Back Rooms and Secret Sources

By staff August 1, 2007

In a city as small as Sarasota, word gets around. Or does it? In truth, some of the most delightful shopping experiences in town are hidden behind closed doors or off the beaten trail. To unearth these off-the-radar sources, we probed shop owners, eavesdropped at fundraisers and networked everywhere. What we discovered is a treasure trove of luxury goods and services that rivals those in the world’s most exclusive haunts.

Like most of us, Sarasota’s purveyors of luxury relocated here to enjoy the fabled lifestyle. They just happen to be connoisseurs with world-class expertise and sophistication. If you’re worried that Sarasota can’t sustain talent of this magnitude, don’t be. Nearly every one of our sources does business nationally; some have been ferreted out by clients around the globe. Buckle up for a flight of fantasy: this is armchair shopping par excellence.


Is it a vault? A showroom? A gallery? The answer is all three. Thayer Jewelers is an intoxicating find—once you get past the intimidation of the venue. To enter the store, you must pass through Sarasota Vault Depository’s maximum security system. After the guards buzz you in, you are escorted to an ever-so-polite reception area. Notice the door to Thayer’s interior showroom: It’s a heavy-metal throwback to the building’s former incarnation as a bank. This is no ordinary back room. You are shopping in an expansive, elegantly appointed safe.

The by-appointment showroom is manned by Jennie Whidden, an art history major. Her expertise is an asset: Owner Jeremy Thayer recently added 19th- and 20th-century European and American paintings to his jewelry offerings. Whidden also knows the pedigree of each gemstone and the provenance of every antique suite of jewels in stock. “We are definitely a destination store; customers come all the way from Miami,” she says. “And because of the security here, we are able to display rare jewelry most retail stores’ insurers would not let them carry.”

While most of the selection is classic, heirloom-quality estate jewelry, you can also see luxurious new designs created by Thayer and other local artists. Interspersed among the vast array of aspirational pieces are many that are surprisingly affordable. Though Thayer’s is primarily a trade source for high-end dealers across the county, it welcomes the public. Ask to see Eva Gabor’s set of three gemstone- and diamond-encrusted bangle bracelets ($75,000). Thayer Jewelers, 640 S. Washington Blvd., Suite 175, Sarasota (941) 955-8820.


Even Donald Trump would be trumped by the fantasy shopping experience conjured by dkVogue. This emporium of Danish design entices out-of-town consumers with an offer to reimburse travel expenses at a five to-one spending ratio. “If a consumer spends $5,000, we’ll pay $1,000 toward airfare and hotels; if they spend $10,000 we reimburse $2,000,” says CEO and founder Kim Thybro Nielsen. But money isn’t the only motivator for the trek to Gulf coast shores.

Mid-century modern design buffs (including townies) can peruse a comprehensive selection of iconic and new Danish furniture that rivals any in the world—in both retail and residential settings.

The ultimate back room experience is a visit to Nielsen’s home, a 6,000-plus-square-foot estate on Siesta Key’s Sandy Hook Road along with a historic guest house, the Carousel House, designed by Sarasota School of Architecture architect Tollyn Twitchell. Nielsen has outfitted the homes with dkVogue furniture and accessories to present Danish design in inspirational settings. “We give customers a sales tour of the stores, the homes and our new office; it’s a full day of Danish design, with a complete explanation of the history behind the pieces,” says Nielsen. Together these venues are dkVogue’s collective “museum” of original and reproduced works by renowned Danish designers. Clients are picked up at the airport for their escorted private tour. DkVogue, 1549 State St., Sarasota (941) 955-2600; 1830 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota (941) 952-9351.


Hidden behind closed doors every day but Saturday waits a significant collection of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century treasures amassed by antiques-dealers-cum-restaurateurs Al and Monika Tomlinson. The gallery, called Las Antiguas, is appended to the pair’s wildly successful Rustic Grill restaurant in downtown Sarasota, and both entities are nestled within what was once the bustling Florida Citrus Exchange.

Monika Tomlinson explains that the entire complex served as a warehouse for the couple’s antiques business before they converted most of it into their elegant eatery. She walks me past the busy Rustic Grill kitchen to a room brimming with thousands of 18th- and 19th-century paintings. The couple supplies art and antiques to dealers, architects and elite designers across the country, and they’ve developed an uncanny system for cataloging and pulling paintings to meet specific requests.

