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Saturday, February 24, 2024

NC trend: Sonja Nichols bets on a multivendor marketplace in south Charlotte

Sonja Nichols

Walking into Southern Lion’s temporary pop-up shop, I expect to find a few dozen vendors with makeshift displays — folding tables, portable racks and the like.

But this is no ordinary pop-up. There are gobs of holiday gifts and décor. A massive Vera Bradley store-within-a-store. Children’s and baby clothing, pet products, and gourmet snacks galore. Tidy displays of luxurious soaps and lotions. Furniture (and more furniture). A fully landscaped pond, with twinkling Christmas lights reflecting off the surface. 

Owner and president Sonja Nichols greets me for a tour, smartly dressed wearing comfortable black sneakers for traversing the 55,000-square-foot showroom, the upper level of a former Sears department store at Carolina Place Mall in Pineville.

Nichols debuted the concept for Southern Lion soon after Blacklion Gifts & Home Furnishings Marketplace shocked longtime customers in 2022 by announcing plans to close after 27 years. Building on Blacklion’s foundation in a site about a mile away, Nichols is looking to create in Southern Lion a similar shopping experience in a larger venue with more bells and whistles. Nichols believes it will be the largest 100% Black-owned retail store in the Southeast.

“We just can’t let this die.”
Nichols is a civic and philanthropic leader whose previous roles include president of Good Friends Charlotte and board chair of the Women’s Impact Fund. She also was appointed to the UNC System Board of Governors in 2021. A Republican, she ran for the state Senate in 2020, losing to Jeff Jackson.

Nichols can’t explain what inspired her to start the business, except that “God put it in my spirit,” she says. She and her daughter paid a visit to Blacklion and struck up a conversation with general manager Maureen Rudolph and a few merchants. She casually asked if the owners might be interested in selling. 

“And they were like, So you heard — the Blacklion already sold,” Nichols recalls.
Elisabeth Emory, the daughter of Blacklion owners Bob and Nita Emory, planned to
move the Blacklion concept to Chicago. New owners had bought the building and new tenants were being announced soon. The Blacklion merchants had no idea what they
were going to do next.

We just can’t let this die, Nichols thought. She called her friend Joan Zimmerman, whose family ran Southern Shows and founded Charlotte’s Southern Christmas Show in 1968. “When Sonja shared what she was thinking  … my response, as I recall, was: Sounds like a perfect fit. If I were younger I’d do it myself,” Zimmerman says.

Nichols sprung into action. Since the Blacklion name wasn’t for sale, she had to devise a new moniker. “What I came up with was my favorite two things to do: The Southern Christmas Show and the Blacklion. So I merged the names.” 

Nichols considered a vacant Toys “R” Us building, but realized it was too small. She found another option nearby: At 83,000 square feet, the ground floor of the former Sears store had ample room for the 90% of former Blacklion merchants who committed to join Southern Lion, and then some.  

Plans to open in March 2023, soon after Blacklion’s January closure, were pushed back due to construction delays. Nichols had planned to use the upstairs of the Sears store for storage. Then it hit her — why not create a temporary shopping experience while carpenters hammer away downstairs? 

With tape measures and rolls of blue masking tape in hand, Nichols and her crew set about dividing the upstairs space so the merchants could get back to business. Southern Lion’s Pop-up Shop Up Top opened in September with 65 merchants.

Learning from each other
Patsy Barnett ran her home décor business, Barnett’s Custom Designs, out of Blacklion for 28 years. “Sonja has put a lot of thought into all of this,” Barnett notes. “And naturally, with Bob’s assistance, that’s been a great help.”

Pictured from left: Maureen Rudolph, general manager and leasing agent; Rich Nichols, vice president of finance; Sonja P. Nichols; Odetta Maxwell, store manager of human resources; J. Eric Mechum, store manager of operations.

That’s former Blacklion owner Bob Emory, who, along with Zimmerman, serves as a consultant for Southern Lion. While Nichols has experience leading large organizations, retail is new territory for her. “I’m your nonprofit person,” she says. “But I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, so I know how to run stuff,” says Nichols, whose grandparents owned nightclubs and grocery stores in San Francisco. 

She’s also learning from veteran vendors like Barnett. “These are all small business owners, and they are serious about their business,” Nichols says. “They understand how

to source materials, they understand budgeting, they understand how to run their business. The only thing I really need to do is to provide a wonderful space for them to operate out of.” 

Those small businesses include The Raggedy Rooster, one of Blacklion’s largest merchants, and Carolina Bags, with its selection of Carolina-made products by Piedmont Pennies, Poppy Hand-Crafted Popcorn, Dewey’s and others. A Christian bookstore is one of the top volume enterprises.

Nichols has taken the merchants’ feedback to heart in designing Southern Lion’s permanent home. Features like walls for sound barriers and electrical outlets for each vignette are being integrated into the new space.

The anti-Amazon
“Blacklion was famous for having those unique things that you just couldn’t get anywhere else,” Nichols says. Southern Lion plans to continue in that tradition. “We had a leather-covered toolkit … Who needs that? But that was one of the first things we sold.” 

With roughly 17,000 additional square feet, Southern Lion will be able to accommodate even more merchants. When the new permanent space opens in the spring, shoppers can expect a café selling prepared foods along with a meeting room for about 100 guests. A men’s lounge with recliners and TVs tuned to ESPN (already a popular feature in the upstairs pop-up) will also feature items for sale like cigar humidors, a leather-covered Coleman cooler and collegiate decor, such as a wooden end table with a lighted, inset 3-D replica of UNC’s Dean E. Smith Center or Clemson’s Memorial Stadium. 

One thing you won’t find at Southern Lion: online sales. The headaches of shipping
and returns aren’t worth it, Nichols says. “I want to be the anti-Amazon. I want
people to be able to come in, touch the pillows. … You can’t get this experience
online — you
can’t do it.” 

Once the main store is open, Nichols is considering a few different ideas for the upper level, including estate sales or a permanent expo for home remodelers. 

“A complete faith walk.”
Nichols is unfazed by media reports about dying malls and slowing sales of brick-and-mortar retail, including Carolina Place, where owner Brookfield Properties defaulted last year on a $149 million loan tied to the 32-year-old mall. “The mall has been altogether lovely to me,” says Nichols, who is leasing more space than all but two other tenants. She’s considering bringing the Southern Lion concept to malls in other cities.

“I feel like this is my lane, because this is something I love to do,” says Nichols, who goes to work every day. Rich Nichols, 32, the oldest of her three children, joined the business as vice president of finance after returning to Charlotte during the pandemic. He has an MBA from UCLA and has worked for Deloitte and Georgia Pacific. 

“This is a complete faith walk,” Nichols says, gesturing across the vast showroom. Her investors, including her husband, Richard, have poured more than $5 million into the venture.  

“What I’m doing right here is the riskiest thing in my entire life,” she adds. “Nowhere did I ever imagine this, at no time. I couldn’t have planned it, but it is my most fun thing to do.”

This story first appeared in SouthPark magazine, an affiliate of Business North Carolina.

Cathy Martin
Cathy Martin
Cathy Martin is the managing editor at Business North Carolina magazine. She can be reached at cmartin@businessnc.com.

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