Sit On It Detroit Brings Benches And Mini-Libraries To Detroit Bus Stops

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Sit On It Detroit founders Kyle Bartell and Charles Molnar
Sit On It Detroit founders Kyle Bartell and Charles Molnar

In Happy Days, the Fonz gleefully told people to “sit on it” whenever he needed a good comeback. But on a searing summer day in Detroit, “sit on it” means something very different to the city’s bus riders: a relaxing bench and mini-library provided by Sit On It Detroit, a startup devoted to providing commuters with seating and reading.

For Detroit’s cash-starved transit system, having a place to sit is a luxury long absent from the city’s bus stops. It’s a different kind of comeback.

The comparison between Fonzie and Sit On It Detroit evokes laughter from Charles Molnar. “People ask us about that, but it didn’t cross our minds,” he says.

Molnar attends Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills where he grew up before moving to Detroit. He co-founded Sit On It Detroit in 2013 with friend Kyle Bartell, whom he met at Wayne State University.

“We were both in the urban studies program,” Molnar explains. “We stumbled across this photo on the internet of a bench attached to a pole. We thought, ‘That’s definitely doable.’ So we created a seat with a 2 by 12 and a 4 by 4 and mounted it to a bus stop pole on Cass and Kirby.” He pauses, realizing how much time has passed: “That was in May 2011.”

Engaging the community
Engaging the community

Today, the two friends have a showroom at 71 Garfield St. in Midtown — just a few blocks from their inaugural bench. But three years ago, the duo was competing for grant money from Detroit SOUP, a nonprofit dinner and fundraiser that awards prize money to creative projects aiming to improve Detroit.

“We got a small grant from SOUP to do 10 more benches,” he says. “The problem with those benches, though, was that none of us were engineers. People were standing on them and they were breaking.”

Adding A Library

Doodling in a coffee shop one day, Molnar began redesigning their product.

“I sketched a little library beneath the bench, thinking people could donate books to the benches. Kyle walked in and said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘I think it’s the new and improved Sit On It bench.’ Kyle said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

There was still one problem: construction cost.

“It was about $150 to build one bench. Then we remembered this place called Architectural Salvage Warehouse off Warren and Grand River,” Molnar says, remembering the days when reclaimed wood wasn’t as in vogue. “No one really used old wood then. So when we showed up they said, ‘Really? You want that wood? OK, give us $10 and take whatever you want.”

People add their names and drawings to this very public Sit On It Detroit library bench.
People add their names and drawings to this very public Sit On It Detroit library bench.

Molnar and Bartell still hunt for reclaimed wood with the gusto of children playing hide-and-seek.

“I remember driving down train tracks, looking in alleys, going anywhere we thought might have wood we could recycle,” Molnar recall. “Even today, if I see a 4 by 4 on the ground I throw it in the truck.”

In three years, Sit On It Detroit has installed more than 70 benches in Detroit. In addition to community benches, they build tabletops, bars and counters. Restaurants, companies and individuals alike buy Sit On It Detroit products.

“Some businesses want benches outside their stores by bus stops, or they’ll purchase advertising on benches,” Molnar says. “Other places — like the University of Michigan Detroit Center — use the benches inside.”

Though the benches are built at John R and Six Mile Road, Sit On It Detroit opened its showroom in March 2016. The showroom features T-shirts, records, local artwork and other decorations. For $350, a person can adopt a bench for their neighborhood. The patron also receives a miniature replica of the bench as a token of appreciation.

Beyond local attention, Sit On It Detroit has garnered patronage from national companies such as Macy’s and Carhartt. Earlier this year, Macy’s funded seven benches around Detroit with local artists painting each before installation.

As large companies bring desirable jobs, light rails and sporting arenas to Downtown, Sit On It Detroit demonstrates how anyone can make a positive change — even an undergrad with no previous experience as a Jewish carpenter. 

For more information, visit www.sitonitdet.com or call Sit On It Detroit at (313) 961-1141.

By Martin Michalek | Special to the Jewish News

 

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