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The Weird and Wonderful World of Gravois 

click to enlarge Anything is possible on the king of south St. Louis roads.

THEO WELLING

Anything is possible on the king of south St. Louis roads.

To walk into Aqua World in 2019 is, in many respects, the same experience as walking into Aqua World in 1979. Differences exist, of course, but they're relatively minor.

Situated on a little hill at the corner of Gravois and Gustine avenues, the aquatics shop is possibly a bit less stocked than it was 40 years ago, when every house seemed to have a fish tank, or two. But the business's layout remains the same, with rows of tanks aligned to different options; saltwater fish in one zone, cichlids in another, community tropicals in the rest. Here, patrons walk past countless tanks, slowly crouching and peering and gazing for a few seconds before moving on to the next, in search of popular faves and exotics. Often, they step past an employee engaged in what is a daily job at Aqua World, draining and refreshing water in the dozens of tanks, with the shop uniquely set up to allow for the maximum amount of showroom, organized both horizontally and vertically.

click to enlarge Aqua World has operated for more than 50 years at Gravois and Gustine avenues. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • Aqua World has operated for more than 50 years at Gravois and Gustine avenues.

Like other businesses of a certain, specific sort, Aqua World has held on despite chain stores coming into the equation over the decades. When the Schneiderhahn family began the business more than 50 years ago, a lot of neighborhoods had pet shops. Eventually, a second location of their business would crop up on Manchester in deep west St. Louis County, but even then the city location remained.

You could look at a shop like this and think that it could exist in a variety of settings within the city of St. Louis, and maybe you'd be right. Probably not, though; Gravois is unique. It's a place where businesses can set up shop and last a few months, selling wares that seem impossibly specific. Others hang around for decades.

From the beginning of Gravois near downtown to the street's crossing of the city/county border just west of River Des Peres, Gravois offers arguably the quirkiest blend of businesses in the entire metro area. Nowhere else can you find a timepiece bar like Tim's Chrome Lounge in the same strip of buildings as the Miniature Museum. Used car lots inhabit tiny tracts of real estate. Head shops are found in abundance, and you'll never want for CBD if traveling Gravois. It's a road that, in the city alone, offers a chance to drink strong Albanian coffee, buy a new bike or enjoy tacos of every flavor. It's a place where hundreds of St. Louisans have invested in their dreams. Some of these entrepreneurs have made said dreams work here, others have lost the proverbial farm. But there're always more storefronts to fill, more opportunities.

Among the businesses that have made it, quite a few exist in the heart of the city's Gravois, near Bevo Mill. Among that number is the Heavy Anchor, which was enjoying a lively Friday afternoon happy hour recently ...

click to enlarge Jodie and Joshua Timbrook have created a home for comedy and live music in their bar, the Heavy Anchor. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • Jodie and Joshua Timbrook have created a home for comedy and live music in their bar, the Heavy Anchor.

Jodie Timbrook, when standing near the big front windows of her bar and venue, the Heavy Anchor, can look out onto Gravois with visuals of the street's past, present and future all coming together. (RIP, Rockhound Supplies.) Within the time that she and her husband, Joshua Timbrook, have owned the venue, the street outside has transitioned from a four-lane road to half that, with bike lanes, a turn lane and, theoretically, a bit of traffic quieting coming along with the new striping.

"I like it," she says of the overall effects, noting that "it's become a lot more pedestrian friendly."

Though as with any sort of change, "there were some people who didn't like it." Those folks are going to be in for more gripes, as the road experiments with new curb cuts, crosswalks and other traffic amenities that are meant to settle things down a bit. Those efforts are decades in the making for business owners who, at nighttime, see cars traveling their road at interstate speeds.

In a society built for speed, cars move fast on Gravois and, when doing so, the drivers and passengers are speeding along the street that, in many respects, is St. Louis' ultimate melting pot. And, with dozens of examples to prove the point, it's also the ultimate incubator. Retail businesses, service providers, bars and restaurants, things you can't even quite ID from the street — all kinds of commerce takes place on this road. Sometimes, the businesses stick around for years; other times, the dreams of owners die hard and fast. A few change as they need to.

