Sonja Nichols bets big on brick-and-mortar retail with the debut of Southern Lion, a multivendor marketplace in south Charlotte.
by Cathy Martin | photographs by Richard Israel
Walking into Southern Lion’s temporary pop-up shop on a late October morning, 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 — the popular multivendor shopping venue just a mile away on Park Road — shocked longtime customers last year by announcing plans to close after 27 years. Building on the foundation of that iconic retailer with a loyal following (Nichols among them), she’s looking to create in Southern Lion a similar shopping experience in an even larger venue with more bells and whistles.
“We just can’t let this die.”
Last summer, news of Blacklion’s impending closure hadn’t yet made its way to Nichols, a civic and philanthropic leader whose previous roles include president of Good Friends Charlotte and board chair of the Women’s Impact Fund, and who currently serves on the UNC System Board of Governors.
Nichols can’t explain what inspired her to do it (“God put it in my spirit,” she says), but she and her daughter paid a visit to Blacklion and struck up a conversation with general manager Maureen Rudolph and a few of the 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. The building had come under new ownership, with a new slate of tenants soon to be announced. The merchants were in a tailspin, according to Nichols, with no idea what they were going to do next.
We just can’t let this die, Nichols thought. She called Joan Zimmerman, a close friend. Zimmerman’s family ran Southern Shows and founded the Southern Christmas Show back in 1968. Zimmerman enthusiastically supported the idea of a new venue to house Blacklion’s loyal merchants. “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 first considered the vacant Toys “R” Us building in Pineville but realized it was too small. She found another option nearby: At 85,000 square feet, the ground floor of the former Sears at Carolina Place had ample room for the 90% of former Blacklion merchants that committed to join Southern Lion, and then some.
Plans to open in March, soon after Blacklion’s January closure, were pushed back due to construction delays. Nichols had planned to use the upstairs of the store for storage until she figured out what to do with the space. 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
One of those merchants is Patsy Barnett, who ran her home décor business, Barnett’s Custom Designs, out of Blacklion for 28 years. “She has put a lot of thought into all of this,” Barnett notes, adding that Nichols has been able to apply her expertise learned from previous roles at Southern Lion. “And naturally, with Bob’s assistance, that’s been a great help.”
That’s Bob Emory, the former Blacklion owner, who, along with Zimmerman, serves as a consultant for Southern Lion. “I think he thought he was going to be able to retire,” Nichols laughs.
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 vendors like Barnett, many of whom were part of Blacklion for years, even decades. “The beauty of this is, 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,” Nichols says, comparing Southern Lion to a business incubator.
Those small businesses include The Raggedy Rooster, one of Blacklion’s largest merchants, and Carolina Bags, with its selection of Carolina-made bath products, sweets and snacks by Piedmont Pennies, Poppy Hand-Crafted Popcorn, Dewey’s and others. There’s a Christian bookstore selling devotionals, T-shirts and more. “There are no more Christian bookstores in the city,” Nichols says. “It’s one of our top spaces in terms of volume.”
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 — unavailable at Blacklion — are being integrated into the new space.
She’s also watching as the merchants come up with fresh ideas on their own. R&B Vintage sells home decor and custom faux floral arrangements. The owners’ daughter, Sofie, a high school student, began accompanying them on purchasing trips. She now has her own business at Southern Lion, Belle Vie, that caters to Gen Z with graphic tees, funky earrings, floral tumblers and more.
“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?” Nichols says. “But that was one of the first things we sold.”
Blacklion fans will still find many of their favorites, including Christopher Radko ornaments. But 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 “man cave” 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 the UNC’s Dean E. Smith Center or Clemson’s Memorial Stadium. It’s one of Southern Lion’s bestsellers to date, Nichols says.
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.”
Zimmerman agrees. “I believe people will always have a desire to touch, taste, smell, kick the tires — be with real people; ask questions of real people. I also believe if you have what people want, treat them well, and have good products at affordable prices they will respond. Think about it — when was the last time you and a group of friends got together and had fun shopping online?”
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. Combined, Nichols believes it will be the largest 100% Black-owned retail store in the Southeast.
“A complete faith walk.”
Nichols is unfazed by media reports about dying malls and slowing sales of brick-and-mortar retail, including recent reports of Carolina Place owner Brookfield Properties defaulting on a $149 million loan tied to the 32-year-old mall. “The mall has been altogether lovely to me,” Nichols says. She’s even discussed 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. What she didn’t expect was that her son, Rich Nichols, the oldest of her three children, would decide to join her in the business. Rich, 32, had moved home to Charlotte during the pandemic after earning an MBA at UCLA and working for Deloitte and Georgia Pacific. Early on, Nichols started bringing him in on business meetings; he’s now Southern Lion’s vice president of finance.
“This is a complete faith walk,” Nichols says, gesturing across the vast showroom as we wrap up our tour. Her investors, which include her husband, Richard (“I absolutely, positively could not have done any of this without my soulmate and love of my life,” Nichols says), have poured more than $5 million into the venture, Nichols says.
“What I’m doing right here is the riskiest thing in my entire life,” she adds. But Nichols clearly believes in the vision, one that’s affirmed by former Blacklion customers strolling the aisles, along with plenty of new shoppers discovering Southern Lion for the first time.
“Nowhere did I ever imagine this, at no time. I couldn’t have planned it, but it is my most fun thing to do.” SP
featured image: Sonja Nichols and her son, Rich Nichols