Shop Talk: Our Rocky Road to Retail
For the past five years, I’ve been keeping a big fat secret. In between my daily work tasks and event prep, I’ve been logging hundreds of hours and miles touring spaces for a Flea Style storefront.
But before I roll right into our retail news, a little backstory seems necessary.
In my young 20’s, I always wanted to open a store. As a shopper seeking funky vintage and handmade finds, I never found a retail spot that spoke directly to me and I wanted to fill that void with my eclectic mix of fashion, home decor and more. I would write long lists of items I wanted to carry, the vibe I wanted to create and even bought products and fixtures here and there for the concept “one day.”
I worked in a retail store most of my college years (anybody remember Off The Shoulder off Knox Street and 75?!) and learned the basic skills from merchandising to customer service. In my early 20’s I was a market editor at The Dallas Morning News and learned how to curate products, forecast trends and feed shoppers’ appetites for lifestyle goods.
Since opening a store wasn’t in my budget at 26, I started The Dallas Flea to create a pop up shop that whet my appetite. The first show exceeded my expectations and was a proof of concept that my retail intuition wasn’t bad.
By 2012 I knew I wanted the little market — then three years old — to find a permanent home. I had just had my first child Landry and was trying to figure out my next move as a new mom and budding entrepreneur that still had a desire for a store but was also weary about the changing retail landscape. I craved a space to highlight vendors full time and allow our growing customers to support them more than a couple times a year. We would still host our big blowout shows, but also have a space that was a reflection of them and open around the clock.
I started my search that year. I started with Jack Matthews, the owner of much of South Dallas and the flea’s first home, South Side on Lamar. At the time I thought I wanted a huge space, around the 20,000 to 40,000 square foot range — to create a modernized antique mall concept with booth stalls and a cool tea room. Basically a version of the old antique mall I grew up browsing but fresh and fun.
There was a really cool former produce manufacturing building on Powhattan that was deserted and screaming for me to give it a makeover. Or so I hoped. A couple months into talks and extensive drawings with an architect (see above) an apartment company scooped it up with their gazillions of dollars and built a huge complex within months.
So Jack showed me a huge — like 80,000 square foot two-story space — down the street on Corinth and my mind was blown. It was a former indoor skate park and covered in cool art murals. I instantly saw the concept working inside with lots of room to grow. I was a little hesitant on the location, but thought with time it would gentrify and be great. So I worked with an architect to help me design the space to code and bring my ideas to life (see below). Once we got far along parking proved to be an issue with the city and we couldn’t get rent rates comfortable with both parties. I walked away with the wind out of my sails after spending at least six months on the deal.
When I got pregnant with my second child in 2013, my retail ovaries really started kicking. The Dallas Flea was dimming as my budding interior design business was booming and I felt I needed a big change from my small pop up market format to grow the flea if I was going to keep it up. I picked up my search again to see if I could figure out the next chapter for The Dallas Flea.
My husband works near Love Field airport and there was a huge space for lease near his office with ample parking and nice foot traffic due to the home decor concept next door. I reached out to the owner and he was instantly interested in putting my concept inside the 20,000 square foot space, which was formerly a famous Dallas antique mall. Kismet, I thought! I worked on this space with him and his team for months (see plans below). I met with restaurant concepts to go inside, vendors to rent stalls and had another set of drawings made all to realize six months into the deal that the landlord and I just couldn’t meet in the middle on leasing terms.
When this deal fell through I was exhausted. These deals weren’t simply a meeting and then me deciding to move on. These three deals in particular took nearly two years to flush out and cost thousands and thousands of dollars between engineers, architects and sets of plans. And they cost so much of my time, most of which was spent negotiating rent because I wanted to keep my concept affordable for the vendors. These giant 20,000 to 40,000 square foot spaces were just demanding crazy cash with the rise of Dallas retail estate.
By this time I was so over my first flea’s location I decided if it wasn’t morphing into a full time store that it just needed a new pop up location. I chose West Dallas and started working intimately with its owners/operators Butch McGregor and Phil Romano. I instantly fell in love with their passion for rebuilding this area of town, deep investing into the community and vision for its future. My first show there was a huge success and I wanted to keep my business in the area since my shopper clearly showed up to shop and support the budding area in town.
