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Tampa Bay small businesses have found strength in ‘shop local’ movement

Independent businesses have banded together to make an almost political movement of shopping locally.
 
Thousands of people browse local vendors during the Shopapalooza Festival at Vinoy Park in 2021 in St. Petersburg. The organizer, LocalShops1, is celebrating its 15th anniversary of boosting local independent businesses.
Thousands of people browse local vendors during the Shopapalooza Festival at Vinoy Park in 2021 in St. Petersburg. The organizer, LocalShops1, is celebrating its 15th anniversary of boosting local independent businesses. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]
Published Aug. 23, 2023|Updated Aug. 23, 2023

Thursday will mark the 15th anniversary party of LocalShops1, the small-business coterie that, along with others such as Keep Saint Petersburg Local, touched a nerve with the “shop local” movement.

Ester Venouziou, a former page designer for the Tampa Bay Times, said it started with her parents, who planted the idea that shopping local wasn’t just a lifestyle choice: “It can change the world.”

In doing her best to avoid the big-box stores and chain restaurants, she made some delightful discoveries that she thought others might want to know about. So in 2008 she started a directory of the local shops she had found and put them “on a really awful website.” But the rudimentary list was a hit, drawing hundreds of followers.

Related: Tampa Bay small businesses feel pain of a quiet summer

She turned what was a hobby into a business called LocalShops1 that now has more than 560 members. They will put on events such as the new Voodoo Village, a market of more than 100 local vendors that will be part of the Halloween on Central block party on the streets of the Grand Central and Edge districts in St. Petersburg on Oct. 29. And on Nov. 25-26, their 13th Shopapalooza Festival will be held in Vinoy Park. The alternative Black Friday shopping experience will have a record 350 vendors selling wares in the park on Thanksgiving weekend.

LocalShops1 will celebrate its 15th anniversary at the Floridian Social Club in St. Petersburg with performers, fire dancers and an aerial show, in addition to games and prizes, on Thursday. Its evolution feels more like a movement than a chamber of commerce these days, Venouziou said.

Besides keeping the area more interesting with a collection of fun little shops and makers who fill the weekend markets with their creations, Venouziou noted that studies show, on average, locally owned businesses give three times as much as corporate chains to local charities, schools and other local programs.

Handmade African earrings on display at the Jacaranda Hill booth during the Shopapalooza Festival at Vinoy Park in 2021 in St. Petersburg. The annual Black Friday alternative aims to get shoppers to support local independent businesses.
Handmade African earrings on display at the Jacaranda Hill booth during the Shopapalooza Festival at Vinoy Park in 2021 in St. Petersburg. The annual Black Friday alternative aims to get shoppers to support local independent businesses. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]

Treehouse Gallery, the rustic furniture and art store, has evolved over the past two decades from a small plaza in Odessa to a 20,000-square-foot compound of furniture, warehouses and garden spaces in its St. Petersburg showroom. They were one of Venouziou’s first members and remain a loyal and supportive underwriter, “even though they don’t need us anymore, they have really grown,” she said. “But they support the cause.”

Laurie Dulin, general manager of the store, said owner Marc Georgian had from the beginning recognized the value of small businesses banding together. But Dulin said it’s not true they don’t need the booster anymore.

“We are probably a little bigger than other members, but we weren’t always,” Dulin said. “We are still a small business, and we want to keep the community healthy.”

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Another local business booster for more than a decade is Olga Bof, who founded Keep Saint Petersburg Local in 2011. She had worked in marketing and said she caught the fervor for independent businesses “because they shaped the city.”

She started by setting up little markets that eventually grew into Localtopia, which in February celebrated its 10th year in Williams Park. It was its biggest event yet, with more than 300 independent businesses and community organizations setting up shop in the park.

Ester Venouziou is the founder of LocalShops1, an advocacy organization for local independent businesses.
Ester Venouziou is the founder of LocalShops1, an advocacy organization for local independent businesses. [ Times (2016) ]

“When I started this I never knew it would blow up as it did,” Bof said. “But it touched a nerve.”

Both organizations were thrown by the pandemic, just as their member businesses were. Both had to cancel or scale back events in 2020 as people stayed home and maintained their social distance. But they both said when they finally could start holding events, the response from the public was immediate.

“We had our best year ever post-pandemic,” Venouziou said. “People sold out left and right. It was like the public was eager to support local businesses and help them stay afloat.”

But that eagerness has started to wane.

Businesses of all sizes have said this has been a painfully quiet summer. Between the heat and a dip in tourism, foot traffic and business are down.

Dulin of Treehouse Gallery said they have been doing very well since the pandemic, but many of their small vendors have struggled. So they try to make a point of featuring their products or inviting local artists to show their work in the store.

“If those little guys go away, you are stuck with the big box for supplies,” Dulin said. “We want to keep them in business because that’s the lifeblood of the community.”

If you go

LocalShops1 anniversary party: The local business advocacy organization is celebrating its 15th anniversary at the Floridian Social Club, 687 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg, with performers, fire dancers and an aerial show, in addition to games and prizes, on Thursday, Aug. 24. Doors open at 6 p.m. for VIP, 7 p.m. for general admission. Tickets are $25-$1,000 at eventbrite.com.