By Jordan Staggs | Photography by Romona Robbins
Ask a native or longtime visitor of the Destin and South Walton areas of Florida’s northwest coast where you can find the most unique art pieces, keepsakes, apparel, or home furnishings, and they’ll direct you straight to the Zoo Gallery in Grayton Beach or Sandestin. Each store is stocked full of “eye candy and ear food,” a carefully curated collection of handcrafted works by American artists mixed with cherry-picked quality goods from all over the country and punctuated by feel-good sounds playing in the background.
Whimsical sculptures of metal monsters and other quirky creatures greet visitors at the door, and the air is filled with the aromas of incense and delicious-smelling candles, creating a mix that is unlike any other. Art adorns every wall while novelty items and quirky greeting cards make it impossible to resist browsing the entire store for whatever treasure is hidden in the next corner. Handmade jewelry and bohemian-chic clothing round out the store, ensuring there is something for everyone who visits.
“Our intention was to create something other than just another touristy shop,” says Zoo Gallery owner Roxie Wilson, who opened the store with her husband and college sweetheart, Chris. The pair met at Auburn University, where Chris was a kicker on the football team and Roxie focused on her creative energies as a fine arts student. They married in 1975 and moved back to the Gulf Coast, where Roxie was from, with the vision of opening a gallery to showcase the things they loved. The Zoo Gallery’s first location opened in downtown Fort Walton Beach in 1979, making it the oldest locally run mom-and-pop business in the area. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of how many people come in and say they love the store and want one where they live.”
It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and personality for a business to last thirty-five years. Over that period, the Wilsons have created a haven for visitors and locals alike who crave the unexpected. Many customers return year after year while on vacation, while locals stop by frequently to check on new merchandise and to visit the “zookeepers” (the store’s dedicated team of associates) and the Grayton Beach store’s doggie mascot, Mo, the lady hound dog.
Once more of a fine art gallery, the Zoo has evolved with the times and the desires of its clients, but it has always been a family affair. Chris and Roxie’s children, Baxter and Raven, have both been involved in creating the hip “old school cool” vibe of the store.
“We pride ourselves on being a little off the wall,” Chris admits. In fact, one of the company’s favorite sayings is “Still crazy after all these years.”
“My family has an ‘eye for art,’” adds Baxter, who fully committed to the family business two years ago. “We support the arts and the ideas of hardworking artists from all over the country and are continuously inspired by the work they create. We have a wild sense of humor and thrive on positivity. We stand out from the herd and always have.”
The smell, the art, and the music—lovingly dubbed “ear food” by Chris because it is “nourishment for the soul”—certainly make the store stand out with a vibe that is distinctly Zoohemian.
“It’s hard not to smile when you’re here,” says general manager Robyn Stork, who has been part of the Zoo Gallery team since 1996. “I love surrounding myself with positivity, and we have a menagerie of fun stuff here for everyone.”
“I don’t think the Zoo Gallery would still be here without Robyn,” says Roxie, expressing that Robyn is more like a member of the family than just part of the business—the two go hand-in-hand. Baxter adds, “Robyn is a blessing to our family. I tell her she is ‘the one’ all the time, because she is. We can’t express enough appreciation for all she does.”
Many of the store’s signature artists have close relationships with Roxie and Chris. Some have been making their pieces available at the Zoo Gallery for more than twenty years. Fostering these good relationships with their artists is a key ingredient to bringing such an eclectic mix of work into the store. Longtime artists found in the store include Denise Greenwood, Brian Andreas, Richard Dunbrack, and Sarah Grant of Sticks; jewelry artists such as Jill Schwartz, Heather Haase, and Ayala Bar; and local artists Greg Combs, Justin Lyons, Chandler Williams, Vaughan Greene, and Mary Hong, plus many other original American creators.
Baxter says the plan for the gallery’s future is to build the store’s concept “Stand Out from the Herd” into a brand, which has been in the works with the help of his sister, Raven. She also creates original artwork sold in the stores and spearheads the company’s social media efforts at TheZooGallery.com.
The thirty-fifth anniversary, which officially took place on August 8, 2014, was the perfect opportunity to highlight what makes the Zoo Gallery a favorite in the area and to extend its reach to customers online. The website is constantly being updated with new products and blog posts about positivity, art, and inspiration. Meanwhile, the company’s new logo, featuring the iconic zebra that has appeared on almost all the store’s souvenir T-shirts over the years, offers a fresh look while keeping the store’s original spirit.
Live Simple. Love the Earth. Preserve, Conserve, and Coexist. Have Kindness for Animals. Show Gratitude to Your Body. Be Yourself. Stand for Good in the World. #standoutfromtheherd
“We want to be better every year and to continue providing the quality and service, and that fun, colorful atmosphere our customers have come to know,” Roxie says. “I think my worst nightmare would be if the Zoo Gallery was considered just a regular store.”
Visit the Zoo Gallery at the Grand Boulevard Town Center in Sandestin or across the street from the Red Bar in Grayton Beach, or explore the shop online at TheZooGallery.com. To show the world how you #standoutfromtheherd, use the hashtag on your Instagram photos, and be sure to follow @thezoogallery and @viemagazine!
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