This is when I changed the company name to Flea Style projecting future growth in shows and possibly a new store concept down the road once the shows were secure and steady. I was now closing the doors on my interior design business to really focus on all things Flea Style.
Our show in West Dallas brought so much business to the area restaurants — Trinity Groves’ biggest day ever at that point (not sure if we still hold that record) — that the owners also wanted to talk shop with me. Just when I thought I was taking a break from commercial real estate, I was right back doing the dance.
Right after the show Butch invited me down to corporate headquarters to talk about my idea for a permanent space with its investors. I brought all of my old plans from the deals that fell through and they were instantly sold. Phil grew up in New York and longed for the flea markets of his childhood. They were sitting on dozens of empty warehouses and cool spaces and couldn’t wait to show me around. I hopped in Butch’s truck and toured the old buildings and quickly fell in love with a gigantic old painting facility for large trucks (imagine huge soaring ceilings, garages, cool splats of paint everywhere) across from Chicken Scratch. This was it. I could feel it (that’s it behind the fence in the photo below).
This project would take some major vision as it was rough. Like holes in the ceiling, no air-conditioning, bums living inside kind of rough. I called my dear friends Chad and Kurt of More Design Build to help me out. We walked the space and they knew after a couple meetings that it would take more than a million dollars just to get the basics installed and operating. The air conditioning bill could be more than $5,000 a month they warned with the huge ceilings. As much as I could envision my concept in this space, the flea just couldn’t justify footing that bill, especially on a lease. Next.
Butch showed me dozens and dozens of other buildings in Trinity Groves but there was never enough parking or the building was too far off a main road. I was really exhausted from searching on my own and decided to hire some help. I found a female duo through my friend Paula and instantly liked their passion for commercial real estate and my concept.
They sent me a huge deck of potential places and we started touring. From Lower Greenville to Grand Prairie I looked everywhere and in between. Parking was always an issue for me. I knew that I needed dozens of spaces between employees, shoppers and our event attendees when hosting a workshop or class. I zeroed in on a couple spots — one in East Dallas and one on Lower Greenville especially — but rent was always more than I was comfortable paying.
I told them I was flexible in my idea but it needed lots of parking. Remember, if we were to host a pop up or vendors needed to drop off items there could potentially be several trailers or Uhauls at my space at a time. They started sending me plots of land outside of Dallas where I could construct a hangar or giant shed around fields and fields of parking. I remember clear as day putting my kids in the car and driving around in no man’s land as it was pouring rain and thinking, really?!!! Why does this have to be so hard and where in the heck am I going to land???
Then they approached me about the old Sears building across from the Galleria. The lease still had several years on it but Sears wanted out and was willing to cut a deal. We walked that space so many times and I really started to see ways to make it happen. The location was great and the parking was even better. Just when I was warming up to the idea the building sold to an investor and all plans were scratched.
Rental rates in Dallas were spiking to an all time high — they kind of still are. And I kept finding that if I landed in a cool prime Dallas location with a huge space, I was going to pay an arm and a leg. So my husband and I started entertaining the idea of owning a space. This would mean that the concept would be way smaller but I was ok with that. No longer would I create an updated antique mall concept but instead a organically styled store featuring our vendors’ cool wares throughout.
As I was starting to entertain owning a small building, a couple developments started reaching out. As rental rates on cool hip spaces were spiking, large big box concepts and developments were struggling. Victory Park asked me to meet with them and entertain taking over an 11,000 square foot anchor space. I was really interested as I have a couple close friends in the development and was really familiar with the concept. We talked for several months but I didn’t feel like the powers at be (they didn’t live in Texas) really understood my concept and would be the right landlord for me.
Back to the drawing board. I started searching on my own for places to buy. I was tired of all the meetings and also tired of deals not working out and wasting people’s time. If I was going to waste time, I wanted it to be mine. I must have logged hundreds and hundreds of hours on LoopNet late night when my babies were in bed searching for the needle in the haystack that had ample parking, a good location, and a price tag we could swing. Oy vey!!!
