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Ester Venouziou

By Tiffany Razzano
Published Sept. 16, 2016

Growing up in Brazil, Ester Venouziou and her family only shopped at local businesses. At the market, they could find everything they needed from produce and meat to clothing.
At the end of these shopping trips, Ester and her sister would be allowed to stop to buy books and comics. “It was like our reward,” she said.
Her parents also owned a business, a fabric store, Importadora Jenny, with three locations. As a child, Venouziou would accompany them to the store, helping them wrap purchases. Later, after the family moved to New Jersey when she was 12 years old, her parents switched gears. Rather than running their own shops, they represented Brazilian fabric companies in the United States, working hard seemingly around the clock.
This had a profound effect on their daughter. “I didn’t want to own my own business,” she said. “I saw my parents working all the time. That wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to go to work and come home.”
She headed to Boston University, where she studied journalism and psychology. When she graduated, she came to Florida for work. First bouncing back and forth between newspapers in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, and then landing in Gulfport in 2003. She moved to the area to work for the then St. Petersburg Times as a copy editor and designer, also doing a bit of writing for the paper.
In 2008, her parents traveled from New Jersey to visit her. While Venouziou was at work, her parents would keep themselves busy by going to the mall or eating at chain restaurants. She asked them why they didn’t frequent, instead, some of the many local, independently owned businesses. They told her that they simply didn’t know where to go. “If you go to Olive Garden, you know what you’re going to get,” she said. “It may not be a great meal, but you know what to expect.”
Personally, she had been interested in supporting local businesses since the late 1990s, during her second move to Fort Lauderdale. She had lived there in the early 1990s, but when she returned in 1999, she discovered that many of the smaller businesses had closed down and were replaced by national chain stores. “The whole feel [of the city] changed,” she said. “It didn’t feel like Fort Lauderdale. It just felt like every other place.”
So she made her parents a list of suggestions for Gulfport and St. Petersburg. Where to eat. Where to shop. Where to visit.
She posted her list on Facebook and friends suggested their own ideas. The list grew and Venouziou began to organize the businesses by category. Then she decided to create a simple website where she posted her lists and included information about each business.
This is how LocalShops1 was born. “I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. But it was fun for her, a passion, really, and she recognized the importance of supporting locally owned businesses. Initially it was more of a hobby for her, though, and often, she’d lose money on the endeavor. “I was just having fun,” she said. “I was losing money, but I didn’t care. I was just having fun. Instead of going shopping, I was spending it on the business.”
She founded LocalShops1 just as the “buy local” movement was starting to get off the ground nationally. When she first turned her personal focus to small businesses nearly a decade earlier, “it wasn’t really a thing,” she said.
This was before the recession hit, though, changing everything. “It made people think about being loyal to local companies, and a lot of people were starting their own businesses,” she said. “They were laid off and looking for a job and there weren’t any.”
Then, in 2011, Venouziou was laid off from the Times. So she decided to focus full time on LocalShops1. “When I got laid off, I was like, ‘I can’t lose money. I can’t support this,’ ” she said. “That helped me get more organized and it helped make LocalShops1 better.”
Around this same time, American Express launched its Small Business Saturday campaign, which supports shopping at local businesses during the winter holidays. That not only helped the “shop local” movement on a national level, but also put more attention on LocalShops1.com.
Venouziou and her team at LocalShops1 have certainly done their research. According to their website, dollars spent at local indie shops are more likely to stay within the local economy. They refer to a report by the Tampa Independent Business Alliance, which says that if all taxable purchases made in Hillsborough County on an average November shopping day were made at local businesses, it would have a $28 million impact on the local economy.
So she refocused her grassroots mission of promoting and supporting locally owned businesses. She put together an informal advisory council comprised of small business owners she trusted. “I wanted them to give me an idea of what they want as businesses,” she said. “Why would they waste their time doing something they don’t care about just because I think it sounds cool?”
She tightened up the membership structure offering a variety of services to businesses, artists and non-profits at various levels. It didn’t take long for her membership to grow. In 2011, she had around 150 members. Today that number stands around 350. “It feels like it’s more stable. They’re staying longer,” she said. “Looking back, I don’t think I was servicing people as much as I could have been.”
Venouziou also revamped events. Prior to her focusing on LocalShops1, events were held sporadically. She began offering networking events on a monthly basis. (The next one is Oct. 13 at Rococo in St. Petersburg.) These free networking meetings are open to the public as well as local businesses.
She also launched three signature events. Shopapalooza, inspired by Small Business Saturday, takes place at St. Petersburg’s South Straub Park. Typically, she’s held the event, which features more than 100 local vendors, the Saturday before Thanksgiving. This year, she’ll hold it two Saturdays: Nov. 19 and 26.
In August, they hold the Best in the Biz awards, to coincide with LocalShops1’s anniversary, and each spring is the Top Local Chef competition. And two and a half years ago, Venouziou launched the Live Local! magazine, featuring LocalShops1.com’s members.
Her latest endeavor is a LocalShops1 pop-up shop in Gulfport, which opened earlier this month. The bungalow features a front space which is rented out to a different artist or small business on a monthly basis for $300-400, depending on the time of year. “They come and go as they please,” she said. “I tell them to treat it like their own shop.” So far, the space is booked through February, aside from January.
There’s also space in the center of the store available for rent during First Friday and Third Saturday art walks and the weekly Tuesday market. “Think of it like vendor space at an event, but it’s indoors,” she said, adding that there is some outdoor space available as well.
Pop-up stores like these are popular in larger cities, like New York, she said. And it’s just another way to showcase local talent and businesses, she added. “I’ve been reading about them in other cities and thought I could do one here, on a smaller scale, obviously, based on my budget,” she said.
If this goes well, she’d like to open similar shops in other communities in the Tampa Bay area. It would need to be a walkable community, she said. “I don’t see this working on U.S. 19 anywhere,” she said. But she’s eyeing St. Petersburg, particularly in the Warehouse District, and says communities like Dunedin and Safety Harbor would be perfect for shops like these.
She’d also like to increase LocalShops1’s presence in Tampa, but needs to find the right partner to represent the company on that side of the bridge. “I’d like to be more in Hillsborough, but it’s hard to be over there, too,” she said. “I can’t be everywhere and I haven’t found somebody to represent us in Hillsborough yet, basically to be me over there.”
So for now, she focuses on her Pinellas County endeavors with one goal in mind. “I just want to get shoppers to get to know the businesses better,” she said.

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