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Downtown gets down

Small-business owners and art cooperatives energize an already bustling district in downtown Norman.

Charles Martin June 8th, 2011

Festivals packed with V-necked music fans, and monthly art walks drawing leisurely pedestrian traffic have thrown a spotlight on downtown Norman.

JJ Bradford, owner of Merybelle's
Credits: Mark Hancock

More small-business owners flock to renovated buildings along Main and Gray as the area gains a reputation as one of Central Oklahoma’s most vibrant and eccentric districts, defined by locally owned boutiques, galleries, pubs and diners celebrating a progressive arts scene.

The unique sense of community convinced Corey and Julia Gingerich to leave Los Angeles and open Anty Shanty, a vintage clothing shop at 318 E. Main. Also in tow is the couple’s label, Slanty Shanty Records, whose artists Brother Gruesome, Kite Flying Robot and Penny Hill turned the couple on to Norman’s potential.

“Everyone has been so supportive that I hesitate to talk about our businesses as separate entities,” Corey Gingerich said. “The owner of the Gray Owl (Coffee) built our desk for us; the Blue Koi Tattoo people are always keeping a look out for our shop and keeping us safe; the guy from the Pink Elephant made us dinner and talked to us about business; and Amber from Dreamer (Concepts) worked on an event with us for (Norman Music Festival). We all feel like we are all struggling against Ed Noble Parkway and Walmart, but also know that a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Artists’ cooperatives and studios have sprung up, including Downtown Sound, 115 S. Crawford, and the Form and Function Lab, 123 E. Main. Nick Lillard opened the latter last year as a place to connect engineering and the arts, but also to encourage performance artists who might not otherwise have a venue. The space is flanked by other art spaces on the second floor of the building, which looks more like an art school than retail.

above J.J. Bradford owns the new MerryBelle’s in downtown Norman.

“It is very similar to a college atmosphere. There is a lot of busy-ness,” Lillard said. “Every time you walk up the steps, there is someone doing some sort of creative activity, and it gets your blood running. Either you think, ‘OK, it’s time for me to get busy,’ or maybe you want to see what they are up to and maybe help out.”

That collective energy is fed by area  events, whether it’s Groovefest at Andrews Park or art shows and concerts sprinkled across the calendar.

“There is more activity going on, and it builds on itself,” said Erinn Gavaghan, executive director of the Norman Arts Council.

“With the music festival, there is a lot going on right on Main Street. The Mayfair Arts festival is just off Main. As restaurants come in, that will attract other businesses. Once the momentum gets going and things get renovated, it all plays into it.”

To keep the buzz humming, Gavaghan said a renewed emphasis is being placed on the 2nd Friday Circuit of Art. The foot traffic is there, but she hopes to bring in arts organizations to provide more of a spectacle, which will draw in even more business owners like J.J. Bradford, of the new boutique MerryBelle’s, 230 E. Main.

“I remember going to the first art walk and thinking that this was going to be huge, and they’ve only gotten better and better,” Bradford said. “There is such a great vibe. It’s a city of festivals. There is a need for more boutiques and shops downtown, which will draw even more people to this area.”

MerryBelle’s features a line of specialty teas found nowhere else in the state, as well as local artists who are highlighted at every art walk.

As owners hope the growth continues, Gingerich believes that as long as the community keeps pushing its unique culture forward, the best has yet to come.

“I came here saying, ‘This is our store, our part of Norman,’ but the last two months have blown that idea out of the water,” he said. “So many people helping out, doing work for free. This is a thousand times better than I could have ever imagined.”

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