read here for more details).
I never gave much thought to what was on the second floor of R. Hirt Jr., right above the spot where I've ordered dozens of pounds of cheese, cured meats, bacon, eggs, butter, and paid for many hundreds of gallons of milk over the years. Hirt feels like an old-fashioned store because it actually is one: the layout seems not to have changed much in more than a century that it's spent at this location. But I don't have a true sense of this history until retail manager Judy Jagenow takes me on a tour upstairs, past the "employees only" sign and about a hundred years into the past. "This is the apartment where the original Hirt family lived," she says, leading me through rooms with faded and peeling Victorian wallpaper that's been stuck there since 1890 when the building was built.
Looking past the boxes of imported olive oil and pasta, you can see what is left of the apartment where Rudolph Hirt, a Swiss immigrant, and his wife Anna raised seven children and built one of the few Detroit businesses that would survive from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first.
There are places where the plaster is peeling away and latticework is visible beneath. There is a hard-earned, honest patina to the place. Seven children were raised here. You almost expect to see notches marking their growth carved at varying heights along the original moldings that remain around the doorways; the moldings remain even around the windows that once marked the rear of the old store but now sit within an interior wall of a building extended well beyond its original shallow footprint.
"We ripped out a drop ceiling only to find another drop ceiling," Judy tells me. "When we ripped that one out we found the original tin ceiling. It had been singed by smoke from a fire back in the early days. The story goes that while he was escaping the fire, Mr. Hirt grabbed what he thought was one of the babies but it turned out just to be blankets, so he rushed back in and saved her. Both were burned, but she lived to an old age."
This story of this family living above their store appeals to me, though such an arrangement was not at all uncommon for the time. The Hirt building lies just west of a number of slaughterhouses; I've read that in the early days, livestock that hadn't been killed were kept in pens on the roofs of the buildings. There was once an Italian grocer next door (that building burned down in the 1980s) and a German dancehall on the other side. It is hard to imagine such a time in our city, and the fact that this apartment survives makes it all seem so much more real. Judy tells me that her grandfather would take the same route she does to work, driving his cattle from his farm in Mt. Clemens all the way down Gratiot Avenue in the days when the Hirt building was still new. The Hirt family's business traces its origins back even further than the building itself, to 1887 when Rudolph invested his life savings in a stall that sold butter, eggs, and dairy products at Detroit's central market. The stall proved lucrative enough that the dairy merchant built the current ornate red-brick Romanesque building for a new store with his own name carved into the stone at its gable. "R. HIRT JR."
"There was no R. Hirt Senior," Judy tells me. "There was another, unrelated R. Hirt in town so he just added the 'Junior' to distinguish himself for the postman." 122 years later, there is only one Hirt in Detroit (and it's this store, not a man). This store still draws in crowds of people from the suburbs every Saturday. I shop there during the week, usually on Thursday morning after the truck arrives from Calder Dairy with all the sorts of things Rudolph Hirt would have sold at his original market stall: farm fresh eggs, freshly-churned butter, sour cream, cottage cheese, and (starting in late October) egg nog. I come in with a bag full of empty bottles and exchange them for cold ones with white-caps filled with natural milk (pasteurized, but not homogenized). During the week, the lines are less hectic than on market Saturdays and it gives me a chance to talk to and get to know nearly everyone who works there. They've watched my kids grow up and they know exactly what kind of cheese to give them when we come in to keep them busy while I order.
If there's anything Hirt is known for, it's cheese. And if you want some, the minimum cut is a pound.
At the cheese counter there's a 7-page list with more than 300 varieties from all over the world. Hirt's cracker department is practically larger than all of Murray's Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village (Hirt has also been around half a century longer than New York's oldest cheesemonger). As the major cheese wholesaler in Southeast Michigan, Hirt's retail store gives walk-in customers access to the same cheese selection as the restaurants and caterers who buy cheese by the 10-pound wheel. And at the counter you can ask for samples of nearly any cheese, domestic or imported. I once made the mistake of standing in line behind a French couple who sampled several dozen cheeses from their native land, grunting to each other about the fruity aftertaste of the Pavé d'Oc or arguing whether the Camembert was too ripe before placing a sizable order. The store even has a francophone employee for the Saturday rush.
All this talk of cheese may seem like this is only a place for cheese snobs. But Hirt is refreshingly unpretentious. After cheese, their next largest department is wicker. Seriously: the third floor is stocked floor-to-ceiling with wicker baskets.
