Why did a closed-for-business sign recently appear out front of the funky local artists’ boutique La Bussola?
What happened to La Bussola? Newly displaced from her downtown location on First Street, Meredith Tanzer has, in a matter of weeks, moved her home, her business and her artistic course. She’s standing outside the Tree House, a newly converted art bar and gallery space behind The Underground on Fourth Street. Above her head, a sign on the door reads, “An alternative to the alternative.” An eclectic bar on Fourth Street is certainly an alternative to her alternative boutique downtown.
“La Bussola means ‘compass’ in Italian,” she says with a mischievous smile, indicating that the business has once again shifted direction. She has owned the store for six years, and in that time, has changed the location three times. La Bussola started out on First Street and later moved to a shared space with Salon 7 on Cheney Street, and then returned again to downtown after a yearlong hiatus. Once again, La Bussola is on the move.
“We’re not closing,” she emphasizes. “We’re on sabbatical.”End of an era
An entrepreneur and self-guided professional, Tanzer never imagined that she would end up living in Reno and owning a funky art shop that displayed the work of local artists. A one-time marketing consultant for a dot-com company, she lived in a corporate culture of spreadsheets and conferences. Who knew that she would be handing out Play Doh and creating spaces for artists to show their work? She moved to Reno from San Francisco in 2001 and, through quirk and circumstance, found herself as a business owner of a one-of-a-kind shop that sold unique gifts, household items and art.
Like many local small businesses, La Bussola was hard hit by the economic downturn. Her biggest sales occur during Christmas and Artown, and Christmas was nothing short of dismal last year for local retailers. Tanzer isn’t content to blame the lack of business downtown to the solitary factor of economy, but attributes it to a number of interconnected factors.
“The foot traffic isn’t there,” she says. “There isn’t the same qualified audience that there used to be. Part of that is urban sprawl.” She cites the need for more affordable retail space downtown to urge tourists to stay downtown to shop instead of heading to the mall. “There are only so many Reno and Betty Boop shirts you can buy,” she adds.
Another factor is the large developers moving in downtown, raising the rent on tenants in an economic climate in which they are already struggling. This is what compelled Tanzer to move La Bussola and her apartment above the store. Early this summer, a new owner, Rick Murphy, bought the building. In July, Tanzer was in California on a family emergency, when she got a call from her employee that La Bussola had been served a five-day quit notice.
“It’s in my lease that I can pay my rent late,” she says. “I have until the 5th, and if I pay it after that, there’s a late fee. I have never been late before.”
She says she frantically called Murphy “maybe six or seven times” and received no response.
Murphy visited La Bussola without notice a week later and told Tanzer that not only was the lease on the store going to increase, but so was the lease on her apartment above the store. She says she had worked out a reduced rent agreement with the previous landlord due to mold and a persistent leak in the bedroom that had never been properly fixed.
“That’s fine if you want to talk about my apartment,” Tanzer says she told the new landlord, “but we need to talk about the damage to my apartment. You can’t raise my rent because it hasn’t been fully repaired. You can see the water damage, water lines … if you move me out of that unit you will have to fully fix it.”
She says she repeatedly tried to contact Murphy, and that he did not respond to her phone calls.
Murphy says that there was no increase in the rent. “It was in her lease,” he says. “There was no increase in rent.” According to Murphy, Tanzer sent him a letter stating her intent to vacate the premises by Aug. 30. On Sept. 1, Murphy arrived with the sheriff and put a padlock on the door, telling Tanzer that she could come back in a few days to pick up the rest of her belongings. From a business perspective, he was just taking care of paperwork.
Did he intend to keep all of the commercial tenants in the building when he purchased it?
“Absolutely,” he affirms, adding that it made no sense to purchase a vacated building. “It’s most unfortunate that her customer base couldn’t help her stay in business,” he adds.Moving on
While Tanzer is frustrated over the financial situation of her store coupled with a series of miscommunications with the new owner, she is confident that she will find the right space to reopen the latest incarnation of La Bussola. “Other shopping centers and developers have called me to move in: ‘Hey, move La Bussola here!’”
She’s holding out for the right fit, preferably back in downtown Reno. “Part of the charm for me of downtown Reno is that it reminds me of little old Italian neighborhoods or little old ethnic neighborhoods in bigger cities—where the owners live downtown.”
Displaced but hopeful, La Bussola is looking for a new home. Although Tanzer is currently immersed in the Tree House Lounge, her all-consuming desire is to find her shop a better location. She is thinking of turning La Bussola into a non-profit art center.
“A collaborative space. Maybe there’s a space that has a bar element to it, a restaurant element to it,” she says. “There’s got to be some philanthropist out there, someone just sitting on a building, wondering how they can help.” Meredith envisions a venue for artists of all ages to meet, create and display their work. Until her vision becomes a reality, The Tree House, which was initially an umbrella project under La Bussola, has become a new reason to bring artists together. “I would have had a mental breakdown had this not happened,” she admits. “At the time [when she acquired the Tree House] I wasn’t thinking that I was going to close La Bussola.”
The Tree House Lounge is a neo-Victorian art space. It’s clean, well-lit in select places, and it has the feel that someone who knows how to create atmosphere is calling (and pouring) the shots. Meredith is learning the intricacies of pouring draft beer, but she understands the necessity of creating a space for the artistic community in Reno to interact.
“I’ve never worked at a bar, owned a bar, but what I understand is building community and making people feel comfortable. That’s what I feel that my forte is.” Although she’s in between spaces now, Meredith is confident that it’s just a matter of time until La Bussola reopens. Until then, she will continue to build the Tree House Lounge and keep looking for the right space for her shop.
“I’m going to do something bigger in this town,” she says.