And then one day early this year, the stars aligned. I found this perfect two-story Victorian house in Oak Cliff on the best corner in Bishop Arts with a covered parking lot for sale. And it was in my budget! It was seriously too good to be true I thought. I called up a commercial realtor that had reached out to me around that time and sure enough I wasn’t imagining things. We got inside and I knew it was my forever home. We made an offer instantly. The owners countered our offer and we agreed. Omigosh, I had found my forever home!!!
I immediately started calling contractors to firm up bids to start renovations post closing. My decorator brain immediately started space planning, scheming and selecting fixtures and furnishings for every cute corner inside. The day before our option period was over my husband and I scheduled a celebratory dinner to toast Flea Style’s future home. On the drive home from dinner we got a call from our realtor that another offer came in at the 11th hour. Tears started rolling down my face. Our realtor comforted us and said it would all be ok, we just needed to tweak our offer a bit.
We followed her advice and I also wrote a heartfelt letter to the owners to tell them why I wanted this building so badly and my plans to restore and love it. Our realtor said she really thought we had this deal. I went to bed with a smile that night and a huge sense of relief. Long story short — a very, very, very long story short — the deal fell through and was awarded to the other offer.
The other realtor later let me know that the owners wanted us to have it so badly but we didn’t meet their requirements. We were misguided during the process as we would have moved mountains to make it work. I now know it was all for a reason but at the time I was just in a fog and completely crushed loosing out on that sweet house with the most perfect porch. I had even bought a macrame swing to hang from its rafters.
When this deal fell through I was simply exhausted. There was also a lot happening at the office. I had just hired Grace, our graphic designer, and had lots of training on my hands. And our winter Summit was a week away. I had to focus on what was important and revisit the real estate discussion down the road.
During this time I was hanging out with a college girlfriend that is a residential realtor and told her everything. She couldn’t believe how the other deal fell through due to our realtor. She instantly recommended a new fit for me to walk me through this journey and finally find Flea Style’s forever home.
Enter John Costello. Oh sweet John. He was an instant match for my personality and completely understood my vision. We got to work right away to find this needle in a haystack.
We searched everywhere. At least three times a week I met him for an hour here or an hour there to see a new prospect. I fell hard for a couple projects and we laser focused on them while keeping an open mind. One fell through because we just couldn’t get the owner to sell (it wasn’t officially on the market but rumor was that the 80 year old owner was about to sell) and the other received an offer the day before we toured it so our backup offer was never entertained.
The latter was a space on Swiss Avenue near Deep Ellum. I really started to warm up to this area of town and its old buildings, historical charm and growing foot traffic. We toured a couple spaces in the area but parking was also an issue. A couple vacant leases were really interested in having us inside but again, no parking.
By this time rumor was out that we were growing and on the hunt for real estate. In the spring four developments reached out for us to either anchor or find a spot inside their shopping centers. They were all over from Bishop Arts and Victory Park (again) to North Dallas and a new place off 75 and Walnut Hill. I was really hoping to buy a building but started to open up my mind to the Walnut Hill deal after meeting with their team and my realtors.
These talks started in April and by early summer we were off to the races to pull this space together (some mood board inspiration, above) as the deal was being ironed out internally on the leasing end. There were a lot of hands in this fire and I was told to keep moving forward on planning while they figured it out the financial piece of the pie. I started working with my architect and looking for large fixtures to fill the 14,000 square foot space which needed to open by April 2018. I found huge 12-foot doors at a store closeout and bought all five to cozy up the grand layout. When I would find an amazing display or old work table I would buy it and put in storage for our concept.
By September I still hadn’t seen a lease and my realtors were getting weary. The week of our fall summit, we found out that the deal wasn’t going to work out. As much as they wanted us inside and fought for it to happen, the powers at be couldn’t swing it for the anchor space and the financial weight that tenant needed to guarantee. I just wasn’t wiling to forecast numbers that I couldn’t 100-percent get behind without opening my doors first.
Although the deal falling through was a let down, it was also a huge sigh of relief. As much as I believed in the project and knew we could make the space look amazing, the square footage and numbers I needed to hit every month for the landlord was overwhelming. Instead of shedding tears like I did for the Oak Cliff space, I felt like I shed a ton of bricks when this deal folded. I knew this one all happened for a reason.
