Bradly Rakowski has come full circle.
What started out in 2011 as a pop-up shop in Old Town Lansing’s Absolute Gallery has grown into Bradly’s HG, an eclectic bazaar of home furnishings, accessories, foods and lifestyle accoutrements that recently moved to a storefront at 319 E. Cesar Chavez Ave.
While his enterprise has grown, he hasn’t forgotten his humble beginnings. Tucked in a back corner of his new location is a commercial kitchen that can be rented out to food truck operators and other food entrepreneurs looking to make their own starts in the Old Town business scene, just as he did more than two decades ago.
Rakowski’s rise through the years in many ways paralleled Old Town’s ongoing evolution at the intersection of mid-Michigan culture, commerce and community. Driving both has been a desire for authenticity, an embrace of inclusivity, and a demand for experiences that go beyond just buying and selling. Rakowski described his motive as, “just trying to create a cool space for people.”
“Old Town has a vibrancy. It is a destination. Anybody who comes into town from another location hears about Old Town, so they want to come down here and experience it. It’s part of the whole mix,” Rakowski said. “The diversity of people and the diversity of products: It all plays in with Old Town, because that’s what Old Town is — very welcoming, very diverse; everybody here is welcome, everybody here is equal.”
Rakowski started out selling home furnishings and accessories. As he progressed, he dabbled a bit into kitchenware, candles, baby items, gifts and jewelry. That necessitated a shift from the Absolute Gallery to his own longtime space at 117 E. Cesar Chavez, just down the street from his shop’s new digs. There, the evolution continued with the introduction of small-batch food lines, many of which were women-owned and represented international tastes.
“It’s a really cool mix of diversity of items,” Rakowski said. “When you enter our store, you’re first greeted by furniture because that’s the flagship part of our business: the furniture and design services. But we have all these other cool aspects of our business that have kind of branched out.”
More branching out is already underway. The new location will host weekly food and craft cocktail demonstrations along with cooking classes. And Rakowski has recently launched a menswear and lifestyle shop within the HG locale, named Birch Rak Clothier, which he calls “a one-stop shop for guys” for casual clothing, home goods and food items.
“We are not a suit-and-tie place. Somebody needs a suit and tie, send them to Kositchek’s,” said Rakowski, referencing the upscale downtown Lansing menswear store. “We’re more unbuttoned. A little more casual urban. But that’s kind of the new thing we got here at Birch Rak.”
At first glance, the mishmash of products Rakowski offers may not seem cohesive. But Rakowski isn’t selling items; he’s addressing the comprehensive lifestyle needs of his customers, as well as the intimate personal worlds they’re creating. His customers don’t want to simply buy something; they want to be something.
“A lot of these things, they seem unrelated. But they’re not really unrelated. They all fit in with kind of a lifestyle,” Rakowski said. “We’re not just a furniture store. We’re not just a men’s lifestyle shop. We’re not a food store. We’re a lifestyle shop. Kind of like a mini-department store; but because we’re individually owned and operated, we have that really cool factor.
“We have stuff you don’t see elsewhere,” he added. “We represent many, many small businesses throughout the world. We have products from right here in Michigan to across the seas from China. We have stuff from all across Europe and Japan. We have a bit of everything. When you walk in, there’s something for everybody here.”
Within Rakowski’s evolution lies a lesson for other entrepreneurs to consider.
“It’s important to continue to look at your business and reassess what it is you need and what people are looking for,” he said. “Part of our success has been my ability to adapt quickly to what people are looking for.
“The cool thing about Bradly’s and Birch Rak is that we always have new merchandise coming in, so every day there’s new shipments of something new,” said Rakowski. “Our shop is always evolving. We always have different products, but it’s always kind of in the same vein: You get the same quality of items.”
While there’s ongoing change in what’s going on at Bradly’s in particular and Old Town in general, their “why” is amazingly constant. Both Rakowski’s store and the neighborhood in which it operates were, and still are, where people go to get what they want and need.
“Old Town started as a trading post and, in essence, we still are. We’re the modern version of a trading post,” Rakowski said. “And I think that Old Town will continue to do that, and as long as people want to do things where they want to have fun, they want to go out and have life experiences with different foods and products. I think that’s always going to continue to be a draw for Old Town.”