How Southern Lion Is Changing Charlotte’s Shopping Experience

How Southern Lion Is Changing Charlotte’s Shopping Experience

By Angela Lindsay

When Blacklion home décor marketplace closed last year after 27 years, it left a void not only as a destination location for savvy shoppers hoping to luck upon a distinctive new addition for their home or a unique gift for that friend who has everything, but also for those merchants for whom the venue had become a reliable avenue through which to showcase their wares.  Fortunately,  San Francisco native (by way of Tallahassee, Florida), Sonja P. Nichols decided to open Southern Lion in the two-story, 160,000 square foot former Sears building at Carolina Place Mall with her son, Rich Nichols. Southern Lion, which is located just a mile down the street from Blacklion’s former location near Pineville. The top floor of Southern Lion opened on September 1, 2023, and the ground floor opened in April 2024. Items sold in the stores include home décor and accessories, women’s apparel, jewelry, fashion accessories, live plants and flowers, and more.  

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Pride Magazine: Where did the name Southern Lion come from?

Sonja Nichols: I loved both Blacklion and the Southern Christmas Show. Because I could not buy the Blacklion name, I decided to combine my two favorite places together — Southern Lion. I love the name because being from the South is such a “cool thing.” Being Southern is a “mood.”

PM: How did the idea behind this concept come to be? 

SN: One Sunday in 2022, I was cooking, and God dropped it into my spirit to go see if the Blacklion was for sale. My daughter and I drove down, met with store manager Maureen Rudolph and asked if the owners would ever sell the store. She shared that the building had already sold to Tryon Medical Partners.

I asked where were the merchants going. She said many of them were still trying to figure it out. I informed Maureen that God put it into my spirit to help them find a home because we simply could not let Blacklion go away. I met with Bob Emory, the owner and master brain behind Blacklion. He said he wanted to help me. Then I called my adopted momma, Joan Zimmerman, owner and master mind of The Southern Shows. She told me she would jump on this opportunity in a New York minute!

PM: What kind of service does it provide to the community?

Southern Lion …is a multi-merchant retail shopping venue where entrepreneurs, artists, designers, style-setters and small business owners will be able to build and grow and sell their products to customers who have an eye for elegant, one-of-a-kind home furnishings and décor. We have more than 100 small businesses within our building. More than 85% are women-owned.

PM: What was it that made you believe you could make a concept like this successful? 

SN: Only God can give you the confidence you need to do something this magnificent. I wish I could take credit for this, but I cannot. This is the biggest thing I have ever done in my life … Several banks and investors turned me down. Many people who were employees and merchants at the original Blacklion said I would not be able to pull off such a huge project and would not be able to open Southern Lion. But God….

Bob Emory and Joan Zimmerman supported me and knew I could do this. Then God brought me Truist Bank and Kevin Dale, SVP Commercial Banking. Kevin is the one banker who fully understood the Blacklion concept, being a Charlotte native and having worked for Belk as a teenager … My wonderful husband, Richard Nichols, believed in me when most people didn’t. He has always been my biggest cheerleader and motivator. He truly represents what “love of my life” means!

PM: What was the process like to acquire the space? 

SN: I traveled all over South Charlotte to find the appropriate space. It was not easy because I needed at least 75,000 square feet. (Blacklion was 68,000). One day, my husband Richard and I just happened to drive through the Carolina Place Mall parking lot after looking at the Toys R Us. We looked over and saw the empty Sears building. When I called the mall’s property owner, no one would call me back … That’s when I reached out to Boundary Street Partners and Rodney Faulkner got into the door! The property company was only going to talk to another commercial property professional. And that was Rodney at Boundary Street.

PM: Is Southern Lion completely or partially open now? 

SN: Our upstairs is open now for business. We have over 75 small businesses occupying 50,000 square feet of retail space. The ground floor, with its Community Meeting Room, Man Cave with four big screen televisions only playing sports, and café will open mid-to-late April 2024.

PM: Why did you feel the need to expand now?

SN: Customers wanted the expansion. My merchants wanted the expansion. Many of my merchants have more than 4 booth spaces/rooms in the ground floor retail space. Remember, many of them are coming from Blacklion, with a total building space of 68,000 square feet. My total building space is 160,000 square feet.

PM: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far? Any surprises? 

SN: The biggest challenge has been funding. You hear about all these programs to help small businesses, minority-owned businesses, women-owned businesses. I seemed to never qualify for any of the grants and loans. I cannot begin to tell you how frustrating it has been to talk to folks who make all kinds of offers but don’t actually come through …

God blessed me with a wonderful husband who has funded this major project along with Truist Bank.

Retail is retail. It is a rollercoaster ride. The tremendous high of the final quarter holiday sales is fantastic. The post-holiday blues come in the first quarter when sales drop.

PM: How does a concept like this benefit a city like Charlotte?

SN: Being able to host and support so many small businesses is absolutely phenomenal. We have so many small, Black-owned businesses joining us. It is wonderful to have them be a part of this multi-merchant market place. The diversity is great.

PM: Why did you decide to open the marketplace up with your son?

SN: We were all shocked when Richard L. Nichols III agreed to join us. He and I are both bossy first-born children, so you can imagine we bump heads all the time.

He had just finished getting his MBA at UCLA and came home for the pandemic. I had asked him to just help me a little with the numbers and concept. One day, I just asked him if he would want to stay to help me get things off the ground and he agreed. Richard III is my partner and is the other owner in the business. He has been helping me and has been my right-hand man this whole time.

PM: What would success look like for you?

SN: God willing, I would like to own a couple more Southern Lions in different parts of the country. Currently, we believe we are one of the largest, 100% Black-owned retailers in the country.

PM: What has been the reaction from some of your merchants?

SN: (Southern Lion) merchants have been tremendously excited and supportive. They are pleased to have a brand new, beautifully appointed space, along with lots of new merchants, new energy, and new management! We are a wonderful multi-vendor retail shopping venue for entrepreneurs, artists and small business owners. .

PM: Foot traffic at malls have taken a hit in recent years, so how will/has Southern Lion changed shopping patterns/options at Carolina Place Mall?

SN: Carolina Place Mall has shared that the traffic pattern in the mall has shifted and all the traffic is coming in on our side of the mall. The stores located near us have seen a tremendous uptick in sales because of our opening.

PM: What is your hope for the future of the business?

SN: We hope that others are inspired to open their own small businesses and to place them in a home like Southern Lion. Multi-merchant marketplaces like ours give small business owners the opportunity to live out their dreams of business ownership without the tremendous headaches that come with managing real estate or employees.