That said, I was completely exhausted by the whole real estate dance and told my realtors I needed a break. We were a week from Summit, month from our Dallas fall show and two months from our Houston fall show. I had a lot on my plate and just wanted a brain break from it all until 2018. New Years Resolution #1: Find Flea Style a retail space.
Well, joke is on me. The day that deal fell through and I told my realtors I needed a break was when the stars truly aligned.
Not an hour after I broke up with my realtor until the new year he called again. I figured it was to check on me given the blow I had just received after so much hard work poured into the deal. But instead he called me about a listing he had recently received in Deep Ellum and thought I needed to give it a chance. One parking space? No way, I said. Talk in 2018.
He called me back and told me I needed to get down there asap. Long story short, he had walked across the street to talk to the owner of a neighboring parking lot to see if we could strike a leasing agreement on some spaces. In doing so he learned from the owner that he was actually putting his building, the parking lot and small building on the other side of the lot up for sale on Monday.
I told John that my husband Michael was going to kill me. In the same conversation I would be telling him the 75 and Walnut Hill deal fell through and I needed him to pony up the cash to buy two buildings and a parking lot in Deep Ellum. John kept saying, Britt this is your home. Just wait.
I pull up to the space and my realtor isn’t there. I walk inside and a nice gentleman greets me and starts giving me a little tour. I figure its the other realtor and we start talking about everything inside. The giant printers. The old building. The history of all of it.
Come to find out as other men starting trickling inside the building including my realtor I was talking to the owner the whole time. A sweet man that had been running a small printing business with his brother in this special space since the 70s. Their services were becoming obsolete and they were looking to retire with the money from this sale.
I honestly knew the second I pulled up to the compound that I wanted it. But after touring it and meeting the owners I had to have it. I called my husband on the way home and told him everything. Like me, he was so exhausted by the whole process up to this point that he said if this is what you want, let’s make a full price offer and tie this thing up in a bow once and for all.
So without even touring the space he trusted me enough to do it. Thank goodness. Because when he toured it he was extremely nervous about the construction project ahead! We made the offer on a Monday and by Friday there were about a dozen on the table. It was an incredible piece of property and investors were especially excited about the parking lot piece in red-hot Deep Ellum. Because of all of the lost deals over the years I didn’t get my hopes up for this one. Plus, I was so exhausted that I just didn’t have the energy to invest.
Sure enough, on Monday the following week John called and said we were outbid by an offer above asking. I knew I wasn’t supposed to get my hopes up! I told Michael and was figuring out the way I was going to tell the team the latest news.
That evening John called me and told me congrats that we were under option on the building. Michael had called him and increased our offer to clinch the deal. I was in shock. I was also wondering how in the world we were now going to pull this thing off.
Well as this story clearly goes, timing is everything. And Michael was about to close on a property he bought before we were married to put the money down on the building. We had also put our lake house on the market weeks earlier thinking my weekends would be spent at the store on 75 and Walnut Hill. We had an offer on the house and it was set to close the day after the Deep Ellum building. I finally saw the light that we just might pull this one off.
This all started in September and on November 17th — while in Houston for our fall show — we closed on 3009 and 3017 Commerce Street in Deep Ellum. After a long day of promotion and set up prep, the team and I went out for a celebratory dinner and popped a bottle of bubbly back at our airbnb. I remember that whole day just being out of body and in disbelief that we finally did it.
Fast forward to today — the company’s two year anniversary! — and we’re finalizing architectural drawings for the large space at 3009 Commerce which will house our office, store and studio space for workshops, events, private parties and even our podcast live tapings. We start demo in the next couple weeks and hope to break ground on construction in early January.
We are still working on the smaller building’s concept but it will be focused on food. We hope both concepts will open by May 1, 2018. I plan to fold you into the entire process here on the blog and even on our podcast from time to time. For more scoop on this journey and what we have planned for the space listen to our latest podcast where the team and I talk shop for an hour.
In closing, I hope this story is a testament to timing, persistence, perspective and hard work. All four of those elements played equal roles in finding Flea Style’s forever home. Perfect home.
I cannot wait to share it with you soon. It’s going to be simply stunning and showcase everything we’re all about. Get ready Dallas! We’ll see you at the ribbon cutting next spring!