By JULIA SEVERANCE
USFSP Student Reporter
GULFPORT – It started modestly in 2008 as a list of local places for Ester Venouziou’s parents to explore when they visited from New Jersey and didn’t know what to do.
Seeking suggestions from friends, Venouziou turned to the new social media platform, Facebook, to develop a bigger list, which eventually became a website and her part-time hobby.
Then, when she was laid off at the St. Petersburg Times in 2011, Venouziou decided to turn that hobby into a full-time job as a champion of locally owned, independent businesses – shops, restaurants, nonprofits, artists – throughout the region.
Now, her LocalShops1 counts 550 members, cranks out news releases, sponsors three big community events a year, publishes a monthly online magazine called “Live Local!,” and helps local vendors sell their products at Venouziou’s small turquoise building on the corner of Beach Boulevard and 29th Avenue S.
Outside the building, a large sign reads, “LocalShops1 Local Business Advocacy + Support.”
Inside, a local photographer named Kandy Hurley is chatting with visitors about her small photography art business and updating her website.
“It has been great to find out who buys my art and gain feedback because I can’t do that online,” said Hurley.
The shop, which features products from some of Venouziou’s members, is staffed by small business people like Hurley on a rotating basis.
These people work two or three shifts a week in exchange for getting space to showcase their products.
If they sell something of their own, they get 100 percent of the sale price. If they sell somebody else’s product, that entrepreneur gets 60 percent and the shop gets the other 40 percent.
“If we had to pay a regular staff, there is no way we could do it,” said Venouziou.
Local business people can get on Venouziou’s website for free. If they want more advertising or rewards from LocalShops1, they can buy memberships that range from $8.33 to $50 per month.
To spread awareness throughout Tampa Bay about the importance of shopping local, LocalShops1 and Venouziou sponsor three big events a year, including a Florida Food & Brews Festival at England Brothers Park in Pinellas Park in February and a Florida Suncoast Tiny Home Festival, also at England Brothers Park, in March.
Her biggest event is Shopapalooza, a two-day festival held the weekend after Thanksgiving at Vinoy Park in downtown St. Petersburg. It features more than 225 local artists and businesses, with entertainment, activities and a food hall.
Venouziou was born in Greece and lived in Brazil until her family moved to New Jersey when she was 12. She attended Boston University, where she graduated with a double major in journalism and psychology in 1992.
Then she and a couple of friends moved to Florida on a whim to escape the cold weather.
Her first journalism job was with the now-defunct Boca Raton News. She had stints at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale before coming to the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), where for nine years she designed pages, copy edited and wrote a few short feature stories.
As a local business owner herself, Venouziou understands the struggles of competing with big corporations.
Breaking even every month is sometimes difficult, she said.
But she knows that her little business and its members are making “our neighborhoods better,” she says on her website.
“Money spent locally is more likely to stay locally,” she says. “But it’s not just about money. These are businesses that link us to the past and ensure our communities will have lots of character in the future.”