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Artist crafts a niche in Pass-a-Grille

One in an occasional series

The sign in front of Nancy Markoe's Fine American Crafts Gallery pretty much says it all: "Where the art show never ends."

The unusual gallery showcases pottery, jewelry, glass, wood, weavings, sculpture, bells and chimes from American artists.

But the art show almost never started. Markoe's venture into retail began with an intuition and a wrong left turn while heading to Gulfport.

For 12 years, Markoe worked in St. Augustine as a professional potter, showing at outdoor juried shows and selling to galleries. But her house was too big and her studio space was too small, so Markoe decided to head to Gulfport to look for a place.

While driving, she made a wrong turn and ended up in Pass-a-Grille. Markoe loved the area and rented a cottage. She continued to search for a studio, heading to Terra Ceia, Ruskin and Carrollwood.

But the beaches and a dark brown abandoned building with paper in the windows kept drawing Markoe back to the area.

That gave Markoe an idea.

"I kept thinking to myself, "There's an opportunity here,' " Markoe said of the building at 3112 Pass-a-Grille Way. "I would always see those storeroom windows outside when I drove by and it just blended with the area. I really think this place was waiting for something special."

In 1986, after a year of renovating that abandoned building "from top to bottom," Markoe opened the gallery. She replaced the brown paint with white, put in shrubs and flowers along Pass-a-Grille Way and showcased work in the windows.

"I'm devoted to American crafts," Markoe said. "And I'm really proud to be on Pass-a-Grille. We're the first thing you see when you get out here. It's like the old candy store around the corner. The corner store was so important when I was growing up."

Markoe started on a shoestring budget, selling her own pottery along with works from 14 other artists in the early years. Now she sells work from 350 artists and recently was named one of the top 100 American craft retailers in the country by Niche magazine.

"You have to be in this for the long haul," Markoe said. "My mother always said Rome wasn't built in a day. From the start this has been a word-of-mouth business, and it takes time to build the reputation of what you have. I didn't start advertising until two years ago."

Markoe's biggest advertisement came when President Clinton visited St. Petersburg on Sept. 24, 1993, during his "town hall" meeting in Tampa to discuss his health care package. Workers at the gallery placed a giant green sign on the side of the building that read: "Relax, there's a woman on the job. We love you Hillary." Clinton stopped in and bought 14 works by five artists.

"We received enormous attention after that," Markoe said. "It's never been the same. I have to tell that story an average of two to three times a day."

The number of customers has grown, but the concept of the gallery has remained.

All works are created by professional American artists and are signed. Most works are handmade, serve a function and are fabricated. The glass is hand-blown. The jewelry is handmade. The pottery is wheel-thrown, and the bread baskets are hand woven.

"The gallery is incredibly unique," said David Feinberg, a customer who has done most of his Christmas and birthday shopping there for eight years. "Really, the thing that's the nicest is everything is one of a kind. It beats the department stores."

Markoe has a firm philosophy: "The work here is meant to be used, not put on a shelf. I like beautiful things with great quality and a great price."

For example, a hand-blown drinking glass by Esteban Prieto features gold wiring in the center. That artistic touch also serves as a grip on the glass. Prices range from $3 to $3,000.

"It's a typical business," Markoe said. "There's never any getting away.

"But there are absolutely no regrets. I feel very blessed to be here and can feel the spirit of the artists who put all their energy into the work."