Shoppers browsed through the unique gifts and accessories on sale at the Blue Star Bazaar on Saturday to the delight of store owner Megan LaBant Abrahamsen.
After years of struggling to find affordable retail space and operating an online-only business, Abrahamsen got a chance to display her one-of-a-kind goods among more than 40 local businesses purveying everything from jewelry to fresh seafood under one roof that serves as part retail incubator and part retail therapy.
The SoNo Market Place officially opened Saturday with hundreds of holiday shoppers winding their way through the 45 retail kiosks spread over 50,000 square feet on Wilson Avenue in South Norwalk.
"It's a hangout for adults," said Danna DiElsi, owner of The Silk Touch, a home-decorating store that has maintained a presence on Main Street in Norwalk, but doesn't get the foot traffic DiElsi would like.
"I like this very much," DiElsi said, as shoppers looked over an array of silk flowers, wreaths, garlands, ornaments and designer handbags in her kiosk. "People don't have the time to go shopping from store to store anymore. Here, you have all the shops under one roof."
Cara Christofor, general manager of SoNo Market Place, said the venue was fully leased and retailers had been selected carefully so they didn't compete with each other.
"We've been very careful to create the right balance and we want everyone to do well," she said.
Christofor said some retail categories have more than one business, such as jewelry and photography, because the styles of what they offer are so different.
SoNo Market Place offered flexible leases, Christofor said, so retailers "can see how their concept works and tweak it. The idea is to give small business owners a spot to build a business, act as an incubator to build a business."
Christofor said the market would also host private parties, special events and classes in areas that include cooking, painting, floral design and gardening.
"Our motto is, "Eat, shop and learn,' " she said.
SoNo Market Place came to fruition after John Palino and Joe Grasso, president of the 30-year-old Grasso Construction in Norwalk, joined forces to redevelop the 314 Wilson Ave. property.
As host and co creator of "The Kitchen Job," hailed by critics as New Zealand's answer to Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares," Palino helped turn struggling restaurants into success stories.
The marketplace is in the former Nash Engineering building, which was built in the 1920s. Grasso said he owns the property and originally envisioned a boutique type of marketplace, while Palino introduced the concept of retailers who offered a variety of food.
Grasso said the SoNo Market Place was only the beginning of his plans for the 10-acre property. He said he wants to have restaurants, pubs, sports facilities, a theater and comedy club on the site.
"This is the beginning. This is simply the beginning," Grasso said, adding he'd like to have the property fully built out in about 18 months and that restaurants likely would be the first additions.
"This is definitely a destination spot that could grow well beyond Fairfield County," Grasso said. "This is my property, and I want it to develop into something great for all the surrounding communities."
At the Blue Star Bazaar, Abrahamsen said the variety of retailers at the marketplace provides a "critical mass" to get customers in at a cost that affords her an opportunity to have a physical presence.
"This is 120 square feet, but I can bring in what I have and I don't have to dip into the college fund if I don't make it one month," she said.
Many of the shoppers on Saturday welcomed the concept and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere.
"I love the amount of local seafood here," he said. "It's worth the drive from Stamford to come and see this because there's nothing like this in the area. It's a great idea bringing all this together."
Hannan said she liked supporting local businesses and enjoyed art work that was on display at several of the shops.
Jennifer Dunn, manager of Bloom Bros., said its store in SoNo Market Place was their first retail location and that it sold oysters and clams. She said Bloom Bros. has a wholesale outlet on Water Street in Norwalk that supplies seafood to several restaurants and to a distributor.
"We thought it'd be a great idea to expand," Dunn said. "This is a perfect opportunity to give it a shot and see how we did."
Wes Small, owner of Tilden Seafood, said the crowd was so large on Saturday that he ran out of New England clam chowder by early afternoon.
"This is a great turnout," he said. "I didn't think it was going to be like this. I'm already out of soups."
Small, who's owned a retail store by the same name in Litchfield for nine years, said he plans on offering two warm soups at his marketplace outlet every week, along with a full range of fresh fish and prepared food that shoppers can take home and cook.
Small said he heard about the marketplace from his father, also named Wes Small, who is in charge of Maritime Massage about 20 yards away in the SoNo Market Place.
"He got me involved in this. I joined the forces," he said.
Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia formally opened the marketplace with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday afternoon saying he doesn't usually get to open 45 businesses at the same time.