Blake Casper stood in a local department store two years ago, wondering if there wasn't something more to retail industry than nice-but-anonymous stores in big malls.
Now, his dream is coming true: The Oxford Exchange retail and restaurant arcade in downtown Tampa will open soon as perhaps the largest and most sophisticated new retail development in years.
Unlike a mall with dozens of chain stores, the Oxford Exchange is built into a renovated 100-year old brick building on Kennedy Boulevard across from the University of Tampa, and combines an intimate bookstore, a Buddy Brew coffee bar, a home design retail store, a TeBella tea shop, and a gourmet restaurant.
"We tried to keep as much as we could with the history of the building from when it operated in the '20s as a retail arcade," Casper said. "With retail, you want to sell. But with the advent of people buying everything on the Internet, the question is what will retail spaces become? I think people want a social interaction, so we designed this space with that in mind."
If construction finishes as planned, the shops could open Monday.
The store's atmosphere will thrill anyone who has wanted Tampa to have more solidly built, architecturally interesting stores like those found in New York, Chicago or Europe. The style resembles the old shops of London's Piccadilly Circus or shopping arcades of Italy. Out front is a row of flickering gas lamps. Inside, the floors are polished marble and wood. The walls are dark wood paneling. The hallways have arched, white ceilings, and there are rows of leather couches, antique chairs and wooden tables.
The Buddy Brew coffee bar is a satellite location from the original site down the street, which will remain open. But the Oxford Exchange site more resembles Italian espresso bars, with stone counters and polished brass coffee machines.
Unlike the big-box bookstores that have struggled, the cozy bookstore resembles those in Europe with rows of hardback books on dark, hand-made shelves decorated with antique typewriters.
Perhaps the most pastoral space is a broad, glass-ceiling solarium space with white-painted brick walls and tables for eating or reading.
The building itself is one of the oldest in Tampa, and was likely first built as horse stables to service the massive new hotel and resort across the street.
"It was almost a wilderness then, except for the Tampa Bay Hotel," said Del Acosta, the one-time historic preservation chief for the City of Tampa. "Once you got off what was then called Lafayette Street, it was dirt roads."
But the area started thriving, Acosta said, and became a resort destination, with theaters, restaurants and an arcade of shops in the wedge-shaped block, where Kennedy Boulevard jogs over, and the French restaurant Mise en Place now operates.
The building changed hands and ultimately housed the Bryn-Alan photography company. It sat dormant for years until Casper bought the space next to the University of Tampa's David Falk Theatre.
Keeping many of the walls and textural features intact, the building was thoroughly gutted, and architects essentially built, then hid, a standalone steel superstructure to support the floors and anchor the glass solarium. They cut out a central portion of the ceiling to open the space for a broad central atrium. The white oak flooring was made from beams in a Kentucky whiskey warehouse.
The project is also something different for Casper. While he operates the largest chain of McDonald's restaurant franchises in the area, he went to college in London and still thinks fondly of the independent coffee shops and bookstores there.
Meeting with architects and partners, they settled on a plan with several different shops, each focusing on their own specialties, but in an open space together.
For instance, the main atrium opens into a retail shop run by Allison Casper Adams, Blake's sister, who gathered a wide variety of items: Aromatherapy candles, cookbooks, bowties, fine stationery, luggage trunks and two life-sized Chinese terracotta guards. "Everything is made to look like you're visiting a person's fine home," she said. "Except it's all for sale."
The second floor is a "Commerce Club," where members who join can relax in a quiet space to read or work. Talking on cell phones is discouraged, so for anyone receiving a call, there are private, leather padded booths to talk.
Susan and David Ward of Buddy Brew coffee signed onto the project early.
"This is creating something really special," Susan said. "Such a gift to Tampa in terms of just a beautiful setting that offers unique things where people can gather."
The Oxford Exchange restaurant will have about 190 seats, including the atrium, and it will be a modern American bistro run by Chef Erin Guggino, a gourmet chef who has helped reinvent restaurants like the Water sushi bar and the restaurant Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Items like grilled cheese sandwiches are re-imagined, with fresh bread, sharp cheddar and a cup of gazpacho instead of tomato soup. They'll also have a formal afternoon tea service, with teas brewed on site by TeBella.
The bookstore will be setup very differently than others in town, said manager Alison Powel, whom Casper recruited from a rare books store in Nevada.
Rather than typical "fiction" or "biography" sections, the books are arranged in themes for browsing: Discovery, Solace, Adventure. And the inventory will skew toward physically beautiful and hardback books that people enjoy as objects.
"This is definitely going to be a process to get it right," Powell said. "But we want people to enjoy browsing."
As for whether the whole project succeeds, the relatively smaller scale and proximity to the more affluent neighborhoods of Hyde Park works to the project's advantage, said Mike Milano, a commercial real estate broker with Colliers International. "Where you see this concept most often are with several restaurants under one roof that appear to be completely independent," Milano said. "But here, he's mixing that up a bit with other kinds of merchants, so we'll have to wait and see. It's a very interesting concept."