She’s the woman behind the motto “Say nice things about Detroit” that has been seen on bumper stickers and T-shirts since the 1970s.
Emily Gail began marketing the motto when she owned a shop in downtown Detroit. Although she now calls Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, home, she’s back and forth to Detroit to help current businesses carry on the message.
Emily says she grew up during a time of “good things happening in Detroit.” Although her family didn’t live downtown, her father, Max Gail, owned an office supply store in the Penobscot Building.
Emily said she often looked for any excuse to get to the city. She and her twin sister, Edee, would pile on the bus from their home in Grosse Ile and take trips into the city to visit Hudson’s or to grab an ice cream at Sanders.
In addition to owning the shop in Detroit and another in Wyandotte, Max was a musician. Before he started his family, he was a well-known piano player. After his children were born, he shifted his focus to working as a booking agent at Gail and Rice, along with running his two shops and teaching his children the business along the way.
To learn the ins and outs of the family business, Emily and her siblings would be quizzed on office supplies. While at the store, their father would ask questions like, “Ok, go find the DM8039s” — a file folder with a third cut, she explained.
“I remember running to see who could find it first,” she said of the brood, which included three sets of twins.
Once the kids got the hang of things, he’d send them out to assist customers. “Just ask if you can help them find anything,” he’d encourage, while pressing other life lessons by example.
“My father would roll up his shirtsleeves and carry packages out for customers,” Emily said. “They’d say, ‘I’m going to have to let the owner know that you’re a good worker,’ not realizing he was the owner. He was just right there with people, trying to connect.”
Emily continued to work at the store through high school, realizing her own ability of connecting with people.
After graduating from Grosse Ile High School in 1964, she attended the University of North Carolina with the goal of eventually playing in the LPGA. She played in several tournaments in Florida and, although she didn’t end up finishing college, went on to work at a golf course in Colorado.
It was around 1970 that Emily made a move back to Michigan.“I loved being in Colorado, but there was something about coming back to your roots,” she said.
She started working for her father again at his store in the Penobscot Building, which she described as the building of Detroit’s financial district in those days. But she wasn’t truly satisfied with the job.
While her father was out of town and Emily was tasked with holding down the business, she noticed a small room that popped up for rent in the same building. By the time he returned, she had signed a lease for the 9-by-12 room for $160 per month.
Emily began by selling film, which most customers would purchase on Friday. She touted her deal of selling the film on Friday, having customers bring it back on Monday, then having the prints ready for pick-up on Tuesday. She also had display shelves of small gifts, the start of what became her core business.
Emily’s Camera and Gift Shop expanded, and she opened a second store called Emily’s Too, a 500-square-foot shop in the First National Building.
Her third shop, Emily’s Across the Street, at the corner of Congress and Shelby, offered higher-end goods such as jewelry, clothing, a small art gallery, and Stroh’s ice cream and lunch specials.
It was common to see signs in office building shops that said “No food allowed.”
So Emily posted signs that read: “You can eat your food in here.” The whole point was to take people away from their desks, even if it was just for a few minutes at lunch.
“The label that was put on Detroit at the time was ‘murder capital of the world,’ ” she said. It was common to see downtown office workers park their cars and walk into office buildings with heads down, then head back to the suburbs after the workday ended.
But Emily wanted to change that.
The slogan “Say nice things about Detroit” actually first appeared in Florida, not Michigan. Emily and her boyfriend at the time, Herb Squires, were on vacation in Fort Lauderdale.“We kept running into people we knew from Michigan,” she said. “They’d say, ‘Aren’t you glad you’re out of Detroit?’ We weren’t, because we had a business there and were pumping it up.”
The couple decided to hire a plane to fly a banner in Fort Lauderdale that read, “Hi, Detroiters. Enjoy Florida. Say nice things about Detroit. Emily.”
It was $400, and it was the start of something big.
The stunt gained a fair amount of media attention, and Emily admitted she had a lot to do with that, alerting news organizations to her plans.
“I always said I wasn’t trying to convince people who wanted to be naysayers; they’re either going to eventually come along or not,” she said. “I just wanted to create a place where all of us who loved the city could join hands. People really responded to it.”
The next step: She and Herb arranged “fun runs” — something uncommon for the time.
“We put our first run on in 1975. While planning it, the police chief told me I couldn’t just put a run on, especially in the streets. He said we needed to go out to Belle Isle; that’s where the runs were,” she said. “But the whole point was to showcase the city and to show people it’s safe. We had less than 100 runners, and he ended up helping us find a way to make it happen.”
Those who participated in the run received a T-shirt that said “Detroit” on it, with a heart. The joke was “Who would buy it? — we have to give it away,” she said.
But eventually thousands of runners were participating, and everyone wanted a shirt. “Say nice things about Detroit” started appearing on more apparel, pins and bumper stickers.
“We were an anomaly in the world of running. Runner’s World wouldn’t write about us initially because runners were so serious, and ours wasn’t about that,” she said. “We got so many people because we didn’t cater to runners; they were going to come anyway. We catered to people who hadn’t been down to the city in years and asked them to come run their first race.”
Rather than hand out awards at the end of the race, Emily would arrange for runners to pick them up at the store on a specific day the next week. That turned into a party.
“There was music playing, people would be dancing in the streets, and there were a couple hundred kegs of beer,” she said. “The police would say — because by this time they could really feel what we were doing — the worst that ever happened was a case of blisters.”
“What we did was guerilla marketing, and that’s what I continue to do,” she said. As the runs gained popularity, along with the slogan, so did downtown business.
“Other businesses started to move (into the area),” she said. “Brooks Brothers moved in down the street, and McDonald’s wanted to open a place in the neighborhood. There was an empty building across the street, but what they really wanted was our corner.
That’s when the trouble began. The real estate became more valuable, and problems with the landlord ensued.
And so did what Emily calls “a very painful exit from Detroit.”
“We were broke. I mean, really broke,” she said. “Some people said, ‘Oh, she’s just trying to make money off the city by selling her bumper stickers.’ People would say, ‘Emily Gail has found a goldmine in the streets of Detroit,’ meanwhile, we were losing our house (and business).”What saved her financially was her experience staging the fun runs. Organizers of newly-formed races like the Los Angeles Marathon and the Ironman asked her for help with logistics.
Valerie Silk, director of the Ironman at the time, offered Emily a job as interim race director — in Hawaii. Without any other options on the table, she left her home of Detroit and moved to Hawaii with Herb.
“I thought it might be temporary,” she said. “In fact, we kept a little apartment in Detroit. But we stayed.”
Emily still lives in Hawaii, having worked in the event-planning field for most of her career. She now hosts a radio show and works in real estate, coming home to Detroit several times a year and maintaining her connections to the city.
“Say nice things about Detroit” has been revived by other companies aligning their brands with Detroit: Shinola, City Bird and DetroitGT.Emily said people in Detroit would contact her and say, “Oh there’s this guy at The Rust Belt Market who’s using your phrase. What are you going to do about it?” Rather than stake claim, she’d reach out.
“I just asked them to put my name somewhere on it (products with the slogan), and then I’d help get them publicity,” she said. “The whole point is to carry on the tradition.
“The whole point of ‘Say nice things about Detroit’ is that wherever you live, work and play, if you like the city then say nice things about it,” she said. “We can all be ambassadors.”