Historic Downtown Venice has a beautiful new look thanks to a year-long, $8.3 million beautification project that was completed in early July. The ribbon has been cut, the construction crews are packed and gone, and the newly paved avenues are wide and welcoming to traffic and pedestrian shoppers.
Stepping into the local landmark shop, Sunbug, it’s easy to see that the beautification didn’t just happen out on the boulevards. In business since 1983, Sunbug was renovated and refreshed last month by its new owners, Norhala Houck and James Haas. The couple also opened a bright and welcoming new store, Twist Boutique, right next door in November 2018.
“Sunbug has high-quality swimwear, a beachy, Florida feel,” James says. “It’s artsy, and some of the fashion is really dramatic. Twist Boutique is on-trend, sophisticated and has a warm, relaxed, coastal feel.”
“Sunbug is eclectic,” Norhala adds. “Shoppers can spend a long, leisurely time looking through the fashions and swimwear, and they still won’t get through everything.” Twist Boutique has carefully curated collections. The shopper can come in and quickly find the outfit or clutch or gift they are looking for. It’s a Key West, Sanibel, St. Armand’s shopping experience.
Lines at Sunbug include Sunsets Swimwear, Wallaroo Hats, Nic and Zoe, Dolcezza, Lisette L and many other leading brands. At Sunbug, it’s easy for discerning women to create a whole ensemble, from a wide-brimmed, floppy hat to a colorful maxi dress, gorgeous jewelry and a tasteful handbag—perfect for the theater or a night on the town. Twist Boutique offers both men’s and women’s lines including Jude Connally, Spartina449, Gretchen Scott Southern Tide, Tommy Bahama and HiHo. They have trendy, clean looks for boating, lounging, lunching or a casual evening with friends.
Hailing from Erie, Pennsylvania, and Westlake, Ohio, Norhala and James met eleven years ago while working in Cleveland. Norhala brings to Sunbug and Twist Boutique an exceptional career in retail, where she managed leading menswear and designer jewelry stores. James has a background in computer science. He worked in research and data operations for a leading car manufacturer and a major greeting card company. Their skills complement one another’s.
“I’m back-of-the-shop,” James explains, “payroll, invoices and much of the creative design for the ads. At our public events, I’m the host; I make sure everything goes off smoothly. Norhala has the fashion taste and is the face of the stores. She makes the purchasing decisions. She’s great at it, has a knack for pulling it all together and an exceptional skill for finding exciting lines. What you see in our stores is Norhala.”
“I enjoy building relationships,” Norhala says. “Managing the stores does take an incredible amount of time in terms of buying, planning, remodeling—you name it. But I try to balance everything. I do love to be hands-on with our customers and get to know them as much as I can.”
Norhala and James are proud of their staff at the stores. "The environment people respond to at our stores has everything to do with our staff," Norhala says. "Customers love to see familiar faces each time they visit."
“Our sales folks in Sunbug, for example, are true experts on swimwear and know how to fit people,” James adds. “Someone might come in and say, ‘I want to try this on.’ They will tell them, ‘Great. But I suggest you try these on, too, because they will fit your body type perfectly.’ They help our customers feel confident, and offer good tips and ideas.”
They are a friendly, welcoming, smart couple. Norhala and James’ family includes James’ two adult children: Maranda, a 24-year-old biochemist, and Jacob, a 22-year-old currently in an MBA program. When Norhala and James aren’t in their stores, they enjoy time at home, watching golf on TV as they relax by their pool, cooking and occasionally kayaking. Their careers have been demanding, and that has only increased now that they have struck out on their own as small business owners.
“We looked for a long time to find the perfect business to buy,” James says. “And that turned out to be Sunbug. We bought it and moved down here right after Hurricane Irma. We really felt the lingering effects of the storm. Street construction began six months after that, and then we had red tide. I like to joke that it all scared us so much that we opened Twist Boutique. We have had some stress because of these three major events, but the community has been supportive, and we are living our dream. I told Norhala of the downtown beautification project and all the construction and disruption it caused. ‘Sometimes the fertilizer needed to make something grow has to stink.’ But now, everything is completed. Downtown is beautiful, our shops are beautiful and it’s finally time to grow.”
“It was time for us to be our own bosses and begin our next chapter,” says Norhala, named after a character from a sci-fi novel loved by her mother, an avid reader. “We think Venice is the core of a rapidly growing area. We are feeling so connected to this wonderful community and are happy to be offering new things in return. We can see the demographics changing, the community growing. We welcome everyone, every age and every taste between our two stores. We want to move forward and flourish with Venice.”
Venice Lifestyle hopes you enjoy the fashion shoot in these pages featuring styles available at Sunbug and Twist Boutique. The models enjoyed a "Day Out In Venice" and were dressed by Norhala and photographed by Prion Photography in Historic Downtown Venice and at the pool.
141 W. Venice Ave., Venice
137 W. Venice Ave., Venice