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A grand social experiment, the Oxford Exchange turns 1

TAMPA

The crabs sold. • Allison Adams couldn't believe it. The crabs, dead for more than a century, if not quite a bit more, had been displayed in glass cases and shown in a French museum before being sold from collector to collector and ending up at a market in Paris, where Adams bought them early this year for her shop inside the Oxford Exchange. She thought the crabs were odd and beautiful and, after a lengthy holdup in Customs, where a French expert had to be hired to officially name the various crab species and declare that, yes, the crabs were definitely dead, they arrived. • Within weeks, nearly all of the 10 cases of crabs were bought. • At $1,000 a piece. • "I never thought they would sell," said Adams, 43, director of the Oxford Exchange, a grand, sweeping mixed-use business and social experiment created by Adams and her brother, Blake Casper, 40, that is celebrating its first anniversary Tuesday.

When they opened last year, the siblings had no idea if Tampa would support what they were selling — not just expensive antiques, but the theme of the business. The Oxford Exchange, which has a restaurant, shop, bookstore, Buddy Brew Coffee and TeBella Tea Co., was a multimillion-dollar, 25,000-square-foot gamble. The purpose was to create a place where people could gather face to face and exchange ideas. There is no Wi-Fi downstairs, an attempt to force people to close their laptops and talk with each other or read or ponder.

Adams and Casper, hardworking heirs to a large McDonald's franchise company started by their grandfather in the 1950s, not only didn't know if people wanted a place like that anymore — Do people still want to talk? Or do they just want to text? — but wondered if they'd accept it in this platform. The building on Kennedy Boulevard across from the University of Tampa is breathtaking and unlike anything else in the city; black and white marble floors, dark wood and brass railings and gas lamps, a leather Chesterfield sofa in the atrium, a stone fountain in the conservatory, oil paintings crawling up a staircase, all bathed in natural light, looking as though it's always been there, a quiet gathering place of civil, dignified conversation birthed somewhere far away, in another time, that just had a good dusting. For inspiration, Adams, Casper and their team toured places like private membership clubs in London and Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed.

"It is kind of a social experiment. It really is," said Casper, a London School of Economics graduate who runs Caspers Co., which has 53 McDonald's restaurants in the Tampa Bay area. "And I think it does go to show that spaces matter and aesthetic matters."

He said the goal was to make the building so beautiful that people would be struck by it regardless of where else they'd traveled in the world. He wanted the denizens of Tampa to be proud of it and to bring visitors here.

"We put a great deal of import in making this space. When you come in, you feel different and I think that changes who we are," he said. "It changes our outlook. It changes how we interact with each other and, I think, it ultimately changes the discussion in a good way."

Casper had been thinking of creating a gathering spot for years, and originally envisioned a quiet, two-story place: a private office for him on top, to retreat and think, with a bookstore on the first floor where readers could loiter and talk. But one day in 2010, he stumbled upon this property for sale. There were two buildings, one dating to the 1800s. Much of it later had to be gutted and built new to look as though it was old. The Oxford Exchange, a name Casper had in mind for years, eventually became like a character in a novel, taking on a life of its own.

"I didn't have some epiphany one night saying, 'This is what we do,' " he said. "It took a lot of iterations and a lot of different forms before it got to where you see it today."

Casper and Adams wanted the Oxford Exchange to be refined but also warm and welcoming, so the community felt it had ownership of the space. They wanted it to become a part of people's lives.

It appears the gamble is paying off.

The parking lot is often full on weekdays and weekends. Both Buddy Brew and TeBella have doubled their staffs this year, whipping up hundreds of lattes and teas a day. The restaurant is packed, serving breakfast, brunch, lunch, and afternoon teas with finger sandwiches and scones with clotted cream.

There are more than 300 members of the Commerce Club, an office space on the second floor where people work and rent meeting rooms. The special events staff is busy with weddings, fundraisers and galas. Lectures like one held this year with author Michael Connelly are well attended. Not only is the book club popular, Casper said, but people are buying books here, at the Oxford Exchange, not just browsing and then buying on Amazon.

And, in the shop, stationery is a top seller.

"We sell so many cards in an age when nobody sends cards anymore," said Jess English, director of retail. A book titled The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication also sells.

"It's cool seeing that people want to still communicate like that," English said. "Maybe we are reminding them that they can."

Adams said that when they opened, she gave no thought to restocking because this was a new venture for her and she wasn't sure if people in Tampa would want to buy the things she offered. It's an eclectic mix of antiques and lovely things, the room designed to make shoppers slow down and browse. Some take breaks, resting on sofas with $300 pillows. Discovery and exploration are the themes here; travel guides to faraway places, jewelry and scarves and $550 hand-woven bags to wear while dreaming of those places, Turkish bath towels you might wrap yourself in at those exotic hotels, all cream and soft gray. You might never dine at Claridge's in London, but you can buy a four-piece silver coffee and tea set from the hotel for $1,300. Or at least touch it.

The siblings have said this place is a gift to Tampa. They declined to say how much money they poured into creating it.

But, Casper said, they do want it to be profitable.

"We are close," he said. "We are not there yet, but we are on our way."

He said he wants it to support itself. And, as a believer in private enterprise, he thinks people vote with their dollars.

"That's why it is important that we are profitable," Casper said, "in the respect that we are responsive and we are providing a value to our customers."

A quick-service cafe will spring up on the same block in October, called OE Market, which will serve carry-out food and juices. Other than that, the siblings said plans are to keep pushing forward. Adams said she still gets stopped by customers new to the Oxford Exchange, who are trying to understand the concept.

"Am I allowed to just come here and hang out?" a stranger asked Adams recently.

"Yes!" she said. "Absolutely."

Times staff researchers John Martin and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3405.

. if you go

Get the Oxford Exchange look

To celebrate its first anniversary, the Oxford Exchange is giving away a $5,000 room makeover. Entry forms come with each receipt from something bought at the Oxford Exchange. The drawing will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

The Oxford Exchange is at 420 W Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa. The website is oxfordexchange.com and the phone number is (813) 253-0222.

The company plans to open the OE Market next month at Grand Central and S Hyde Park avenues, in the same block as the Exchange. The market will focus on quick-service items like to-go sandwiches and juices.

A grand social experiment, the Oxford Exchange turns 1 09/20/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 20, 2013 6:28pm]
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