Kansas City's West Bottoms shopping district evolves

Many dealers are opting for more frequent business hours than merely one weekend per month

By Leigh Elmore

For more than a decade the commercial life of Kansas City's West Bottoms neighborhood has been re-vitalized by the influx of scores of antique and vintage dealers, operating from several of the late 19th-century and early 20th-century brick buildings that created the city's first truly urban district. It's one of the city's oldest neighborhoods and was the center of the meat-packing and agricultural related businesses through the mid-20th century, when its fortunes began to decline.

Front entrance of the historic Stowe Hardware Building in Kansas City's West Bottoms shopping district. (photo by Patti Klinge)

Fast forward to the turn of the 21st century and many of the architectural relics of Kansas City's earlier days were in serious disrepair and many were vacant.

Urban pioneers, including artists, restaurateurs and antique dealers became enamored with the West Bottoms and started trickling back in to take over huge warehouse spaces fairly cheaply. The trickle soon became a flood and word began to get out that the West Bottoms was the place in Kansas City to find those antique and vintage treasures.

Vintage malls such as Good Juju at first and then Bottoms Up were representative of the renewed activity in the bottoms. Many of the city's established antique dealers rented spaces. Soon the custom of opening for business on the first weekend of the month was established.
On those weekends, large crowds of shoppers, lookers and people-watchers filled the canyon-like streets. Food trucks lined the blocks. It became a monthly celebration. It still is.

Sherry and Ginger Jackson of DC Furniture and Interiors. (photos by Leigh Elmore unless otherwise credited)

It's a weekend thing

Yet, some dealers favored being open more frequently, and some have opted to remain open

throughout the month, not just on the first weekend. In fact, dealers who operate out of the historic Stowe Hardware Building, 1300 W. 13th St. are bucking the "First Friday/Weekend" custom and are remaining open every weekend.

Sherry Jackson operates DC Furniture & Interiors on the first floor of the Stowe Building along with her daughter, Ginger Jackson. "It's not just First Fridays anymore," she said. "Shoppers do not want to wait a whole month when they are furnishing a home or looking for an accent piece.

"The pioneers of First Fridays have welcomed to their community stores that are open every weekend, which allows all shoppers to frequent the West Bottoms at their convenience," Jackson said.

Jackson and the other tenants of the Stowe Building have begun promoting their businesses as a

group within one building. In addition to DC Furniture & Interiors, the other operations in the Stowe Building include Serendipity, a shop also on the first floor, the Bottoms Up mall remains on the second floor and Ugly Glass is on the first floor with an address of 1285 Hickory St. "There are different offerings in each building," she said.

"First Fridays are still big," Jackson said. "We just wanted to take it a little further. First Fridays bring in a lot of out-of-town visitors and it can get crowded. Serious shoppers don't want to fight those crowds every month. So, we decided to offer them something more."


Migrating to the Bottoms

Maurice and Leanna Holdgraf and their little dog, Tucker, of Serendipity.

Leanna Holdgraf and her husband, Maurice, operate Serendipity in the Stowe Building, 13th Street and Hickory.

"Maurice, and I began our journey to Kansas City's historic West Bottoms in 2006 when we discovered Urban Mining in Midtown. It was a magical place and still is, but in a new location, that honored a full spectrum of vintage and antique treasures. We became vendors there in 2006," Holdgraf said.

In 2007, Trish Moore, Nancy Chambers and Toni Hicks brought the First Friday concept to the Columbia Bag Building in the West Bottoms with their mall, Good JuJu, and thus began a most unique chapter in Kansas City's retail history.

"We became vendors there in 2008," Holdgraf said. "One by one other shops opened, and the delightful result is a thriving, vibrant happening known as First Fridays in the West Bottoms. Kansas City has welcomed and supported countless small businesses in the area, and we are grateful recipients."

In describing Serendipity, Holdgraf said, "We fill our shop with vintage, antique, primitive, industrial, and farmhouse decor. Our harvest tables, cabinets, pantries and book shelves are locally crafted from reclaimed materials. We have t-shirts that celebrate our Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, and handmade prints of notable city landmarks like the iconic Western Auto sign.

"We're also able to do custom wall art to commemorate weddings and other occasions. A special section of our shop offers beautiful jewelry and shawls from Nepal and hand-painted plates from Turkey. In addition to furniture and home décor, we also have fun posters, sassy socks and whimsical tea towels." Serendipity is open the first Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the month, as well as most Saturdays. The Holdgrafs are always available by appointment by calling 913-424-4563.

Sherry Jackson also described her gradual attraction to the West Bottoms.

