convenience stores during family road trips. But his big break came during high school, when Nielsen got a job demonstrating the magic tricks sold at a local novelty shop in his hometown of Peoria, Ill.
“I was performing every day,” he says. “And I had access to all kinds of props.”
As it turns out, Nielsen’s big break foretold his future. He still performs every day and has access to any prop he wants at Wunderground Magic Inc. in Clawson, a store he bought in 2007 after having been a customer there for about 10 years.
“I just had nothing to do and I was looking for something to keep me occupied,” he says. “It’s not nearly as lucrative as software, but it keeps me afloat.”
Nielsen, who has a doctorate degree in computer science and taught at the University of Michigan in the 1990s, founded the intelligent software company Soar Technology in 1997 in Ann Arbor and sold the business in 2006. While magic and computer science may seem like incomparable pursuits, both satisfy Nielsen’s drive to understand the way things work, he says.
Founded in 1971 in Ferndale by a previous owner, Wunderground marked 47 years in business on—when else?—April 1. In addition to selling magic sets, card tricks, theater props, books, DVDs, illusions and more, the shop offers classes for children and adults. Nielsen will also help find a magician for a children’s party and other special events.
Tony Adragna, a magician from New Baltimore, stopped in at Wunderground in March to buy a card trick entitled “Caught Red Handed.” He’s been a customer for at least 25 years, Adragna says, and likes that he can call Nielsen to order a special trick.
“He’s reliable and he’s quick,” Adragna says.
Adding to Wunderground’s mystique is an unconfirmed story that its basement was part of an underground speakeasy during Prohibition. Melodie Nichols, curator of the Clawson Historical Museum, says she has no evidence of the speakeasy story but no reason to doubt it either.
When not at his shop, Nielsen serves as chair of the Board of Directors for the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Mich. He also performs at libraries, schools, community centers, private parties and other venues.
As for that thrill when performing for an appreciative audience that his parents ignited 49 years ago?
“I do like entertaining people,” Nielsen says. “I do like bringing that sense of wonder to their lives. It’s important.”
Jane Rock, of Royal Oak, liked the idea of having her physical therapy for a back condition in a swimming pool, but disliked wearing a swimsuit that revealed too much in the co-ed environment. So, she ordered a custom suit that would cover her scar tissue from childhood burns at Custom Swimwear by Exelnt.
Years later, Rock estimates she has 18 suits from Custom Swimwear, along with accessories like visors and cover-ups. She’s bought suits to wear during cottage vacations, as well as other getaways, and stocked some for summer guests during Custom Swimwear’s sidewalk sales.
Rock says she’s recommended the shop to friends, some of whom balk at the price of a custom swimsuit—about $170 and up.
“Once they try on one of these suits and they feel how it fits they don’t say another word,” she says.
Shoppers can buy ready-to-wear swimsuits displayed in the retail section of the shop, some of which are made there and run $50 and up or can be fitted in one of five private dressing rooms and choose from hundreds of fabrics for a custom suit.
While anyone can request a custom suit, even men, shop owner Trish Crowder’s found that her typical customer is a large-busted woman. That’s because mass retailers enlarge every part of a swimsuit when they make its cups bigger, even for slender or average women who happen to have large breasts, Crowder says. This makes it almost impossible for women with larger cup sizes to buy a good-fitting swimsuit off the rack.
“I can make everybody’s sizes,” she says, noting that she offers suits with cup sizes ranging from AA to KK. “But a big-busted woman can’t go anywhere else.”
Big or small-busted women may not want to: the shop has many repeat customers and serves generations of women in the same family, Crowder says.
Crowder has retail swimsuit makers and an unsuccessful shopping trip of her own to thank for her successful custom swimwear business.
“I couldn’t find a top and bottom to fit,” she recalls of her dressing room failure 38 years ago. Back then, women’s two-piece swimsuits were almost exclusively sold as sets and it wasn’t possible to buy the bra and brief in different sizes.
