To steal blatantly from Harlan Ellison, we’ll start at the middle, and then go back to the beginning. The end will take care of itself.
Nearly six weeks after signing the lease and starting to move in, the new Triffid Ranch space is nearly ready. The official launch date is September 19, 2015, to coincide with the September ArtWalk. It’s not a standard retail space: it’s a gallery, open by appointment only, but also a workspace in order to get new arrangements and new plants ready for new shows. That said, the real fun should be starting in October, once the heat breaks, the days get shorter, and the air in Dallas no longer smells like burning flint. Enter the mall and head for the octopus mural, take the escalator downstairs, and we’re right at the bottom.
A lot has changed with the Triffid Ranch since that first show in the fall of 2008, and much of it involves economics of scale. As the shows increased in popularity and people started coming out specifically to see what plants were available, the need to expand became obvious. For all of the assumptions that the Ranch was specifically that, particularly with the number of people calling at ungodly hours because “I’m coming through Dallas at 3 in the morning, so I wanted to come by then to see your plants,” it’s always been a home-run business since the beginning. Sarracenia in the back yard, Drosera and Stylidium in the greenhouse, and Nepenthes and Cephalotus on shelves inside the house so our horrendous summer heat and dryness didn’t wilt them within minutes.
This worked for a while, and we kept expanding, but rapidly the Triffid Ranch ran into the same snag as any other home-founded business. Namely, houses aren’t conducive toward running horticulture-based businesses. We needed room, a lot of room, to expand past one or two shows per year. We needed room to construct larger enclosures than the little jars that were the stalwarts of small shows. We needed room to exhibit those larger enclosures, because while attendees would thrill to seeing Nepenthes arrangements where the plants were at a decent size, nobody had the interest in taking them home. Honestly, that’s understandable: considering the number of international guests at Texas Frightmare Weekend, it’s hard enough bringing home a one-gallon plastic arrangement on the plane, but a converted 30-gallon hexagon tank with a plant big enough to eat small children and puppies? Naah.
Another factor that kicked in was that the show schedule was having issues. Covering expenses meant continuing to work a day job, and recent changes in that day job precluded my taking a week off to prepare, attend, and break down from big shows out of the Dallas area. In and out of Dallas, the old show regimen was changing, too. Every twenty years, we see a regular crash on local conventions: they start out feisty and hungry at the beginning of a recession, and the attendees really get into the festivities as a way to forget their aggravations and fears for at least one weekend. This lasts until the economy starts to improve, the curiosity-seekers move on, and the regulars realize that their own day jobs, families, and financial obligations are getting in the way. This usually gets aggravated by the number of shysters and incompetents who hear Some Guy stories about how science fiction and media conventions are a perfect way to print their own money, fail in a spectacular fashion, and thus poison the well for everyone else. Shortly after leaving the 2014 hiatus with Texas Frightmare Weekend, two shows for which I was scheduled blew up in a rather spectacular fashion, with fellow vendors bringing up the words “class action lawsuit” when they weren’t bringing up “put the organizer into a parking lot, put a gasoline-filled tire around his neck, and set him on fire.” Considering the number of touring vendors for whom cancellations don’t just mean a missing paycheck but a whole missing week of expenses between shows, I figured that it was about time to look for other venues. The Triffid Ranch isn’t quitting conventions and trade shows: there’s no way that I’d miss out on Frightmare or next year’s All-Con, as well as this November’s Funky Finds Holiday Experience in Fort Worth. It’s just that fewer and fewer vendors can risk the first-year shows that might be great, or might be the next Fed-Con USA.
And then the Texas summer intruded. In the last five years, we lost two beautiful old silverleaf maples that worked very well at shading the main growing areas all summer. Then our neighbor had no choice but to take out two equally majestic elms that shaded the whole of the house from the afternoon sun, and afternoon sun in Texas can be a killer. Both trees had such a wood-borer beetle infestation that they would have come down atop the house had they remained, so I didn’t blame him in the slightest, but their removal meant that a prime grow room became a prime bread oven by about three in the afternoon. Fans, extra air conditioners, improved circulation: nothing changed the fact that the plants kept indoors were overheating, and I lost several much-beloved Nepenthes cultivars in the early summer from heat exhaustion. It was time to move.