"We established Designer Consignment Furniture & Interiors in Shawnee, KS in 2004. Our mission was to help families with their transitional needs in buying and selling fine furniture through consignment," she said.

"With the shopping trends changing to 'destination shopping', we re-located to the historic Stowe Hardware Building where we joined a community of weekend stores. Shortly after our move, the Mission Road Antique Mall closed, and we opened our doors to several of the dealers there. They have truly complemented our store with quality furnishings, décor and accessories," Jackson related.


Bottoms Up is still up

A customer makes a purchase from William Christie at C For Yourself at Bottoms Up.

On the second floor, Randy Hendricks and Ron Freebie, are co-owners of Mocking-bird Mercantile, and also have assumed management of Bottoms Up, the multi-dealer mall, from its founder Gwen McClure. (McClure and her sister, Teri Elliott, still operate their store, French By Design, on the fourth floor of the Stowe Building.)

"We have been in this building for six years now," Hendricks said. "We put our money and ourselves on the line."

Bottoms Up remains a multi-dealer store. "We have a very interesting group of dealers, most of whom are retired professionals," Hendricks said. "We all have a passion for the antiques trade, and we all work full time at this. We work hard and there are always new and different things coming in. Everything up here that's for sale is one of a kind. We see good people continuously; we have so many repeat customers," he said.

"But would you believe that there are still people in this area who still haven't heard about First Friday/Weekends in the West Bottoms? People are amazed when they find out that this has been happening down here for so long."

Hendricks explained that Mockingbird Mercantile specializes in handling estate sales. "They are our primary business."

Both Hendricks and Freebie are extremely interested in the history of the Stowe Building and they have on display a large original painting by artist E. A. Filleau of Col. James G. Stowe, who founded the business after the Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Co. vacated the building in 1918.
"Prior to owning the building Stowe was U.S. counsel-general to South Africa at the time of the Boer War," Freebie noted.

Ugly never looked so good

Skip and Jenny Alexander of Ugly Glass & Company

Also, on the first floor (and basement) of the building is Ugly Glass & Company, owned and operated by Jenny and Skip Alexander. The store features handmade and vintage home décor and glass creations in the form of jewelry, so the name of the store can be misleading. The intricately designed, colorful hand-torched glass jewelry and marbles are hand-made in the store.

The Alexanders opened the doors of Ugly Glass & Company in 2012. "That door was the cutest 700-square-foot store front on the historic square in Independence, MO. It was the perfect starting point for our Locally Made Store that included 20 local makers and artists," Jenny Alexander said.
In July 2014 they moved their store to its current location in the 100-plus-years-old Stowe Building.

Outside entrance to Ugly Glass & Company has a lot of street appeal.

"Here we have grown from 20 to more than 40 vendors and the store now encompasses more than 10,000 square feet on two levels," she said. The inventory has expanded and now includes items from vintage pickers who carry items such as records, clothing, signs and man cave furnishings.


It's a unique shopping environment

A beautiful oudoor dining display at DC Furniture & Interiors.

Sherry Jackson of DC Furniture & Interiors states that the West Bottoms Shopping District offers an alternative to mainstream shopping – one that lets each customer become their own designer by choosing items to create their own style, not one dictated to them by the industry.

"DC, along with our selected group of dealers, curate authentic finds for customers so that they can select home furnishings that speak to them. We are known for staged vignettes that help customers visualize how the items would work in their homes. We have items coming in and going out each week to the delight of our customers," Jackson said.

And speaking of the neighborhood, There is no other shopping area in or around Kansas City where you can 'park and shop' in historic surroundings with such an eclectic mix of home furnishings.

Just strolling the streets and walking into these magnificent buildings offers a shopping experience like none other. Restaurants and coffee shops in the West Bottoms just complement the day with enjoyment.

Happy shoppers in the West Bottoms on First Friday.

A painted sign on the floor leads shoppers to more treasures below at Ugly Glass & Company.


Stowe Hardware Building

Constructed in 1903 for the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company, the building served as factory and warehouse for Studebaker wagons, buggies and phaetons. Upon its purchase in 1918, it was renamed for its new owner, Stowe Hardware and Supply Co. 
The building is considered architecturally significant, with unusual stylized moldings flanking the arched entranceway. The eighth-floor cornice is supported by brackets which display 'S' for Studebaker - and later adopted by Stowe. The tall elevator tower harkens to a time when the technology was a status symbol to be showcased, and though a bit worse for wear over the past century, it remains a signature structure in Kansas City's West Bottoms district. (photo by Patti Klinge)


Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com.

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