Urban Stimuli: The Oxford Exchange in Tampa

Editor's note: Urban Stimuli in 83 Degrees is a new column by Alex English that is dedicated to lifestyle and cultural innovations that are transforming Tampa’s urban core. These developments are making our city more exciting, vivacious and praiseworthy for visitors, newcomers and natives alike.

I dare you to walk into the Oxford Exchange sans reservation on a weekday for lunch. You will face one of the lengthiest waits around, as much as 90 minutes for a coveted seat in one of the green tufted leather booths.

What started as a plan for a humble bookstore has now turned into one of Tampa’s buzziest and busiest hotspots for everyone from college students to community leaders to eat, gather and be delighted. 

Today, the white-painted brick building across from the University of Tampa is an elegantly appointed complex that houses multiple uses: a successful restaurant, counters operated by independent local coffee and tea brands, a gift shop, apothecary corner, bookstore, eyewear showroom, co-work space, and various multi-configurable rooms that host weddings, markets, fairs, community meetings and presentations.

Where once there was only a shell, built originally in 1891 and used primarily as storage before its modern renovation, there is now a Tampa focal point.

Catalyst for placemaking 

A sense of place is what defines the heart and soul of a city, and the Oxford Exchange has contributed appreciably to the elegance and sophistication of Tampa’s identity.
Through a series of iterations, evolutions and serendipitous partnerships, the Oxford Exchange (OE) is now a place that is always bustling -- with servers hoisting tea trays, eyewear and skincare consultations underway, and chicken burgers pleasing hungry lunchgoers.
Placemaking is a multi-dimensional approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. It considers and builds upon existing assets, especially now that cities aim to preserve historic architecture, and creates new assets using inspiration from nature, art, etc. The intent is to promote human prosperity, health and happiness.

Urban Planning is the more general profession concerned with the land use, environmental protection, design of buildings and streetscapes, and arrangement of infrastructure.

Both placemaking and urban planning are done at the public level, but well-executed private development like the Oxford Exchange is crucial for creating high-quality spaces that connect well with the public domain and improve the overall quality of life (and desirability) of a community.

Often, private development actually leads the process of creating a more dynamic and high quality experience in a city, as it is more willing to respond to market forces and can do so more rapidly than government entities.

Cities like Tampa, which are earnestly trying to be more attractive, are lucky if private developers appreciate urban dynamics and seek to duplicate the best aspects of place vitality from other parts of the world.
Whether the local market rewards radically novel design and concept is always a risk, one some are unwilling to take.

The Caspers as thought leaders

Fortunately, Blake Casper and Allison Adams were willing to take that risk here. 

They are entrepreneurs who understand that success often springs from supplying what is missing in a market; the brother-sister team saw an opportunity to create something unique in their hometown and weren’t squeamish about investing enough to make it work. They have succeeded admirably. 

The Oxford Exchange, now approaching its fifth birthday, is a lively destination that blends well with the surrounding urban fabric between Hyde Park and Downtown. Casper and Adams are Tampa natives, avid travelers (Blake is an Anglophile), and third-generation leaders of the Caspers Company, which operates 53 McDonald’s franchises in the Tampa Bay region.

Finding the right property with a cosmopolitan feel was the initial challenge. The sheer size of 420 West Kennedy Boulevard then necessitated more than just a quaint bookstore.

Through a series of iterations, evolutions and serendipitous partnerships, the Oxford Exchange (OE) is now a place that is always bustling -- with servers hoisting tea trays, eyewear and skincare consultations underway, and chicken burgers pleasing hungry lunchgoers.

The entire property, including a vast central gathering space and adjoining “conservatory,” are strikingly beautiful, designed with ample glass and skylights, reclaimed white oak paneling, brass fixtures and Italian marble floors.

Food & beverage scene

The OE restaurant serves breakfast and lunch, and is consistently booked well ahead of time, especially for holidays and special occasions. Weekend brunch is popular too, if not for the food, for the unbeatable setting and photo opportunities.

The tea counter is managed by TeBella Tea owner Abigail St. Clair, a passionate tea enthusiast who regularly travels to Asia for conventions to discover new tea varieties. She creates her own blends and employs a low-turnover group of young baristas. 

My beverage of choice is the Sencha green, an earthy, simple tea. It’s perfect paired with the hearty Grilled Chicken Paillard salad from Executive Chef Richard Anderson, made with fresh greens, truffle vinaigrette, parmesan cheese and crispy fries.

