As a young adult, Zana Smith applied for and quickly secured a day-time job at an advertising firm that provided her an hour for lunch.
But the African American Detroit resident wasn’t feeling the 9-to-5 gig.
“You know, I can figure out something else to do,” Smith recalled saying to her mother Gloria J. Smith one evening.
That was nearly 50 years ago, and Smith hasn’t looked back.
“You need to own your own,” she said.
When Smith launched her urban boutique Spectacles Detroit in 1984, the Detroit Tigers were experiencing their magical World Series-winning season; Coleman A. Young was mayor; “The Scene” was a popular television dance show on the long-defunct Black-owned WGPR-TV 62; and most of the city did not have cable television.
Spectacles opened in downtown Detroit a year after the Hudson’s department store closed. Store management told the Detroit Free Press in 1982 that sales had declined at the location since the 1960s and one manager said, without Hudson’s, downtown retail would “die.”
“It was like a desert. You could roll a bowling ball and you wouldn’t hit anything,” said Smith, describing the downtown business environment at that time.
However, Smith’s 230 E.Grand River store, nestled in Detroit’s Harmonie Park District now known as the Paradise Valley District, has lasted nearly four decades. It sells baseball hats, trendy jeans, popular “Soul Detroit” T-shirts, funky cosmetic eye-glasses and books penned by local authors.
“The Spectacles store has been an inspiration for Black businesses behind pioneer Zana Smith’s entrepreneurial endeavors and significant contributions made to the city of Detroit over the past 39 years,” said Ken Harris, president/CEO of the National Business League, who also highlighted the challenges Black retail businesses faced during the last two years.
Harris described how few businesses had the “necessary community support, capacity, scope, scale, and liquidity” to survive the pandemic.
“(Her business was able to) withstand the impact of COVID-19 economic shutdowns, the racial unrest after George Floyd’s murder, the digital divide, inflation and recent economic challenges, which forced an estimated 40% of Black businesses to close their doors permanently,” said Harris.
In her blood
Smith comes from an entrepreneurial family. Her grandmother, Lemie Mitchell, operated a boutique, her mother headed a moving company, and former Detroit and National Basketball Association basketball legend Blaine Denning Sr., her uncle, sold a line of milk. At Ferris State University, Smith ran a boutique out of her dorm room, selling Afro picks, Afro sheen, and sunglasses. In 1971, Smith re-opened Junior’s Jazz Room, her brother’s old record store located at 12216 Dexter Avenue near Davison in the city’s Russell Woods community. Three years later, she opened her first boutique, Zana, near Seven Mile Road and Livernois in the Avenue of Fashion district.
Well-known music artists who have attended her parties and visited her shop include techno music legends Derrick May and Jeff “The Wizard” Mills, as well hip-hop icons the late Jam Master Jay of the trio Run-D.M.C. and MC Hammer. During the early 1990s, Smith sold filmmaker Spike Lee’s “40 Acres and a Mule” merchandise.
“That’s what put the store on the map,” recalled Smith.
Since operating Spectacles Detroit, Smith has witnessed the development of Comerica Park, Ford Field and Little Caesars Arena – all within a mile from her business door — as well as three casinos and the Compuware Building.
Today, the original Hudson’s department store site is being redeveloped and will contain office space, luxury retail, residences, a hotel and skyscraper.
Some Black people have raised concern about securing economic equity downtown. Yet, Smith isn’t threatened by her neighbors.
“I really don’t feel that way,” said Smith. “It’s all about negotiating a good lease and situation for yourself.”
In 2015, the 50,000-square-foot building where Spectacles Detroit is located changed hands in ownership. Some wondered whether the store would survive. However, Smith negotiated an opportunity to remain in the building that had been purchased by Southfield-based auto supplier Lear Corporation.
In 2022, Smith likes what she sees in terms of Black-business downtown and along Livernois.
Marilyn French Hubbard, a metro Detroit-area legacy leader, remembers Smith during their days at Ferris State University. Hubbard, founder of the National Association of Black Women Entrepreneurs, knew that Smith would be successful.
“Zana had a vision when she moved to Harmonie Park,” said Hubbard. “She could see how that area was going to flourish. She has an innovative spirit.”
‘Godmother of Detroit dance music’
On May 29, Smith was honored during the annual Detroit Diaspora Day Party for her commitment to the city and its majority-Black culture.
“From owning Junior’s Jazz Room record store on the west side of Detroit in the early 70s to being a promoter at the Downstairs Pub and later opening Spectacles downtown, the impact Zana has had on music, fashion and literature in Detroit, it’s safe to say she has been the bridge builder to culture in Detroit much in the way [hip-hop personality] Fab 5 Freddy has been to New York,” said Drake Phifer, who organized Detroit Diaspora Day Party. Phifer pointed out that Smith has played a huge role in helping to promote techno and house music through artists like the late Ken Collier for more than 30 years.
“In fact, I think it’s fair to say that had she been a male and in New York, her name would be worldwide,” added Phifer. “Musically speaking, alone, she should be considered the godmother of Detroit dance music.”
Smith credits consistency with building her business.
“You have set your hours [of operation] and keep them,” said Smith. “That’s very important, so people know when you are going to be there. You have to read the history of others who have achieved some of the same things that you want to achieve. And have consistency and honesty in all that you do.”