The Heavy Anchor is an example. When the Timbrooks decided to become club owners, they took over a space called Antarctica, which had booked music, but irregularly. With their ownership, the bar became a six-days-a-week operation, with a vibe that differed wildly from some of the nearby smoking-and-billiards rooms. For years, music was the predominant form of booking, but the venue is now well known for being a home for independent comedy, including standup, sketch and variety shows. And, over time, the neighborhood imprint has come into play as the Anchor hosts things like a low-key farmers market, clothing swaps and the occasional aldermanic election watch party. As the business has changed, the Timbrooks have adapted to their own new role in the area, including a civic component they likely wouldn't have anticipated at the start.

Jodie Timbrook, for example, has become heavily involved in the Bevo Community Improvement District, or CID, which is attempting to stimulate some positive economic impact between Taft Avenue on the northeast and Christy Boulevard on the southwest. Traffic calming is part of those efforts, but only part. There has been a recent grant from the Great Streets program, allowing for a half-million dollars to be spent, largely, on planning for next steps which could launch a number of different elements to knit together that particular zone, eventually expanding it north on Morganford.

Even without certain forms of direct city support, they've made things work at the Anchor, creating a fun, unpretentious environment. That could be said about the blocks that surround their place, too. In fact, just across the street there's a place called the Bistro ...

click to enlarge Sadik Kukic, owner of Taft Street Restaurant & Bar, is ready to hand over his corner of Gravois to a new generation. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • Sadik Kukic, owner of Taft Street Restaurant & Bar, is ready to hand over his corner of Gravois to a new generation.

Sadik Kukic is in a moment of transition, personally and professionally.

Sipping ice water and quick in response to a series of texts and calls that arrive during a half-hour visit, Kukic is amiable in conversation and direct in saying that he's tired of working 100-hour weeks, whether spent on his own businesses or in civic duties.

"I've decided to have a little time for myself," he says, adding a bit of a macabre touch. "When I go to funerals of people a lot younger than me and when you've gone what I've gone through, I don't think I'll live forever."

He says this within the seafood-centric Taft Avenue Restaurant & Bar, a business that sits on, yes, Taft, just at the tail end of the Gravois viaduct. It's a quirky spot, almost hidden from plain view, a business that has brought in a Bosnian-heavy dining clientele over its years in operation.

"I lived in this building in 1995," says Kukic, who spent part of the Bosnian War in a concentration camp before moving to St. Louis. "I purchased the property in 2002. I had a restaurant on South Grand, the Gulf Coast Cafe, at that time and did a lot of catering for doctors' lunches at Saint Louis University Hospital. I wanted this for a catering kitchen, but the city wanted a restaurant or tavern here, as it used to be, so we changed it back. We rebuilt everything here, from top to bottom. We opened in 2004, March, and we've been here ever since."

With a small connected side building, a large apartment upstairs and the main dining room downstairs, the Taft has been a big part of Kukic's life for the better part of two decades; he took over from a lesbian coffeeshop and candy manufacturer called the Purple Cat at a down point in the neighborhood's history. Right now, though, he's got the building on the market and, as of press time, he'd fielded at least one legit offer for the place. He's not in a rush to sell, not if he doesn't get his price. After all, he's got another business up the block.

The Bistro (formerly Melle's) is that space, located directly across the street from the Heavy Anchor. There, a multi-roomed space for special events and catering has allowed Kukic an opportunity to expand and adapt his presence on the block. That business, like Taft Avenue, is based on a foundation of Bosnian patrons, though he finds some other parties interested in his services as well. The Bevo CID, running from Taft to Christy, also contains a Bosnian influence; he estimates that 50 percent of the businesses or buildings in that stretch are Bosnian-owned.

He says this having served as the president of the Bevo CID before a recent stepping down from that post. He also heads up the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce, though he's planning on leaving that post at the rate of "soon."

His work has provided some growth to the community, though he'd love to see a quickening of the pace.

"We're really hoping to see this Bevo neighborhood, with the help of Great Streets, become like South Grand from Arsenal to Utah," he says optimistically of this Taft-to-Christy strip. "The city will one day decide to do some infrastructure and lighting. People are already going into the open storefronts, but we are moving slow. I would like to see a faster progress, and within a year or two we'll see some of that progress. It's just moving more slowly than I'd like."

click to enlarge The graveyards add their own character to a landscape that stands out in the city. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • The graveyards add their own character to a landscape that stands out in the city.

What doesn't move slowly — and it's discussed by anyone involved in a business on Gravois — is the passing traffic. Kukic thinks he's seen at least "two dozen major accidents" outside his restaurant throughout the years, as well as countless smaller ones. But as he mentions this, he also notes, with a light hush to his voice, that crime has dropped significantly in recent years, though some high-profile cases have skewed the impression of Bevo's general safety.