That’s where things get entertaining. Taking over and converting one of Dallas’s many light industrial spaces was always an option, except to clients who might have issue with coming out to an otherwise empty industrial park a few hours after dark. Standard retail space usually comes with the requirement of having to be open for business during standard business hours, which gets in the way of the Day Job necessary to finance the expansion for its first year or so. The best option would be a gallery of some sort, except most of Dallas’s gallery space is now renting for absolutely insane prices, and moving enough plants to pay the rent just simply wouldn’t be possible.
Please note that I said “most of Dallas’s gallery space.” This is important.
When it first opened 42 years ago, North Dallas’s Valley View Mall was one of the first indoor shopping malls in the area, and it definitely wasn’t its last. It survived multiple threats of shutdown and demolition that took out the neighboring Prestonwood and Richardson Square Malls, and it seemed to be making a comeback around 2005 with the addition of whole new third floor, with a brand new AMC movie theater taking up that floor. Then the original owners, leveraged up to their eyeballs, disappeared and defaulted on their various loans, and the city of Dallas found itself owning a very large shopping mall, in what would be a prime area once expansion of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Freeway was complete. Until that work on LBJ was done, though, the mall still had to be maintained for the theater. Anchor stores JCPenney and Foley’s moved out or went under, leaving only the Sears at one end. In between, business slowly trickled away, and the stores followed. By 2010, the mall was pretty much dead.
The good news was that a new owner came in, with a new idea. The plan was to demolish the Valley View Mall and replace it with a huge facility called Midtown, which included a new theater, apartments, shops, and even a park that ran through the middle of it. That work would have started shortly after the mall’s purchase, but the Great Recession intruded. The mall couldn’t just be taken down: several long-running tenants weren’t leaving just yet, AMC wanted a new theater before it allowed its very successful existing one to come crashing down, and the Sears was fully owned by its parent company. Since the big theater expansion, the demand for shopping mall space crashed as companies such as Gadzooks and Waldenbooks died off and others cut back on mall presence. With the decreased traffic due to the LBJ expansion and new malls going up in the far northern suburbs, Valley View was seen as an anachronism, but its demolition couldn’t happen until the stars were right. So what to do?
That’s where the owners came up with brilliance. The mall itself had to remain open: that was the only way to access the movie theater. That meant rooftop maintenance to prevent leaks, keeping air conditioning going, a facilities crew to sweep floors and keep the electricity connected, and all of the other factors necessary to keep this 1970s-era artifact going. The solution: what about converting the empty shops into art galleries?
When I first heard the idea behind the Gallery at Midtown, this coincided with its regular ArtWalk exhibition on the third Saturday of each month. Every third Saturday, the galleries open their doors from 6 to 10 in the evening to the general public, and the festivities include live music, food, and all sorts of other amenities. What really surprised me about this was the general vibe. Dallas gets a reputation for being unfriendly to the arts, and some of that reputation is justified: we locals learned back in the Eighties to be very quiet about new venues, because as soon as word got out, the area would be overrun with speculators famed for letting tenants do all of the work on a space and then kicking them out because some yuppie made vague noises about paying three times the rent. Here, that’s not a concern, and it shows.
Now here’s the kicker. The new space means a significantly enlarged workspace in a very central location, accessible from almost anywhere in north Texas. The rent is reasonable, the neighbors are wonderful, and those looking for new gallery space should check on it now. We’re also working against the clock. Sooner or later, depending upon when the next stage on Midtown starts, the mall is coming down, and everyone in it will have to relocate. That could happen by the end of the year, and it could happen two years from now. We don’t know, and neither does anybody else. In the meantime, this was a perfect opportunity to expand, we get at least one equivalent of a show every month without having to get trucks, carts, and extension cords, and the people who want to come by “to see the plants” can come up to the front window and look to their hearts’ content. Things may change. Things may change very rapidly. The plan, though, is to give this as much of a chance as we can, and see what next year brings. Here’s to seeing all of you next September 19.