Bernabe Somoza has a story for every piece of furniture that fills his 10,000-square-foot warehouse. As he walks around the periphery, his eyes light up beneath hip, circular-framed glasses as he points out pieces. A red loveseat was in his son’s bedroom before getting new upholstery at Mission Avenue Studio, his Sarasota-based, vintage-furniture repurposing business.
The 65-year-old walks between isles of loveseats and cabinetry while giving a tour of the furniture. He pulls open a drawer in an unfinished ancient apothecary shelving unit to show the inscription of the herbal or chemical ingredient that once filled the drawer. He showcases the frames of a set of chairs from the 1960s and flips them over to proudly show the stamp of a high-end furniture maker — he’s learned the brand names since he bought his first piece in 2008. He still remembers it — a 19th century French Victorian sofa.
His enthusiasm for every sofa, chair, table and cabinet suggests he loves nothing more than ripping off the tired old fabric of someone’s discarded wingback chair and starting new.
Somoza handpicks every piece from weekly furniture auctions, charity consignment stores and, occasionally, an estate sale. The majority of the pieces span the 1930s to the 1970s — when furniture wasn’t mass-produced and was higher quality. He selects the high-end designer fabric. He decides if the wood should remain the original hue or receive a new coat of paint; he sometimes mixes the paint himself to get the right color — currently, he says anything blue sells instantly. He directs his seven employees on how to accomplish his vision, whether it’s a funky gold-and-purple antique French arm chair or a chic lemon-colored settee. For the most part, they do the laborious elements of the job such as upholstery, staining, painting and sanding.
“I get second-guessed continually,” he says in purposeful earshot of his employees. “Particularly when I painted this chair gold,” he says pointing to a nearby armchair. “Of course, it sold last week.”
The webmaster and the administrator give each other knowing smiles — they’re used to Somoza’s joking demeanor. Later, the webmaster throws it right back, when a lazy-Susan-style coffee table arrives to the warehouse. “It’s perfect! We can put Bernabe on it and spin him around (when he acts up),” she says.
Every day he eagerly asks his employees if anything will be posted on the website. He loves to watch the items sell. In less than 18 months, he’s sold 805 pieces — primarily online.
Somoza thinks his success stems from One Kings Lane, a popular, curated, interior design and lifestyle online store and flash sale site. Mission Avenue Studio was just named one of the top-five vendors on the site. This fall, he opened Mission Avenue Studio’s physical location to local buyers.
Somoza has had previous entrepreneurial ventures that haven’t been as successful.
“In my country, it’s all entrepreneurial business, for the most part, so what I’m doing now is what I’ve always done,” he says.
Somoza, raised in Managua, Nicaragua, comes from an entrepreneurial family. In addition to the successful lawyers and doctors in his bloodline, there were five former presidents of Nicaragua. His grandfather brought pasteurization to Central America.
“That afforded me the opportunities to meet interesting people and have an open mind about a lot of different things,” he says.
He owned his first business at age 20, when he was put in charge of his late father’s company, Luis A. Somoza Co. Ltd., a holding company. Since then, he’s owned a few holding companies, worked at an investment bank, founded a concert promotion and recording company and operated his own art-dealing business, among other things.
Before moving in December 2010 to Sarasota, he was dealing 19th-century art in Houston. He enjoyed the excitement of finding good deals, but was unfulfilled by the limitations of what he could do with them — there was no creative element. He searched for something new inside the same old entrepreneurial frame. Once he decided to start his new business venture, he started collecting — he bought 100 pieces before he even knew what to do with them. Now, he’s selling nearly 100 pieces every two months.
“It’s a nice feather in our cap that we’re making progress. We have momentum,” he says, pausing to reflect before laughing and breaking out into a big grin. “It’s kind of cool!”
IF YOU GO
Mission Avenue Studio
Where: 1337 Manhattan Ave., Sarasota
Hours: Open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
*You can also find some of Somoza’s work at SPARCC’s Treasure Chest
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