Life after SOCO

Merchants that helped define South Congress now reinventing themselves elsewhere

Terra Toys and a view of downtown on South Congress in 2004. [Laura Skelding/American-Statesman]

Life after SOCO

Merchants that helped define South Congress now reinventing themselves elsewhere

Terra Toys and a view of downtown on South Congress in 2004. [Laura Skelding/American-Statesman]

Story by Lori Hawkins
Published on September 13, 2019

Some 33 years ago, with the help of a midwife, a baby was born in the back of Terra Toys on South Congress Avenue.

The parents, Charles Edwards and Romalda Allsup, were owners of the store, and they lived with their newborn Sylvia and her two sisters in the back of the shop in a small space separated by a cinder block wall.

"South Congress in the '80s was really so different than it is now," Sylvia Edwards said. "There were plenty of heroin addicts and prostitutes who would live in the back alley. It was very difficult in many ways, but it was a super cool place to be too."

Terra Toys, one of Austin's oldest and most beloved independent toy shops, arrived on South Congress in 1984, when nearby Guero's Taco Bar was still a feed store. Over the next decade, the retailer, which specializes in classic toys from around the world, was joined by funky secondhand stores, vintage shops and a mix of local retailers.

Those merchants helped transform SoCo from a red light district into an eclectic, fun and weird destination popular with locals and tourists alike.

"It was South Congress that helped us become iconic, and on the flip side, it was stores like us that made South Congress iconic," Edwards said. "We were making that street the place to be, and that street was making us the place to be. It was this symbiotic thing. It was this beautiful thing."

It was South Congress that helped us become iconic, and on the flip side, it was stores like us that made South Congress iconic

Charles Edwards, owner of Terra Toys

Austin's rapid growth eventually changed that, though. As South Congress began gentrifying in the late 1990s, and much more intensely in the past decade, many of the shops that helped define the quirky shopping district have been forced out, either by rising rents or redevelopment.

But some former South Congress businesses are proving that being priced out of SoCo, or displaced by demolition, doesn't have to mean the end. Terra Toys, Rivers & Reefs, Hill Country Weavers, Uncommon Objects and Twomey Auto Works have all been pushed out of their South Congress homes – and all are thriving in new locations elsewhere in Austin.

RELATED: As South Congress redevelops, will the funky survive?

While leaving was difficult and at times painful, it turns out there is life after SoCo, they say.

"There was no way we could stay, and in the end it worked out for the better," said Sylvia Edwards of Terra Toys, which was among the first in a wave of long-time local businesses to relocate after losing its lease in 2004 and moving across town to West Anderson Lane. "I don't think the landlords are out to get any of us. It's the taxes that drive the rent so high that it's almost impossible for a local business, or even a chain, to be viable there."

It's a pattern happening across much of Austin – from the East Side to South First Street and South Lamar Boulevard to Burnet Road.

"The Austin market is undergoing a significant redevelopment in the urban core – much like many cities around the world," said Eric DeJernett, senior vice president with commercial real estate firm CBRE Inc. "This is especially prevalent in key cities that offer a high quality of life and tend to attract technology, bio-tech, medical, AI and other high-growth industries. This has created gains for some business owners and competitive pressure for others."

The latest wave of change on South Congress involves the arrival of multi-level mixed-use projects, which are rapidly replacing the low-slung shopping strips that once housed locally owned salons, boutiques and auto body shops.

As South Congress continues to transform, more small retailers are likely to be displaced. But as the stories of Terra Toys and others show, that doesn't have to spell the end.

Here's a look at how each of those shops has managed to thrive since leaving their South Congress homes:

Terra Toys: 'Excited about what the future holds'

Madalyn Bond, left, and her cousin Hana Bond play with a finger trap toy at Terra Toys. The store was founded on South Congress Avenue in the 1980s before moving to its current location on West Anderson Lane in 2004. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Sylvia Edwards was in high school when her family moved Terra Toys to a shopping center on West Anderson Lane in 2004.

"I remember getting off school and going straight to the toy store to load up a U-Haul with toys. We'd work all night," she says. "Then we tore up all the tile on the floor and laid concrete and painted it ocean turquoise blue, which is our signature color and then laid down our Persian rugs."

The family wasn't sure what to expect at the new location, but loyal customers remained loyal, and new customers discovered Terra Toys for the first time, Edwards said.

"Before we even put our sign up we were doing better business than on South Congress," she said. "You could finally get to us. All of a sudden there was an ocean of parking. We're also where the neighborhoods are. Where the kids are."

Over the years, the store at 2438 W. Anderson Lane has expanded from 8,000 to 18,000 square feet and is stocked with items from 2,700 vendors from around the world. Dragonsnaps, a children's clothing boutique that the Edwards family once ran on South Congress, operates inside Terra Toys. In the same shopping center as Terra Toys, Edwards opened KidOshoe, a children's shoe store that specializes in European brands.

