WheeLove: Centre Market
This article is part of a month-long series celebrating National Preservation month. WheeLove: Centre Market spotlights business owners that have contributed to the Centre Market historic district’s success. This is just a glimpse at one of many businesses that contribute to Wheeling's revitalization. Business owners who are interested in being featured on a WheeLove blog should contact Alex Panas and Bekah Karelis at email@example.com.
By Bekah Karelis
Photos by Bennett McKinley
Robert and Libby Strong had an interactive science store in mind when they moved into the Centre Market historic district 6 years ago. Celebrating their 6th anniversary on May 6, 2016, SMART Centre Market has developed into quite the destination store for science enthusiasts both young and old. The 3 themes of the store are dinosaurs, space, and ice cream! Known for their assortment of Kirke’s ice cream (made just across the river in St. Clairsville, OH), visitors to the store can browse exhibits, buy science-related items, and best of all, PLAY with science!
The pair met as instructors at WV Governor’s school in 1994 and both have strong roots in education and science. They started the non-profit, SMART Center, (SMART stands for Science, Math, Arts, Research and Technology) that same year. The non-profit was originally affiliated with West Liberty University, but is now an independent 501C3 entity.
Their store, at 30 22nd Street, is in the middle of the bustle that is the Centre Market historic district. When the pair began considering where to locate a new business, they knew that they had to find a place that was special – no boring building would do. The Strong’s are diehard West Virginian’s and wanted to build a business in the northern panhandle, choosing Wheeling because it is a natural population center. Being old architecture enthusiasts and general fans of the Centre Market area and the foot traffic that it encourages, they were both enticed to rent the building owned by Table Rock Realty and see a store to fruition that would be known as SMART Centre Market.
Thanks to a write-up done by the Friends of Wheeling, the history of the building was researched and compiled when the preservation group toured it a few years ago. Originally known as the Zink building – it was built by William Zink in the 1860s. He was a cabinetmaker, but also manufactured and dealt in furniture, chairs, and oil cloths. As was typical of cabinetmakers at the time – he also sold coffins and served as an undertaker.
After Zink retired, the building was operated by another furniture dealer and undertaker, John W. Blatchley. The building would serve through the years as a shoe store, wholesale grocery, confectionary, and pottery store. More recently, it served as an Italian grocery store run by the Maruca family. According to advertisements, the grocery store featured barrels of olives and live snails! After that, it served for a time as St. Vincent de Paul thrift store and finally, Dad’s Sweet Tooth.
A little known fact about the SMART Centre Market store is that they are the only dealer in Orion telescopes in the state of West Virginia. People come from far and wide to purchase this well-known and respected telescope. More than anything else in their store, it is telescope sales that have been increasing every year. In fact, they have sold 18 telescopes since the beginning of the year. The Strong’s pride themselves in excellent service – since a telescope purchase includes assemblage, calibration, and also a crash course on how to use it. In addition to telescopes, they also carry the myriad of accessories that such a hobby requires.
The Strong’s have noticed changes in the years since they have opened – many more businesses are choosing to locate in the Centre Market district and a higher percentage of storefronts are filled, compared to when they first opened. Both are excited about the prospect of having the Children’s Museum locate on Market Street in the coming years. They have ideas about more collaboration between like-minded businesses and education-oriented companies. Oftentimes, they are paired with West Virginia Independence Hall by school groups: history in the morning and science in the afternoon and vice-versa.
The Strong’s enjoy Centre Market and the atmosphere it provides; great ambiance, reasonable food, and safety. The store hosts a variety of programming like live music every First Friday, free Saturday Science demonstrations, and a Fifth Friday Science Lecture series. They are a big part of what makes the Centre Market historic district a success – the ideal triumvirate of a new venture, in an old building, bringing life to an historic district!