They even rent the old German dancehall from the building owner next door to store their excess wicker:
It's pretty hard to be a pretentious wickermonger, no matter how many stinky cheeses you sell. Nobody here looks down their nose at you if you want a pound of colby-jack or if you only want the domestic Parmesan (trust me, I know). I asked Judy if any of the cheesecutters are total cheese snobs, and she struggled to think of anyone who'd fit that description. "Not really," she said. "Cheryl knows the most about cheese, she's a real expert. But she doesn't buy a whole lot. Nobody buys all that much of it." I imagine spending your days cutting the cheese doesn't leave you with much if an appetite for it. Cheryl's been working here since high school (her mom was a cashier here before she was). Judy and Jan have been here 23 years. One of the ladies who works up in baskets has been there 21 years. "We do get some turnover," Judy says when I commend such loyalty. "You have to not mind working with cheese." The store is still owned and run by members of the third and fourth generations of the Hirt family, mostly overseeing the warehouse operations and wholesale business.
But it's not just dairy products. Every day, fresh baked breads are delivered to the front door. At the cheese counter you can also get pâtés, cured meats, sausages, jerky, ham, liverwurst, salami and other cold cuts, pickles, tofu, and sliced slab bacon. The rest of the store features specialty goods for which the company acts as a regional wholesaler. Without a grocery store in our neighborhood, we just go to Hirt. You won't find any products distributed by PepsiCo. Nestle, General Mills, Kellogg Co., Sara Lee, Campbell Soup Co. or Kraft Foods here (though Hirt was the first Michigan distributor of Kraft cheeses back in the 1930s). Though it's technically a specialty store, the prices aren't crazy. Those big conglomerates' products are more expensive at the independent "ghetto markets" throughout Detroit than they are at suburban bog boxes because independent retailers can't buy in the volume necessary to make prices competitive. Hirt doesn't try to compete with the big boxes, but instead buys unique and desirable products in great volumes to wholesale for other retailers in the region (and they have a huge warehouse just down the road or that purpose).
They focus on imported and locally-produced goods, but I can go there with a recipe and get just about everything I need, from beef stock to soba noodles; dried cherries to gourmet vinegars; water chestnuts to dried spices; gourmet coffees and teas. It's not one-stop shopping, but it's a surprisingly convenient and high-quality replacement. It's a frugal yuppie localvore's dream, and it's within walking distance of my front door.
Every trip to Hirt usually involves some bribery. About a year after we started shopping there, we discovered that in addition to wicker, the third floor has a toy department, and my kids love picking through the bins of 50 cent toys that make great gift bag stuffers.
You won't find Mattel or Hasbro or licensed Dora or Disney stuff here. Most of the toys are well suited for imaginative play (this is where we stock up on pirate supplies), many are old-fashioned classics, and some of them are even American-made.
It's one of the best toy selections in the metro area and you wouldn't even know it's there. The third floor also stocks Pewabic Pottery, Michigan-made goods and souvenirs, jewelry and tons of handcrafted holiday decorations. To get upstairs you can hitch a ride on the old-school rope freight elevator or take the century's-old stairs.
When you get to the top floor, you can catch a glimpse of why the floorboards have put up with more than a century's worth of traffic so well: the planks are actually arranged vertically:
And what I love most about Hirt are its quirks. The cheesecutter writes down the weight and price per pound your cheese on an old-fashioned bill-of-lading but she doesn't touch your money; she bags or boxes it up while you bring the bill over to the old cashier window, where another employee punches a million buttons on some old-fangled counting machine and writes down the price of each cut of cheese or meat and then adds up the total. Unless you pay with a credit card, there doesn't need to be a microchip or electrode involved in the transaction. You can tell the tourists from the locals by how confused they get checking out.
My mom was recently with me during a trip to Hirt, and she was amazed by my interactions with the staff (who knew her grandchildren so well) and our ability to buy so much of what we needed in such a strange, old-fashioned space. It was a few days before Halloween, and David Devries, the great-grandson of Rudolph Hirt---a busy man who's often buzzing around taking care of business at the front of the store---stopped to hand all kinds of Halloween decorations over to my daughter who was so excited about them. "That's a dollar," he said (about a $9.00 witch). "For you, that's a dollar."
I feel so fortunate to be able to give my kids the experience of shopping like this. This is how everyone shopped once. We all knew the person behind the counter well enough that they could quiet your child down with a sliver of mild cheddar slid across the counter on a piece of wax paper. It may be cheaper to shop at the big box stores (where some have eliminated checkers in certain aisles, replacing them with bumbling computers). The jars of pasta sauce at the Costco might be bigger. But you certainly don't get as much.