Since the moment Steamboat Sandwiches moved from Market Square back to its original location, interest has been keen in what would replace it. Any Market Square address is now a hot commodity and 7 Market Square is as good as any. While Market Square has a strong contingent of restaurants and bars, it has a smaller contingent of shops. It’s the same around downtown generally and many people long for more shopping possibilities. And that’s what you are getting.
Last winter Laurie Ruderman (who you see in a couple of these photographs), who will manage the new Agora store on Market Square, began looking in the city for a spot that made sense on behalf of Marcus O’Brikis, owner of the store. She’d visited Asheville, Knoxville and Chattanooga and felt a store like theirs would work here. She realized some of what they carried is available in Asheville, so it really came down to the two Tennessee cities. Her sources told her to try Knoxville.
They both made return visits. Marcus came to Knoxville just after the new year with the skating rink still in place on Market Square. It was the final nudge that told him the right place was Knoxville. He saw the location at 7 Market Square, but considered some others before returning to the space and leasing it.
He likes the fact that so many people live in downtown Knoxville, and that many more are on the way, feeling that residents are a key to his business. He negotiated a long lease because, “My m.o. is to get into an area that is going in the right direction, anchor in, and keep going.
Marcus has an interesting history of various business endeavors, but this is his first this far north. While he is from southern New Jersey, he moved many years ago to the Virgin Islands. He started his first business (Banana Don’s) in St. Thomas in 1992, then opened a second location in 1995. He lived through Hurricane Hugo and its aftermath – going sixth months without power – but after Hurricane Marilyn severely damaged his home and businesses, he left for Miami.
There he opened the first location of Agora in Miami, as a 15,000 sq. ft. furniture warehouse mostly for wholesale to decorators and designers, but wanted to focus on retail. The name is the name of an ancient Greek marketplace. He wanted the name to be evocative of place, but hard to pin down as he has goods from all over the world, with a concentration of products from Asia.
He opened a 1600 sq. ft. store in St. Petersburg in 2009 on Beach Drive in a museum and arts district. Within months he opened another in the Ybor City section of Tampa. A part of town he fell in love with, it’s an old industrial area built in the late 1800s by cigar manufacturers. It’s a part of Tampa which has undergone a similar transformation to that of downtown Knoxville. The second location was a bit larger and, at about 2600 square feet, about the same size as 7 Market Square.
Closing the warehouse, he has concentrated on those two stores and the Knoxville store will become the third. The stock is equal parts small goods and furniture. Much of the furniture is vintage, with many antique pieces that have been re-furbished. Each furniture item is different from the others and at the moment, the furniture in the store is from India, though that won’t necessarily be true as time passes.
The smaller items in the store are generally hand-made from cottage businesses. The wood pieces are hand-carved and other accessories are made by hand, as well. A ship container from India was delivered to Knoxville via Charleston and its contents constitute the initial furniture stock for the store.
They have hand-made textiles, bed covers, candles, natural oils, hand-made journals, scarves, beautiful live orchids, handmade purses and bags, ceramic and porcelain plates from Japan, jewelry from southeast Asia and bags from Madagascar and much more. One interesting side note was that he’d like to include local artisans as the team and store settle into the area.
Marcus and Laurie are very appreciative of the people in Knoxville who have helped them get to this point. Marcus mentioned particularly Michael Riley, manager of the adjacent Oliver Hotel and Michelle Hummel of CBID housed just a few doors down at 17 Market Square. Michelle helped him coordinate a middle-of-the-night delivery of all the furniture.
The store may open today – items are still being added, including decorative items for the walls – but should be open by the weekend at the latest. Check out their Facebook page (and give them a “like”). Drop by and say, “hello,” and welcome them to town. Marcus will be here periodically, but Laurie has moved here and will be the sole employee for now. The store will be open seven days a week, with initial hours being 11:00 AM – 8:00 PM Sunday through Thursday and 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM Friday and Saturday.