St. PETERSBURG — An unusual joint venture between Sears Holding Corp. and a New Jersey management company is keeping independent vendors in business in the former Kmart at 3951 34th St. S.
Value Fair Market now has 38 retailers paying $350 a month rent for about 150 square feet of space.
Sears owns the building that was vacated when Kmart closed in May 2009 and New Jersey-based Value Fair Market manages it. If the arrangement proves a profitable use for the 95,000-square-foot store, similar indoor bazaars could open in other big box stores that now sit empty. Sears owns idle buildings on Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater.
"We are looking at a few (empty buildings) right now in the area," said Michael Unger, Value Fair Market chief operating officer. "The reason we don't call it a flea market is not because we're snobs. We're particular about what we sell. We don't want a vendor to come in and empty grandma's closet."
Some of the wares for sale include handmade tie-dye holiday shirts, soy candles, cosmetics, spices, women's clothing, pottery and decor such as frames and furniture embellished with shells. There's a mechanic in one automotive bay and a lawn maintenance company in another.
A Sears spokesman said he couldn't comment on any future plans.
The empty Kmart first opened under another operator as an indoor shopping bazaar named Bargain City in May 2010. Vendors paid the operator rent and he in turn paid the landlord, Sears. But tenants began to complain there wasn't enough advertising or signs, vendor Mary Williams said. Then in December 2010 the operator left town and the vendors never saw him again.
"Someone from the (Sears) real estate department called me and said there is a market running (in St. Petersburg) right now. He said there had been some issues with it and asked if we would be interested in taking it over," Unger recounted. He liked the location and thought an indoor market near the beach made sense in Florida because of all the rain and heat. He sees it as attractive to shoppers and vendors.
"We believe we fill an important gap in the market given the local economy," Unger said. "We provide the opportunity for people who want to own their own business for a flat rate of $350 per month. We take care of utilities, taxes, maintenance, advertising and marketing and we provide a web presence."
He operates a similar venture that has proven successful in a former department store in Little Ferry, N.J.
Julie Johnson has turned independent retailer after being laid off from a corporate purchasing job at Konica Minolta. Her husband is American Indian and they sell authentic merchandise.
"I had looked for jobs and interviewed and it's really rough out there," she said. "We had always dreamt of having a little shop of our own. When we heard about Value Fair Market we thought this would be right for us. We have repeat customers because you're visiting with the person. There is a story behind everything in there that's for sale."
Some tenants who sell sporadically at outdoor markets or other flea markets like the idea of having a permanent shop where customers can always find them. Artists use the space for retail as well as a workshop.
Mary Williams, owner of Paradise Made Simple, is not at the profit level she wants but is excited about the new ownership. Her business of handmade shell decor is more than a way to make up for lost income after her husband was killed in a home invasion at their Pinellas Point house in 2006.
"This is like therapy for me. I like the feel of the people who are in here. I was able to come in here and make a little niche for myself," she said. Williams also sells balsa wood roses and is partnering in a new restaurant opening soon. "A lot of flea markets have become so commercialized. It's like a battle between merchants. We all support each other here."
Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at (727) 893-8785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.