A self-described “artsy person” who took a sewing class at her St. Clair Shores high school but is largely self-taught, Crowder decided to make her own suit. Compliments from friends and acquaintances soon led to requests for handmade swimsuits for others, and Custom Swimwear by Exelnt Designs followed.
Crowder’s business has become so successful that in July 2017 she bought and renovated a storefront on Main Street south of 14 Mile Road in Royal Oak, investing almost half a million dollars for the purchase and re-do. Family, friends and even Custom Swimwear’s 13 employees pitched in on such tasks as installing laminate flooring, but Crowder hired professionals for a new furnace and roof.
She moved from Warren into the newly refurbished shop in December.
As word gets around that southern Oakland County has a custom swimwear shop with an owner who knows how hard it can be to find a good-fitting suit, Rock predicts Crowder can expect many more loyal customers like herself.
Custom Swimwear by Exelnt Designs Inc.
SE corner of 14 Mile Rd and Rochester Rd.
4732 Rochester Rd
Royal Oak, MI 48073
Marc Secontine smiles as he recalls the day when, as a thirteen-year-old, he rode his bike through his Birmingham neighborhood’s streets toward his father’s then-downtown Birmingham store, The Varsity Shop.
“My dad had said, ‘Come on up, and I’ll buy you lunch!’ When I arrived, there were 150 cases of Adidas shoes for me to put away. By the time I’d finished, lunch turned out to be dinner, and my visit to the shop turned out to be a life-long career!”
Vince Secontine, Jr., started the shop in 1954, after retiring, at age 33, from teaching and coaching varsity football at Birmingham High School. Vince, who was also a former football player at the University of Michigan, created The Varsity Shop because he felt “southeastern Michigan needed a quality sporting goods store that provided both competitive prices and outstanding customer service.”
“And we’ve been able to continue those ideals for the past 64 years,” says Marc, who is the store’s managing partner, “and through our 2014 move to our current location at 623 South Adams, at Birmingham’s Adams Square Mall.”
When a boiler pipe broke in their building’s original location at Pierce and Merrill, where they’d been for 61 years, the family owners had planned to repair and reopen.
“But unexpected environmental factors and the costs of meeting ADA compliance prohibited the renovations,” Marc explains, “so we sold the building and have remained here at Adams Square.”
“We miss being downtown in our older, historic building,” Marc says, “but the parking situation is so much better here. Also, downtown shopping has changed. Instead of being leisurely, people now are ‘destination shopping,’ and our place is perfect for that.”
And, when former business neighbor and the owner of 220 Merrill offered Marc their wooden main door after their own re-construction project, the new location of The Varsity Shop was able to add and project a bit more of their former character.
“We’ve got lots of wood inside the store, too,” says Marc, “and locker room lights.”
“Sometimes I think of it this way: The old location was our Tiger Stadium, with its creaky basement, etc. And this new location is our Comerica Park. But my Dad would flip if he knew we had a big-screen T.V.!”
The store is divided into four main sections: High school products (varsity jackets; school sweatshirts, t-shirts, hats and caps, etc.), swimming wear and gear, college logo items, and a section for baseball and softball equipment and accessories.
“We have a family trade secret of breaking in baseball gloves, free with purchase. People from all over the country send us their gloves to break in, which takes two days and costs fifteen dollars.”
“We also have an in-store ‘home plate,’ where we can help analyze a player’s swing and size them for the proper bat,” says Marc who, as a former player, has a passion for baseball.
“One of our most important products,” Marc shares, “is our selection of Fox River socks. They have two different layers and wick moisture away. We ship them all over the country.”
“Towards the end of my dad’s life,” Marc continues, “my siblings and I were lucky to take turns spending evenings with him. One night, while my dad and I were watching a movie, he said, out of the blue and in his tough-coach way, ‘Hey! You’d better have those Fox River socks stocked on the counter!’”
“I looked at him and said, ‘Dad! You haven’t been in the store in over two years! We know the things we need to do!’”
“But, you know what? Every day, the staff makes sure those socks are stacked.”