As Edwards prepares to takeover the business from her parents, Charles Edwards and Romalda Allsup, she is also thinking ahead.

"We are really excited about what the future holds," Edwards said. "If anything, we're planning on expanding again."

Uncommon Objects: 'In no way resembles South Congress'

Uncommon Objects owner Steve Wiman poses for a portrait in his South Austin store. With its quirky collectibles and antiques, Uncommon Objects was once one of the biggest draws on South Congress, but two years ago it had to find new space because of rising rent. The business is now in South Austin and Weiman says the location is far better than South Congress was. [ELI IMADALI/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

One of the longest-running shops on South Congress, Uncommon Objects was forced out by rising rent two years ago.

The eclectic antique store at 1512 S. Congress Ave. opened in 1991 and over the years its unusual, one-of-a-kind treasures became one of SoCo's most popular shopping draws.

"When we learned our rent was going to go up over five times it was really disheartening and we considered closing," said owner Steve Wiman. "We looked all over town trying to find something, but every retail space had already been bought by a developer."

Through friends, Wiman heard about space in a former sign shop at 1602 Fortview Road in South Austin just off the West Ben White Boulevard frontage road.

It couldn't have been a better fit, he says. The 5,000-square-foot store is roughly the same size as the South Congress location, but includes plenty of parking and room out back for to host a monthly Uncommon Flea Market, where an array of vendors sell vintage wares.

"We intentionally chose this area because it in no way resembles South Congress," Wiman said. "Anyone in retail loves to have thousands of people coming through your door but watch out what you hope for. It was such a zoo and had gotten to just be a lot of traffic control."

The SoCo throngs kept a lot of buying customers away, he said. "We were more an attraction than a shop. We relish the fact that everyone who walks in our door at our new location is really here on purpose. They're here because of what we do and they've come to see that."

Ignite Fitnez: 'It turned out to be absolutely fantastic'

When the building housing Ignite Fitnez's gym was torn down two years ago to make way for a mixed-use project, owner Inez Escamilla found an ideal new location.

The gym moved to the St. Elmo district off South Congress and south of Ben White Boulevard where it offers personal training, kickboxing, mixed martial arts, power lifting, yoga and exercise classes in an 11,000-square-foot space.

"It was really hard trying to find something comparable and trying to stay south of the river and north of Ben White," Escamilla said. "We had to go south of Ben White, and it turned out to be absolutely fantastic."

The gym grew its business during the first two years at 1005 E. St. Elmo Road. But Ignite might be displaced again. A developer bought the property in February and doubled the rent, Escamilla said.

"It's been really frustrating and very stressful," she said. "The facility and the numbers are absolutely fantastic. I'd love to stay and be part of the community, but for how long?"

Rivers & Reefs: 'Our business grew'

Rachel Pohl carries supplies into Rivers & Reefs pet store at 2008 S. First St. on Sept. 5. The pet shop operated on South Congress Avenue for 12 years until owner James Patton said he grew fed up with dealing with parking problems and issues with neighbors. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

When Rivers & Reefs moved from Barton Springs Road to South Congress Avenue in 1997, its next door neighbor was a gun store aptly named Just Guns.

"We had our regular drug dealers, we did have our prostitutes, it was like a roller coaster," said owner James Patton. "Continental Club was three doors down and we had fist fights over parking. Over the years I got into it myself with a couple of bouncers."

But the pet shop, which specializes in exotic fish and birds, built up a local clientele and the business remained at 1323 S. Congress Ave. for 12 years. Finally fed up with dealing with parking and issues with neighbors, Patton found a new space just a mile west at 2008 S. First St.

"It was a great location with lots of parking," he said. "People started coming back and our business grew."

Patton doesn't miss his old SoCo strip, which is now populated by eyeglass retailer Warby Parker, Botticelli's Italian restaurant and sleek boutiques.

But the rapid gentrification of South First Street is starting to close in on Rivers & Reefs.

"With all the development, I think there's 10 years, maybe five, left on South First," he said, adding "I plan to stay as long as I can keep paying the bills. I like the area, I think it's safe, it's pretty darn clean and we get along great with the neighbors."

Hill Country Weavers: 'The perfect place for us'

Hill Country Weavers owner Suzanne Middlebrooks poses for a photo in her store. For years, the yarn and knitting store was on South Congress Avenue, but displaced due to rising rents and gentrification. [ELI IMADALI/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Three years ago, after 22 years occupying two bungalows at South Congress and East Milton Street, Hill Country Weavers needed to find a new home.

The property had sold and rent for the yarn and fiber shop was going to triple, said owner Suzanne Middlebrooks.