“Our business is open to the public on Saturdays as a service to restaurant customers,” she says. By happenstance, that’s the day I walked by. Rustic Grill is adorned with many works from the couple’s prized collection, and Las Antiguas seduces with a fascinating cache that includes a selection of room-sized 19th-century Turkish Caucasian rugs (Al’s passion), furniture from the Ringling estate, an exquisite chandelier that hung in the historic Vinoy hotel in St. Petersburg (football star Dan Marino bought its mate), and several of the 300 Emanuel Romano cubist paintings the Tomlinsons recently acquired. Make time on a busy Saturday afternoon. This gallery requires serious browsing. Las Antiguas, 1525 Fourth St., Sarasota, (941) 349-3200.


Tucked away as inauspiciously as a dressing room, the Fifth Avenue Club at Saks Fifth Avenue is actually a suite of luxuriously appointed private salons, including a sitting room, bar and serving kitchen equipped with Limoges china, sterling silver and fine crystal. One look at the elegant entry door tells you the Fifth Avenue Club is all about impeccable service. The big surprise at this quintessential back room is that it offers access to the most coveted couture in the world.

Director Marilyn Goldfarb and three personal shopping experts can literally bring the pages of fashion magazines to life. If you ask, they’ll requisition samples from names like Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta or Zang Toi. Clients are fitted, measurements sent to the designer—voila, custom couture! Any line carried in the flagship New York store but not in Sarasota can also be brought in, including Dolce & Gabbana, Badgley Mischka, Chanel Boutique and Gucci. Consultants will special order any Chanel bag or Cartier watch you like. Nothing is outside the realm of possibility.

But the free service is not just about rarified labels. The staff will walk the sales floor with you to provide total wardrobing, from bras to shoes. They’ll e-mail photos of new items to clients, even hand-deliver samples or purchases to the home. Birthday or cocktail parties may be held at the club at no cost. You can lunch and sip white wine or champagne while you shop, or indulge in a private cosmetic makeover. “When it comes to specialized services, our store is untouchable,” Goldfarb says. As for last-minute alterations: “It’s rare to hear ‘no’ in an emergency.” The Fifth Avenue Club, Saks Fifth Avenue, 100 Southgate Plaza, Sarasota (941) 634-5311.


The back room at Crissy Galleries is anywhere you’d like it to be: Bruce Crissy has developed a network of sources to help track down specific antiques (decorative objects, fine art, furniture and estate jewelry) for both passionate and would-be collectors. A rarity in today’s high-profile antiques scene, Crissy is a generalist who’s willing to invest the time to analyze clients’ interests and tastes, fuel their passion with education and even provide reading lists. Then he’ll home in on a plan for developing a collection, even helping novices navigate the international auction world.

With art and antiques’ connoisseurship an ever-more important aspect of the luxury lifestyle, the Sarasota gallery offers a smattering of fine examples in every category. You want Tiffany? No problem. In one visit I found an incredible diamond bracelet, circa 1890, in its original box ($18,500); a superior green and blue signed Tiffany lamp with penguin base, circa 1905-1910 ($35,000); and the pièce de rèsistance: a sterling silver bowl with art deco ribs and lungs designed by Arthur L. Bawer for Tiffany’s exhibition in the 1939 World’s Fair (price on request).

“It was gifted to a Sarasota woman by the original purchaser,” Crissy says, adding that most of the gallery’s estate jewelry finds have never left the purchasing family’s possession until he acquires them. “Going to the source makes a significant difference to the next generation of users,” he explains. If you’re into ageless style, incredible workmanship and objects of quiet elegance, this is the place to look and learn. Crissy Galleries, 640 Washington Blvd. S., Sarasota (941) 957-1110.


Behind the cluttered cacophony of its public shelves, Parker’s Books’ quiet, private browsing room is stacked with rare antique tomes. Complete with worn leather chair and J. Peterman-style reading lamp, this back room is open by chance or appointment. Owner Gary Hurst’s treasured leather sets have fascinating histories.

“Originally in France, almost everything was published in paper. To some extent that happened here and other parts of Europe as well,” Hurst says. He explains that books were rebound into leather sets after purchase. Many sets that include up to 18 leather volumes were originally four or five volumes in cloth. “The owners had them customized and expanded with extensive illustrations at relevant places,” Hurst says. Today these sets have value as leather sets and as extra-illustrated sets; the same set will go for $1,500 in leather as opposed to $200 with cloth covers. Prices for sets can soar to $15,000 and more.

