Quirky business

Winter’s rough, but the new owners of La Bussola love being downtown

Meredith Tanzer and Dawn Lewis are the new co-owners of La Bussola, an eclectic art boutique across from Java Jungle on First Street.

Meredith Tanzer and Dawn Lewis are the new co-owners of La Bussola, an eclectic art boutique across from Java Jungle on First Street.

Photo By David Robert

The Riverwalk Merchants hold a Wine Walk from 2 to 5 p.m. Dec. 20 in downtown Reno.

It’s Saturday afternoon, not many shopping days before Christmas, and an eccentric gift gallery in downtown Reno is hopping. Two women who’ve been wandering among the art—from ceramics to paintings to Elvis toilet seats and sock monkeys—select a wooden bread tray with hand-painted chili peppers.

One says it’ll be a perfect gift. La Bussola co-owner Meredith Tanzer wraps the tray, puts it in a gift bag and announces the total: about $15.

“That’s a good price,” says Kara Maloney, a northwest Reno resident. She and her friend eye the jewelry at the counter, elegant bracelets made of woven silver and pop-arts necklaces made of bottle caps.

Maloney, 35, and a few friends, visiting from the Bay Area, saw no point in shopping at the chain stores in northwest Reno. So the group spent the day downtown, eating at Peg’s Glorified Ham & Eggs and touring the Nevada Museum of Art. At the museum gift shop, they purchased several intriguing gifts such as “Nevada soap,” made in Winnemucca.

Maloney appreciates the variety of independently owned stores in the downtown area. “It’s the only interesting shopping in town,” she says.

Tanzer reminds her of an upcoming Wine Walk, sponsored by the Riverwalk Merchants Association.

“We’re definitely coming downtown for that,” Maloney says.

“It is so fun!” Tanzer enthuses.

Winter’s customarily a rough time for downtown shops in the neighborhood of the Truckee River. Development of a restaurant/housing complex on the property across from the Century Riverside Theater was supposed to provide a needed boost to the Riverwalk merchants. But this year the city dumped one modest project (which resulted in a lawsuit against the city) at the site. It adopted a new 12-story condo scheme, making for another delay in achieving that critical mass of shoppers that city officials hope will revitalize downtown.

The emptiness of the now-closed Esoteric Coffeehouse on the corner of Sierra and First streets might seem a dismal portent of downtown’s future. Sierra Street is down one art gallery since last year, and another gallery is soon to go. The River Gallery will be moving to a new location on California Avenue.

“It’s been slow,” says Pam Fullerton of the River Gallery. “I don’t know if it’s fewer people downtown or people spending less money, but sales are down from last year.”

Still, there may be untapped potential in Renoites who’ve yet to discover downtown. Events like the Riverwalk Merchants’ monthly Wine Walks are attracting more people than ever, some say.

At La Bussola, Tanzer expects at least 300 to 350 people to come downtown this Saturday to shop, sample wine and win prizes donated by the shop owners.

Tanzer and her partner, Dawn Lewis, moved to Reno from San Francisco and purchased the art boutique in July. Tanzer, dressed in purple blouse complemented by holiday light bulb earrings, bubbles over with enthusiasm as she discusses the store and her satisfaction with being part of the downtown business community. A former vice president of marketing at a high-flying dot.com where she made “craploads of money,” Tanzer opted for a simpler life after a business trip to New York City. On Sept. 11, 2001, she watched from a taxi as a jet flew into the World Trade Center’s second tower.

“It totally changed my life,” she says. She and her partner came to Reno to start over.

“We thought, ‘It’s so cute up there, and there’s lots to do if you venture outside the casinos.’ “

The former owners of La Bussola sold the shop to Tanzer and Lewis because they seemed to understand the nature of the business. Since taking over, they’ve added about 40 new artists to the store. At first, they worried a bit about where they’d find new items. But now, they’re continually being approached by new artists and craftspeople, who have few other venues to show and sell their work.

“I love this store,” Tanzer says. “It’s a little crazy, weird. You can find something for everybody.”

And in what other store are kids invited to draw on the floor with chalk while their parents shop?

Tanzer takes pride in being kid-friendly.

“So many places, it’s like you walk in [with kids] and say, ‘Don’t touch that,’ “ she says. “That’s no fun for parents, no fun for kids.”

Tanzer can’t wait for new restaurants to come to downtown. But she’s not worried about staying afloat.

“So many people who live in town support the little independent businesses," she says. "This is a fantastic community—great arts scene, the Riverwalk, the city support for downtown—what could be bad? … I’m like a kid, gushing over."