Middlebrooks found a 1950s ranch-style house for sale just north of Ben White Boulevard at 4102 Manchaca Road.

It was perfect on a number of levels − she could buy rather than rent, meaning she'd no longer be at the mercy of landlords; there was plenty of parking and she could envision creating a bright, open space with lots of room for the shop's vast array of colorful yarns and fibers as well as areas for classes and trunk shows.

"My staff said, 'Do you really want to be on Manchaca?' And I knew the answer was yes," said Middlebrooks, who closed on the property in 2016 and paid for a full renovation that added hardwood floors, native landscaping and zen-like sitting areas around the property.

Hill Country Weaver's former South Congress location has been transformed into jeweler Kendra Scott's flagship boutique.

"I will always love South Congress because there is an energy about it that will always be special to me," Middlebrooks said. "But with rents as high as they are, it takes very deep pockets to make it work. It's a really hard place for a small business to survive."

Today, drawn by affordability, a growing number of small, locally owned businesses are calling the Manchaca, Fortview Road and West Ben White Boulevard triangle home. Nearby businesses include Radio Coffee & Beer, vinyl record store End of an Ear and antique collective Uncommon Objects.

"It reminds me a lot of the old South Congress," Middlebrooks said. "It's creative and inspiring and the perfect place for us."

Twomey Auto Works

Tanner Twomey and Don Twomey pose for a photo at Twomey Auto Works at 4930 S Congress Ave. on Aug. 23, 2019. Last year the father and son moved the shop from its longtime home on South Congress, which was razed to make way for new development. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

Don Twomey started working on cars as a University of Texas student in 1979 behind his Sigma Chi Fraternity house.

In 1990, he opened Twomey Auto Works at 1009 S. Congress Ave. "I was concerned it was too far south," he recalls. "That part of South Congress was not pleasant. You were concerned about leaving your cars out at night. There were prostitutes, drug addicts, there would be needles on the driveway."

But it became home: "It was kind of fun growing up in that neighborhood. Travis Heights wasn't as ritzy then. All the business owners looked out for each other."

The auto shop was a fixture on South Congress for 28 years. Then it vanished seemingly overnight, razed a year ago this month as part of an upscale mixed-use development called Music Lane, which will include high-end retail, office and restaurant tenants.

Twomey relocated 4 miles south to 4930 S. Congress Ave., where the business now operates out of a 10,000 square-foot garage on a property that is seven times the size of his former one.

"We were fortunate to be able to swallow the expense and land here," he said. "We have parking and storage and a more comfortable space, and we can do at least twice as many vehicles in a week. Moving is never easy, but the one thing I can tell you is we'll be stay here as long as we possibly can."

But change is coming to Twomey's new stretch of South Congress, a mile south of Ben White Boulevard.

"There are apartment complexes going up right next door and across the street. Right on the corner of St. Elmo there's a huge project going up and just down past Stassney, another large complex," Twomey said. "The one thing I can tell you is we'll stay here as long as we can."

New development on South Congress

South Congress development projects that are currently underway or recently completed include:

• Music Lane, a $55 million mixed-use project, which stretches from Academy Drive north, including the former Twomey Auto Works site at 1009 S. Congress Ave. Music Lane will feature three buildings with retail, office and restaurant space, along with 500 underground parking spaces. Soho House − a trendy, members-only social club − plans to open its first Texas location in the project. SoHo House will include a hotel and rooftop and club spaces for members to work, eat, drink and relax.

• The Magdalena, a Liz Lambert hotel under construction at Music Lane and Academy Drive with a projected fall 2019 opening. Its 86 rooms will make it the largest hotel to date for Lambert’s Bunkhouse hospitality group.

• The Muse at SoCo, a four-story project underway at 1007 S. Congress Ave. A building at the front of this apartment complex was razed to make way for the Muse, which will have three floors of office space atop ground-floor retail. Tenants include high-end fitness center Equinox and the new headquarters for real estate technology startup Ojo Labs.

• St. Vincent, a three-story mixed-use building recently completed at 1327 S. Congress, the site of the former St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. Cowboy boot maker Tecovas has opened a sleek 1,200-square-foot showroom on the first floor and has leased the second and third floors for its headquarters. National retailers Madewell and Marine Layer are also tenants.

• 1221 South Congress, a mixed-use project that involved tearing down one of the buildings that was part of the Statehouse apartment complex. In the apartment's place will be a four-story building with three floors of office space above street-level retail and restaurants.

• Hummingbird, a three-story mixed use project sandwiched between Vespaio restaurant and South Congress Books at 1608 S. Congress Ave. It will include a restaurant with outdoor dining, boutique and specialty retail, office space and a luxury one-suite penthouse with a rooftop pool, cabana and city views.