ROYAL OAK, Mich. — Just when the Detroit car culture threatened to outmode sidewalks, street shopping comes back in suburban Royal Oak.

Specialty boutiques and independent designers have helped transform an aging downtown into a spirited shopping destination blending big-city style and small-town service.

From sophisticated to funky — in clothes or curios — the eclectic array of shops puts a fresh face on the compact district originally constructed in the Twenties when Royal Oak was the commercial crossroads between Detroit and Pontiac.

Located just outside the city in the southeast corner of Oakland County, modest Royal Oak — less than one square mile — draws shoppers from nearby affluent communities like Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills as well as from Detroit and Grosse Pointe. An east-west highway expansion in late 1989 made the central suburb more accessible to the entire metropolitan population of 4.3 million.

Back in the Seventies, Royal Oak’s downtown was a ghost town, drained by then-new Oakland Mall. A stalwart few merchants hung on. In a true evolution of renewal, the antique shops drew vintage clothiers, which were then followed by nightclubs, restaurants and upscale clothing shops.

Patti Smith, 41, is credited as the pioneer of Royal Oak retail. In 1980 she opened Patti Smith Collectibles, banking that the once-thriving commercial district would be revived. “I had a vision that Royal Oak would come back to life — the way it used to be,” she says.

Within three years she expanded from strictly vintage to new clothing. “Before you knew it, it was totally unique. I carried small companies you wouldn’t see at the malls.”

She introduced several Chicago designers, including Su-Zen, Monika Resman and Robin Richman. Today she sells Alice Berry clothing and accessories alongside her own vintage-inspired label, Paradise by Patti Smith, as well as more mainstream lines like French Connection and Putumayo. The 4,200-square-foot store generates sales of around $750,000 annually.

Smith credits the coordinated efforts of downtown merchants for the relative boom of the last five years. The Downtown Royal Oak Association publishes a free brochure widely available at the shops containing hours, phone numbers, parking directions and a map. They also sponsor charity benefits and special events. Says Smith, “We work hard to keep people around.”

They work creatively too. Lynn Portnoy keeps dog bones in her store next to the Christian Dior blouses for those customers who shop with Spot. “We’re all very individualistic around here,” she says.

None less distinct than Portnoy herself, who until 2 1/2 years ago ran a better-to-designer shop under her name in downtown Detroit.

When her clients, mostly professional women, moved to the suburbs, so did she. She is comfortable in the diverse and lively community. “People shop Royal Oak for uniqueness,” she says. “If they want cookie-cutter, they’ll go to the mall.”

In the 3,600-square-foot shop, Portnoy sells service — personally showing customers around racks of clothes by Eileen Fisher, Jax, Yeohlee and Dior while also providing them with sample shoes in the dressing rooms. Annual sales are just short of $1 million.

If Portnoy dresses an established career woman, neighboring Milieu outfits her daughter. Owner Denise Howard opened Milieu last May after installing a blanched, wide-plank wooden floor and creating an art-filled setting for casual separates. Lines include such local names as Amy Rigg, Robin Richman, Fitigues and J. Morgan Puett, who got her start in Chicago.

She says she serves women from their late 20s on looking for clothes that are “arty but not glitzy.” Howard predicts first year revenues around $500,000 for the 1,000-square-foot store and says that street traffic — excepting snowy months — has made it relatively easy to generate a following in Royal Oak.

The shop is Howard’s second; her first is in the Oakland County town of Clarkston. “Part of the success of the store in Clarkston was that it was next to a nice restaurant,” she says. “Royal Oak has so many nice restaurants that I thought it would attract the same customer base.”

Dining and entertainment are magnets within the concentrated area. Downtown Royal Oak hosts a dance club, a cinema, a billiard hall, a theater, bars. But most pack into the nearly 20 restaurants featuring everything from Asian stir-fry to East coast oysters. In summer the wait for tables can run to several hours, news welcomed by merchants.

“That’s why we took over more frontage,” says Steve Levin, owner of Pentimento, a jewelry shop which grew from 300 to 1,200 square feet last summer.

“It’s the greatest form of advertising, how the store looks at night.”

Word-of-mouth raves have enabled Pentimento to expand into art objects and furniture while ringing up sales of $2 million annually. The Levins say they picked the right location even if most of their customers for jewelry — which ranges from $100 to $100,000 — don’t live in Royal Oak.

“It’s destination shopping,” says Levin. “They can come here and have dinner too.”

That sense of openness has made retailers out of some young designers. Christine Jonson and Katherine Peterson opened their shop Trio 18 months ago. Both had been custom designing for many years when the thought of opening a shop coincided with the renewal of Royal Oak.

“Royal Oak was getting to be the place for dining, drinking and dancing,” says Jonson.

They chose a 600-square-foot space in a converted church on a side street and held their breath. Today they say they are surprised by the walk-by interest they’ve had.

Spring is their sixth collection. Though the two designers don’t discuss their plans with each other, their clothes are complementary.

“We do shape and fit over detail, which is expensive,” says Jonson. Her best-selling pantsuit with a long, fitted, one-button jacket runs $230.

“We design pared-down shapes that can be accessorized and aren’t fussy,” says Peterson, whose unconstructed linen separates range from $60 to $200. In their first year the pair sold over $200,000 in merchandise.

The two at Trio share more than selling space and a design aesthetic. They see the progress and pulse of the area boosting their store. Says Peterson, “Royal Oak is changing dramatically. We’ve got an interesting mix of shops.”

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