Out with La Bussola, in with Starbucks. What’s happening to Reno’s arts district?
Meredith Tanzer pulled a spool of pink ribbon off the wall of her funky art boutique, La Bussola, as she chatted with a customer about the cold weather.
“That’s one good thing about us moving,” she said. “We’ll find a location with heat.”
Still, despite Tanzer’s enduring optimism, there was a hint of disappointment in her round brown eyes.
Tanzer, with her short, multicolored hair and constant look of eagerness, has been co-owner of La Bussola for more than three years.
Perhaps the only store in Reno where you can draw on the floors, the quirky boutique offers an array of local artist’s creations. Mirrors, artwork and the occasional “Art Slut” T-shirt adorn the multicolored walls of the shop. Walking into La Bussola is like climbing into your crazy aunt’s attic. You’ll find the typical painting here or chair there, but then you’ll stumble upon a jeweled toilet seat adorned with a picture of James Dean.
There usually is not a bare surface in the place. Anything that can have something placed upon it, propped up against it or hung off it does. Just about anything a local artist can dream up is at La Bussola. But now, the bowls made from old record albums, the handmade soaps and all the other eccentric creations are being priced to move. The walls are increasingly less adorned, counters less clutteredæ La Bussola is disappearing piece by piece.
At the end of February, Tanzer, an artist herself, will pack up what’s left of the paintings and decoupage armoires and leave the First Street and Arlington Avenue location, just a stone’s throw from Java Jungle and the Truckee River.
“We’re excited for the change, but it’s just such a bummer,” Tanzer admitted.
La Bussola’s lease came up for negotiation on Jan. 8. Tanzer said she and co-owner Dawn Lewis could not afford the newly proposed rent. While Tanzer has not yet signed a lease for a new location, she said the store will likely move to a space on Virginia and Cheney streets.
In October 2006, Tanzer expressed concern that the luxury high-rise condo developments popping up downtown, such as the Palladio, would make it hard for locally owned businesses to survive. She just never expected La Bussola to be one of them. Now, she said she is worried for other businesses in her area.
“In the arts district, there are no options for small businesses, especially in retail,” Tanzer said. “There are great restaurants, coffee places and theaters, which is fantastic, but I worry about the future of downtown retail.”
Jim Bell, owner of the recreation store, Sierra Adventures, located across the street from La Bussola, said he doubts Reno’s commitment to local business owners. Bell said he’s had issues with his landlord and that he and other shops on his block, like Sasha’s Boutique and Java Jungle, are in constant fear of eviction.
“I don’t see a future for small businesses in this city,” Bell said. “They want Taco Bell and big chains. The city redevelopment office is not making any effort to help us out.”
Some large chains, like Longs Drugs, are already moving into the downtown area. Starbucks will open up in the heart of the arts district—in a corner unit of the Palladio at First and Sierra streets. While some worry that Starbucks eventually could draw enough customers away from the nearby coffeehouses to shut them down, Tanzer believes the issue is not big chains versus small businesses, but that a lack of variety will hurt the area. She said she thinks a big coffee chain like Starbucks will be good for the nearby Java Jungle and Dreamer’s Coffeehouse, since it will bring more of the same kind of customer to their area, but that a future lack of downtown retail will be harmful.
“It’s great to have Starbucks and Java Jungle and Dreamer’s,” she said. “But what are you going to do in between your 12 cups of coffee? Will you be able to make a whole day of shopping and such by the river? I don’t think so.”
One of Tanzer’s main concerns is the future of events like Artown. Without the support of artist-friendly shops close to the river, like La Bussola and Java Jungle, will Artown be able to stay true to its local artist roots?
“If we have these events specifically designed to attract locals, they should be able to shop at locally owned places,” she explained.
Still, Tanzer said she does not blame her landlord for raising the rent. The downtown area has seen a lot of development in the three years she has been there, and property values have soared. The current market rate value is more than twice what she pays in rent. Tanzer can do nothing but hope that new businesses in the area will give back to the community in the same way she and fellow owners have.
La Bussola has donated to more than 32 non-profit organizations in its time downtown, including the Nevada AIDS Foundation, with whom Tanzer opened a new gallery at 900 First St. at Vine, called Heart Spot. The gallery features local artists’ work and includes a bookstore and free Internet access. It’s run completely by volunteers, and 40 percent of all sales go to the Nevada AIDS Foundation. Tanzer said that if La Bussola had not been moving, the opportunity would never have come up.
“To be able to do this is so in line with what we want to do here,” Tanzer said. “We can help charity and still show local art. People can come get a cool gift and do something great for the community.”
Other downtown small businesses have done their share to help the community. Bell said he spearheaded an effort among the small-business owners to clean up drug and vandalism problems near the river. He’s disappointed that with all the work local owners have done, he still does not feel they are being looked after by the city.
“We’ve done everything we can, and this is the thanks we get,” Bell said. “It just disappoints me.”
Marvin Grolli, La Bussola’s landlord, says although he has no idea what kind of business will be occupying the space, he hopes it will benefit downtown.
“I’m going to try to balance the benefits I get with the benefit for the whole area,” Grolli said. “I can only hope that the rest of the market operates the way I do.”
While the future of local downtown businesses is hazy, Tanzer, the enduring optimist, has high hopes for La Bussola.
“This town is so grassroots,” Tanzer said. “People want to help independent businesses. It brings me to tears to see how supportive people have been.”
In the past couple weeks, Tanzer has been receiving numerous calls and visits from supportive customers and building owners interested in becoming La Bussola’s new home.
“There has been this amazing generosity and outpouring of love from people,” Tanzer said. “I am truly touched.”
Tanzer said she hopes to open a new location by April 1, with an opening party on April 12 at 5 p.m. While it will be hard for Tanzer to say goodbye to the riverside spot, she knows the location is not what made La Bussola a success—the faithful customers and artists are the heart and soul of the store.
“We have such loyal customers that I don’t worry,” she said. “As long as we are in a location that fits La Bussola, we will be OK. Still, there will never be a store like ours.”