Most of the staff members have been at The Varsity Shop for years.
“I’ve got one of the best crews we’ve ever had,” says Marc. “My people are kind, good-hearted, energetic, honest. My manager has been here for over twenty years. It’s a great family atmosphere.”
The Varsity Shop is a member of Sports, Inc., a wholesale buying group, and is able to provide prices that are competitive with chain sporting goods stores.
“But people know we’ve been in business for a long time; that we offer great value, service and quality merchandise; that we love our work,” Marc states.
“Where else can you get paid for talking about sports, wearing tennis shoes and team sweatshirts? And dealing with good staff and customers? All this, and more, that came with my first ‘free lunch.’”
The Varsity Shop
623 S. Adams Road, in Adams Square Mall
Birmingham, MI 48009
Troy resident Christopher Baines, a single dad, wanted to celebrate his daughter’s tenth birthday in a special way.
“I come from a big family,” Baines says. “We don’t have a party every year but, when Ella turned ten, I thought it would be a great time to get everyone together for a fun celebration.”
Since Baines occasionally took Ella and her friends to Troy Lanes (at Square Lake and John R.) for Saturday afternoon bowling, he watched, with great interest, as the business began major renovations.
“When, in January, I walked into the ‘new’ Troy Escape that had been Troy Lanes, I was totally amazed,” says Baines.
“It was like Disneyland! There is a fantastic arcade, Laser Tag, numerous alleys and – best of all – an attached restaurant with great homemade pizza and many other items: no more bad bowling alley food. And everything is sparkling clean.”
“I decided to have Ella’s birthday at Troy Escape, and it was the best party ever!” Troy Escape general manager, Ryan Pino, is also thrilled with the results of the renovation, which included costs of $1,000,000 for new equipment and $1,700,000 for construction.
“We’ve created a kind of social hub,” Pino says, “where people can come out and go bowling, play in the arcade or Helios-system laser tag den, and enjoy the restaurant – which we label as a ‘gastro pub.’”
The gastropub, Eats and Crafts, is run by executive chef Xavier Delossantos. “I’m excited to be creating a menu that’s different from what you’d expect at a family fun center,” says Chef Xavier, whose favorite current dish is the braised short ribs. “Everything we make is fresh, including the homemade sauce for our four-square, Detroit-style, deep-dish pizza.”
Shrimp-and-Andouille sausage pasta and the pulled pork Cuban sandwich are guest favorites, as are the 24 beers on tap and hand-crafted cocktails, made with garden-fresh herbs, spices, fruits and more.
“Our most popular drinks,” Pino says, “are the blackberry basil mojito and our margarita with hand-squeezed lime juice.”
“For our Saturday and Sunday brunches, which run from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. and are not buffet-style,” adds Pino, “guests really enjoy our Bloody Mary bar with over 26 ingredients, our orange juice-and-champagne Mimosa towers, and our many omelet and sandwich options.”
Guests looking for a venue for a business meeting, special event — and even art or activity classes — also have many options.
“We have two rooms for events like birthday or bachelorette parties, baby and bridal showers and receptions,” says Pino.
“And what is really unique,” he shares, “is our V.I.P. area, with eight high-tech lanes and special laser light show, with couches and lounge, privacy and space.”
The V.I.P. area is adjacent to a luxuriously appointed “all-purpose” room that has been used for executive seminars; yoga, painting and dance classes; corporate breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings – and more.
“On March 2nd,” Pino says, “we will have had, for admission of five dollars, our first of several comedy shows. We have plans for all sorts of events in the future!”
“There’s nothing like this around,” says Pino. “There’s something for everybody. It’s a one-stop shop for just about any event or group.”
“The best thing about my job,” Pino says, “is watching how much fun everyone is having, from guests to staff. I look forward to coming to work. It’s a great atmosphere, with great people. I’ve got the best job in the world here at Troy Escape.”
1950 E. Square Lake Rd.
Troy, MI 48085
248-879- 8700 troyescape.com