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Cool things become cottage industry

The French Bee, a sunny spot on Manhattan, makes collectors of antiques and accessories weak at the knees.

By Elizabeth Bettendorf, Times Correspondent
Published February 22, 2008


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Malissa Ward was forced to rethink her career after a recent divorce and dreamed of opening a shop brimming with stylish antique furniture and home accessories.

She wanted a store that dripped with sophistication and energy, just like the trendy shops along Antiques Row in West Palm Beach.

She also wanted it to fill a local niche.

"Tampa really needs more shops like this," said Ward, 44, whose interior decorating skills and business degree gave her the impetus to start her own business.

Ward guessed that Tampa homeowners and designers might take to a store that carried a hip blend of antiques, vintage home goods and handmade Florida-inspired accessories - "without the prices to match."

Last fall, she opened the French Bee in a quaint 1940s cottage at 3626 S Manhattan Ave., not far from Sunset Park, and found her dream.

Her motto?

"It's all about the mix."

A collector at heart, she nurtures a passion for everything from zebra-striped chairs to a pair of vintage electric wall sconces topped with large sea-urchin shells.

She led a visitor into a small room that houses an 1860s empire walnut sofa upholstered in a lush chocolate brown fabric. Hollywood Regency accessories from the 1960s added to the decor, including a set of mirrored round coffee tables and a pair of Lucite lamps.

"We just redid this room and it really epitomizes what we're about," said Ward, who shares the front of the store with designer jewelry dealer Linda Bever. Bever owned the former Baubles in South Tampa.

After leasing the building last fall, Ward spent two weeks transforming it into a domestic nest along a stretch of Manhattan Avenue that is slowly attracting a mix of antique dealers and artisans. She painted the building sunflower yellow and the shutters a jaunty teal.

Inside, she installed sisal carpet, polished the old mosaic tile floors, hung chandeliers and painted the walls Palm Beachy tropical colors, including luscious shades of aqua and peach.

"You should have seen it before. People thought I was crazy," Ward said of the shop that once housed a framing business.

Her 16-year-old daughter, Christina, drew a picture of a cute house and a bee and christened the shop the French Bee - a name Ward latched on to.

"I don't know how she thought of it, but it was perfect," Ward said.

The circa 1900 majolica flamingo lamp behind her desk sports a permanent sold sticker, a symbol, really, of the store's personality. Purchased on a buying trip to Atlanta with dear friends, "it poked me in the head all the way home in the car," she recalls with a laugh. "Even the bamboo shade is original."

With a background in marketing and interior decorating, Ward had a long-established interest in antiques. She once sold them extensively on eBay and, for a time, she shared space in an antiques business with the late Kevin McLeod, a local dealer and co-owner of Pondscapes.

The French Bee, she says, has her heart and soul.

"This is it for me. This is my savings," she says. "Historically, women coming out of divorce don't always do well emotionally or economically. But I really believe in this ... and I want to inspire other women in the same circumstances."

Already she's expanding the garden accessories shop, a serene space outdoors where she sells vintage and antique goods, including a dark wicker sofa and chairs from the turn of the last century, a wicker divan from the 1920s, and plenty of vintage iron chairs and tables.

Sales are so brisk that much of her inventory is turning over weekly, she says.

She has worked hard to keep prices of serious antique furnishings under $1,000 and to carry lots of affordable accessories like the elegant, shell-handled magnifying glass that's marked $15.

"There are so many things in here, whether you want a large important piece or something whimsical and small," Ward says.

Ward, who grew up in Willow Grove, Pa., says she's thankful her parents insisted that she study business in college: "I was actually an English major but knew I needed skills so that I could eat." Those marketing courses help in her current venture.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, she's throwing a tent sale in the parking lot. Goods will include furnishings and accessories from Ward's many friends who sell antiques but don't necessarily have their own shops.

Pat Tummond, a retired administrative assistant at the Academy of the Holy Names who works in the shop two days a week, says that "even if you don't buy anything at all, there's something about shopping in here that's really an adventure."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.

[Last modified February 21, 2008, 20:37:09]


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