Local roaster Buddy Brew Coffee is present too, serving up Cuban café cortados and icy cold brews alongside assorted sweets.

Shopping experience

Warby Parker, the start-up eyewear brand originally found only online, partnered with OE in 2016 for its own corner in the bookstore after observing high web traffic and orders from the Tampa Bay market. 

Just a few weeks ago, the limited-edition collaboration between Warby Parker and Off-White, a New York designer, sold out in 48 hours. Even the tester pairs were gone!

In shrinking its footprint by half in order to accommodate the eyewear shop-in-shop, the OE bookstore doubled its sales last year, thanks to a more curated, more relevant selection of analog entertainment and OE Bookshelf, a signed first edition subscription service that ships books to readers doorsteps every month.

In late 2016, Aesop, an Australian skincare brand famous for its anti-oxidant ingredients, opened in a corner of the Shop, the most recent change to the retail at OE. 

The rest of the Shop is flush with new-to-Tampa brands like Vanessa Bruno (canvas and sequin handbags from France), Makr (leathergoods made in Orlando) and Sugar Paper LA (craft stationery). These are lines discovered by Allison Adams during her frequent travels and brought to our backyard. 

Jess Anderson, Director of Retail Operations: “within this aesthetic, the shop is designed so you can find a gift for anyone.” And yes, she is married to the aforementioned OE restaurant chef.

A gathering place

Upstairs, you’ll find The Commerce Club, a co-working space with desks, studies and private rooms used for meetings and productivity. Individual memberships begin at $125 per month -- a nominal fee for guaranteed quiet.

There are also a series of rooms used for events, talks, and fairs, programmed during virtually every evening and weekend of the year for traditions like the OE Book Fair and OE Holiday Bazaar.

The OE Spotlight Series is an ongoing effort to bring prominent creatives and academics to speak and converse about their topics of expertise with enrichment-driven citizens. I recently registered for an OE event called “Creative Talk with Jimmy Breen,” an illustrator and designer to some of the music industry's biggest names, occurring Thursday, Sept. 28, at 6:30 p.m.

Local civic group Cafe con Tampa meets there every Friday morning with political leaders and guests.

Given its infinitely Instagram-able vignettes, built-in catering, myriad spaces and configurable rooms, it’s no surprise that OE is also a desirable venue for once-in-a-lifetime weddings and parties, at least one of which I have walked through on my way out of the building on a late Sunday evening.

The next five years

As each facet of the OE business matures, evolution and growth is natural and expected. All along the way, Blake and Allison have tackled strategic decisions by following their gut instincts.

Soon, the OE Shop will expand to new markets. One will be a ground-level sundries shop within Current, a 10-story contemporary hotel by Marriott, under construction on Rocky Point.

A location in a different geography is possible too. Baltimore, for sure. Dallas, perhaps?

The neighborhood around OE is on a trajectory for major change too. Manor Riverwalk, just a few blocks walk from OE on the former site of The Tampa Tribune, is a rapidly rising eight-story residential building with 400 planned units.

Nearby, the City of Tampa has approved other mixed-use projects like Lafayette Place (Tower, Parkview, and Central), as well as Altis Grand Central, directly across the street from OE. Tampa General Hospital, already the owner of several adjacent parcels, plans to expand its presence in the area as well.

Soon, there could be a robust center of life and commerce surrounding the historic OE block, which already includes Mise en Place restaurant, Punch boxing gym, a Christian Science Reading Room, Kendra & Co. salon, and The Retreat bar.

Picture it now: West Grand Central Avenue as a hive of retail businesses and sidewalk hangouts: an extension of what OE already provides.

What was intended to be only a bookstore is now a sprawling property serving a range of motivations and needs -- as an authentic, robust and diversified place. While so many new developments peak and then wane in popularity or relevance, the Oxford Exchange is as enjoyable now as it was five years ago. 

Its well-roundedness of conceptualization, management and execution, make it a quintessential example of quality placemaking, and the perfect first subject of Urban Stimuli.

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Read more articles by Alex English.

Alex English is a Tampa native who has lived in Sarasota, Seattle, New York, Bordeaux and Milan. He is passionate about urban development, retail and style, and publishes Remarqed, a personal blog on those subjects.