Also very collectible now are books bearing original works of art. One example is Four Masters of Etching, with an original etching by Whistler ($2,500). Other gems here include original signed works by De Kooning ($3,000) and Chagall ($500). Hurst owns sister stores in Boston and New Orleans, and he also sells on the Internet.  If your taste runs to Mark Twain, there’s an 1869 signed copy of The Innocents Abroad ($5,500) with his inscription, “Do your duty today, and repent tomorrow.” A. Parker’s Books, Inc., 1488 Main St., Sarasota (941) 366-2898.


When Bill Tidmore and Robert Henry moved to East Avenue offices with 10,000 feet of empty warehouse space, they thought they’d never fill it all.  Today, they are adding 10,000 feet more. The back room concept is pushed to its extreme limit here, with every inch of office and warehouse overflowing with the ASID designers’ exquisite plunder. They comb Italy, France, even China for antiques and accessories to ensure their clients get one-off furnishings for their homes. “If you don’t buy it when you see it, things go and you’ll regret it,” says Henry, who buys with the idea that items will be used for clients’ projects, or sold wholesale to other designers.

Essentially, the warehouse is filled with things they love, gleaned on vacations and buying trips around the world. But Tidmore-Henry also represents several imported lines to local designers, including Italy’s spectacular Alfonso Marina solid, hand-carved furniture. Both designers love the thrill of the hunt. They’ll scour Paris flea markets for crystal chandeliers and the High Point market for one-of-a-kind pieces.

A favorite haunt is the Street Fair held on New York City’s Ninth Avenue each year in May. There they buy out a favorite Chinese dealer’s entire booth, including furnishings and sculptures like a prized, oversized Buddha. “It’s difficult to find antique Buddhas carved from wood that hasn’t cracked,” Tidmore explains, “and even more difficult to find them without ugly faces.”  Tidmore-Henry and Associates Interior Design, 1014 East Ave. N., Sarasota. (941) 954-4454.


Part retailer, part wholesaler and part craftsman, Ali Chokr is also an astute buyer of diamonds, gold and platinum. His reputation has cognoscenti private-jetting to Sarasota to comparison-shop Diamond Vault’s back room collection against the likes of Tiffany and Harry Winston. Chokr delights in presenting rare and significant pieces in low-profile settings, either hushed private offices at the stores, or at a local bank vault for utmost seclusion. “Many clients tell us the selection and experience rival shopping in New York, Chicago and London,” says Chokr.

What those clients see is an astonishing range of fancy yellow diamond rings in the five, 10 and even 20 carat range, and equally important white diamonds, many fashioned by Chokr into the store’s exclusive LaRucci brand designs—necklaces, bracelets, rings and more. Because Diamond Vault imports directly for sale to jewelers throughout the United States, price savings this season were significant enough to entice titled British clients to cross the pond. Diamond Vault, 72 Palm Ave. S., Sarasota (941) 364-8809; 4910 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota (941) 921-4016.


If his atelier looks like a guild workshop, that’s because Richard Scott Jennings apprenticed with New York City’s famed Julius Lowy Frame and Restoration Company. Here, however, you’ll get the same museum-quality work at a fraction of New York prices. In addition to custom designing and building frames to enhance each specific work of art, Jennings is a master of traditional water gilding and the craft of hand carving. You must call for an appointment before visiting the studio; often Jennings will bring frame samples to the client’s home to select the style that best suits each work of art.

Sarasota Goldleaf Studios also offers a museum-quality selection of antique frames to art collections around the country through its Web site. If the art is right for an antique frame, ask to see Jennings’ collection of 300. He’s one of the few U.S. artisans designated a master frame maker, and his work appears in several museums, including Cà d’Zan. Expect to pay anywhere from $400 to $12,000 for new frames, in styles from Renaissance to contemporary. Hint: They make exquisite custom mirrors. Sarasota Goldleaf Studios, 132 S. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota (941) 504-5165.


Designer Sally Trout will tell you herself: The back room at Current is the best-kept secret in town. Trout’s little shop is brimming with furniture and decorative accessories, including framed art and even a stunning powder-blue Country Swedish antique grandfather clock ($5,500).  There’s a back room behind the back room, and another warehouse full of treasures off premises. Trout mixes merchandise purchased exclusively for the store with merchandise ordered for clients’ projects that may not have been delivered exactly as specified. The benefit to customers: You get to take home top showroom merchandise without having to wait months for delivery. You also get to see the finished product before you buy. On a recent visit, I staked out a McGuire rawhide-base coffee table and a Barbara Barry wicker settee. Not only is everything a bargain, you get the added value of this ASID designer’s taste and skillful editing. Current, 83 Cocoanut Ave., Sarasota, (941) 365-5323.

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