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CRATE AND BARREL ON ITS WAY

Tampa Bay area fans of the store won't have to drive to Orlando any more for their fix.

Capping a decade-long flirtation, Crate and Barrel has signed a deal to open in Tampa's International Plaza.

The move injects into the local retail scene an upmarket home decor pioneer in the theatrics of meticulously arranged, spotless, almost antiseptic, displays. Crate and Barrel offers the most direct challenge to gourmet kitchen gadget purveyor Williams-Sonoma and its home decor offspring Pottery Barn, two chains that have been in this market 20 years.

Construction begins soon on the store scheduled to open in spring 2009. A site plan submitted for the 4.3-acre site includes space for a signature chain restaurant next door that Taubman Centers Inc., which manages the mall, says will be a newcomer to the Tampa Bay area.

The Crate and Barrel chain was founded in 1962 by a young couple so keen on inexpensive Danish china, glassware and home design minimalism that they returned from their honeymoon with enough goods to set up shop amidst the bohemian hot spots in Chicago's Old Town.

Gordon and Carole Segal only had $17,000. So they outfitted their venture in a brick-walled elevator factory in barrels, crate lumber and burlap. The original idea: home design "for people like us with good taste and no money."

But the pair learned that adding dramatic lighting, grouping products that looked right together and designing hip stores coaxed customers to buy more.

Crate and Barrel became a tourist attraction.

In 1998, German mail order giant Otto Group, then owners of the Spiegel catalog, bankrolled a national expansion to what today is a 160-store chain with sales of $1.4-billion. But they left Gordon Segal, now 69 and about to step aside of day-to-day operations, firmly in charge.

In Tampa, the 33,000-square-foot, two-story home decor store won't be inside the mall, but in its own highly visible building by the mall entrance on the northeast corner of Boy Scout and West Shore boulevards.

"We think it makes a real entrance statement," said Bruce Heckman, a vice president with Taubman.

Taubman has been wooing Crate and Barrel since it first started gathering tenants for IP, which opened in 2001. Segal passed on Tampa in favor of testing the Central Florida waters at Mall of Millenia in Orlando, which opened the same year.

A few years later, Segal told the Times he was still interested in Tampa, but more focused on creating CB2, a second chain for a younger generation drawn to loft living, and Target and Ikea prices.

Company officials, who have been tight-lipped about the Tampa store through months of negotiations, had little to say Friday beyond confirming the deal.

But Tampa Crate and Barrel fans should know Segal has been cautious and slow to expand.

He waited 15 years to open the first store outside Chicago. He waited 33 years to venture into New York, although the fourth CB2 opened in Manhattan's trendy SoHo in November. The first Crate and Barrel outside the United States opens in Toronto this September.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

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