He figures that when his restaurant sells, the place will offer a positive continuation of things on his very particular, tucked-back corner of Gravois. He won't have a say in what they serve and won't have to worry about a piece of brick and mortar that's been in his life since the mid-1990s.

"What I would like to see here is more younger people," he says. "A brewery, if possible. Things like that, which draw a crowd. I think we have potential in these buildings. We like diversity and have Bosnian, Mexican and Middle Eastern businesses."

Of all of them, he says, "people here are doing it for themselves."

And the city's role in redevelopment? Well, alderfolks have a role to play ...

click to enlarge The Heavy Anchor is in the city's 13th Ward, while the Timbrooks live in the 14th Ward. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • The Heavy Anchor is in the city's 13th Ward, while the Timbrooks live in the 14th Ward.

The owners of the Heavy Anchor have a situation that's not uncommon in the city of St. Louis. Living close to their bar, they reside in one aldermanic district, while their bar sits in another. For them, that means living in Carol Howard's 14th Ward, while their business is in Beth Murphy's 13th. To date, Timbrook says, that's been a workable situation, with the two alders tag-teaming projects.

One that they'd love to see happen is, yes, the elusive unicorn of St. Louis development, a microbrewery. While the trend of neighborhoods having their own small brewhouse and pub isn't exactly new, the desire to secure one absolutely rocketed when Urban Chestnut's massive development on Manchester Road all but locked down the fortunes of the western edge of the Grove. Even with some spots now closing and the industry retrenching, the appeal of a brewpub for Gravois is strong.

Howard has it on a list of wants for Gravois.

"I'd like to see a brewery or maybe a craft liquor store," she says. "I think that would be a dream, though I know the market's become saturated with craft breweries. But I could see a place open here and think it would do well. And we'd like to see a little more retail, craft and unique types of businesses. And we may, as we see things unfolding, have an opportunity for something relating to the medical marijuana industry."

When Murphy is asked about her wish list, one question becomes a rush of linked and unlinked responses. Another brings a ten-minute pitch on the strengths of Gravois, for which she needlessly apologizes. The enthusiasm is real.

"I like the eclectic mix we have," she says. "I think we could use more bakeries, a grocery store. And I'm hoping that the CID will give some kind of identity to the street. Like adding banners; you knew you were in the Grove with the sign. I'd like to see some continuity with benches, plants, trees; though sometimes trees aren't the best, in that they cover signs. But something that just says, 'You're in Bevo now, you're on Gravois.' We need to work on the identity, I think. Just working on the Great Streets projects, we have a lot of good thoughts and ideas that've come from them.

"Executing," she adds, "is always the question. You need money. We've gotten a lot of good input from neighbors and people who've lived there over these past six months. [The feedback is] unifying the area, so to speak, doing different things to promote the area. And we're working on setting up a SUD, or Special Use District, which is a way of keeping certain things out. We've kind of decided that we don't need more used car lots, things like that, and the SUD would be a way to eliminate (new ones)."

SUDs and their equivalent are a fascinating bit of city building in that they limit what specific neighborhood property owners can book. Gravois, with its long reach, stretches through a variety pack of neighborhoods and wards, with different sensitivities to new businesses. In the past, SUDs have limited things like auto repair facilities, bars, hair salons and, in a different age, tattoo shops. (Which Murphy brings up without prompting, saying, "As is the case now, tattoo shops are much more acceptable.")

For Howard, it's about balance, giving the sense that the neighborhood is open to new things but within a reasonable range. Even with new businesses arriving regularly, a number of storefronts remain open in Gravois' heart — in lots of conditions and at lots of price points.

"I'm looking forward to seeing more businesses that are unique," she says. "I try to recruit as much as I can, but that isn't my sole job, of course. The CID has been active in recruiting, and if I hear of something, I try to pass that along."

Murphy believes that the Timbrooks provide an angle worth shooting for: business owners who wind up moving into the surrounding neighborhood.

"One reason that the Grove became what it is is that the Central West End got too expensive," Murphy figures. "We don't want to become so gentrified that we can't accept everybody. But I think the housing stock down here isn't conducive to that (model). These aren't giant houses down here and, for the most part, they'd stay within reach of young people."

And if those young people do move to the greater Gravois environs, they'll never lack for a local spot to buy a vape pen, burrito or betta fish. On those fronts, Gravois may not have it all, but it's ever close.

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