Editor’s note: This is one report in an occasional series about Old Florida, as explored by Chronicle correspondent Margo Wilson.
There was a time in Florida before Disney and before interstates, when the fastest way for vacationers to get somewhere was slow, when meandering two-lane roads connected coastal communities, inland towns and farmland.
Along the way, visitors were promised “Live Alligators,” “Air Conditioning” and “Souvenirs.”
Today in Citrus County, the souvenir shops of yore have transformed into gift shops and home décor emporiums, but their owners happily still sell Florida-themed merchandise to out-of-staters, snowbirds and locals.
And the county still offers tourists that Old Florida kind of vacationing experience of sampling life off the main roads, according to John Pricher, director of Discover Crystal River.
“One of the keys of our area is the locally run businesses,” he said. “We’re not on the Interstate. It takes a little longer to get here. But it’s worth it.”
Pricher said he feels the lure of purchasing souvenirs is that people “want a remembrance of their trip. Personally, I tend to buy (refrigerator) magnets because they’re affordable and say what city I was in. People can look back, whether it’s a T-shirt or magnet, and say, ‘I remember that trip and how much fun we had.’ It’s having a little token to call back the happy times when visiting somewhere.”
He said tourists these days often are seeking “authentic things in the area, the real local traditions.. … When I visit a town, I’m looking for the really local stuff ... just to experience it and see the noncommercial side of things.”
All About Nature
Roger Osborne, owner of All About Nature gift shop in Crystal River, said his store’s out-of-state visitors often have flown here and are looking for something small they can pack in their suitcases — T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, or knickknacks that identify the region they’ve explored. He also sells books on all things Florida, including Old Florida. And for Osborne, manatee items are a must.
“We’re the manatee capital of the world,” he pointed out. In fact, one of his shop’s names is “Manatee Gift Store,” he said.
At the same time, Floridians and snowbirds from such areas as Tampa, St. Petersburg, or Orlando, as well as Ocala, The Villages and Spring Hill, not to mention locals, may be looking for coastal décor to help deck out their homes, Osborne said.
In fact, Osborne is opening a new shop, Land and Sea Décor, in the Heritage Village area of Crystal River and across the street from All About Nature. The new store offers metal and wood wall sculptures of mermaids and sea turtles, as well as alligator paper towel holders, and sea captain statues as tall as waist-high totem poles. Osborne previously had a Land and Sea Décor shop, first in Inverness, and then in Homosassa. But he closed the Homosassa store when COVID shut everything down.
His new shop is in a former house and has a touch of both the old and the new.
“People want the Old Florida feel and the coastal look,” Osborne said.
At the World Treasures Shells & Gift Shop in Crystal River, both the Old Florida feel and the coastal look thrive. The Quonset-hut structure houses a panoply of gifts from such spots as Bali, India, the Philippines, Mexico and the United States, yet almost everything alludes to Florida.
There are metal fish, fiberglass manatees, painted oars, flamingo knickknacks, and trays and trays of seashells. Owner Dawn Sanford also sees to it that seashell gravel is spread outside the shop every weekend. Children receive bags and can hunt for intriguing shells when they visit.
The shop debuted in early 2020 and was open about five weeks before the pandemic forced Dawn and her husband, Ed, temporarily to close, Dawn said.
The store reopened in May, and so far, the couple has been paying their bills, Dawn said. The Sanfords, fortunately, can rely on the advice of Dawn’s dad, Charles Jury, who runs World Shells & Co. in Inglis, and not only sells merchandise similar to Dawn’s but also wholesales it to merchants as far north as Maine, as far south as Key West, and as far west as Texas, according to Dawn.
Over at Frog Holler in Floral City, Frank Bellot has closed the inside of his shop during the pandemic, so the windchimes, and replicas of birds, frogs, and dolphins will have to wait to find new homes until a later date. Outside, however, Bellot sells concrete yard art, much of which is Florida-themed.
“People like Florida stuff,” he said. “Gators, flamingos, dolphins, gargoyles.”
Although the visitors to Frog Holler aren’t likely to find live gators like those advertised by yesterday’s gift shops, Bellot does entice customers with encounters with other live animals if the visitors venture to the back of Bellot’s property.
He keeps chickens, ducks, and geese, as well as Norman, 25, and Roscoe, 8, macaws who just might snap off your finger if you poke it in their cage.
Bellot rescued the birds, and although he said Roscoe is a “sweetheart,” Roscoe’s big brother, Norman, arrived “with a filthy mouth,” Bellot said.
The Frog Holler proprietor helped Norman clean up his act by parking him in front of the TV and having him watch episodes of “Law and Order,” Bellot said.
“Seriously,” he said.
Bellot, himself, is a proud representative of Old Florida. He said his family moved to Florida from North and South Carolina in the 1830s. The house in which his shop is located has been in his family since 1920 and was built by the town’s postmistress, Maddie Perry, in 1883, he said.
Before the Disney company contributed to the growth of Florida’s tourism industry, the road in front of Bellot’s shop — U.S. 41 — was quiet, the 78-year-old Bellot claimed.
“Dogs could sleep in the road. If there were five cars through town, something was happening at the Inverness courthouse,” he said. “Now, there are five cars in a second, or more.”
Judith Clark, who opened the Dockside Gift Shoppe and Boutique with her husband, Jack, and sisters Susan Sexsmith and Nancy Elliott in 1996, also has been an eyewitness to the evolution of the Citrus County tourism industry. Elliott has since passed away, but Elliott’s daughter, Lisa, is involved in the shop.
The three sisters’ father, the late Joe Middleton, took over Pete’s Pier in Crystal River in 1969, Judith said. She started working at the pier in 1976.
Her customers at Dockside Gift Shoppe seem to be interested in many things, she said, but they especially like T-shirts and manatee items.
And yes, indeed, the area has “quite a few tourists,” Judith said. “People come for the diving and the manatees ... In the summer, they come for kayaking and fishing.”
Osborne, at All About Nature, said, “You have to like tourists. They’re our lifeblood.”
Sanford, at World Treasure Shells, agreed.
“I wonder how this town would even make it without it (tourism),” she said.
Osborne estimated that 75% of his sales are to snowbirds and other visitors. In the early days of the pandemic, All About Nature tried to cater to local customers, providing curbside service and promoting local honey and masks, but sales were slow, according to Osborne.
By late December, however, the tourists were back in droves. Because he finds most visitors are here during manatee season, which lasts through mid-to-late March, Osborne said he feels there’s a need, “when they’re not here to diversify.” Hence, his new store with the coastal home décor.
Sanford, at World Treasures Shells, formerly was a pediatric nurse in Fort Myers and worked in a doctor’s office. When the doctor retired, she and her husband decided it would be nice to move closer to her parents, who run World Shells in Inglis.
She’s found one difference between tending to sick children and to tourists at her shop is that “People who come in are happy.”
And the difference between more commercialized South Florida and the Nature Coast is that “People here are nicer,” she said.
Bellot, at Frog Holler, said that at least before COVID, people from all over the world visited his shop.
The former barber and real estate salesman said he likes people, at least, “nice people.”
He worries, though, about continued development in the area.
“Floral City will be OK unless the ‘chain gang’ comes in,” he said. “They haven’t gotten here yet. When the chain gang gets here, it’s over.”
On the other hand, some kinds of development might help some area merchants.
Clark at Dockside Gift Shoppe said she’s looking forward to the completion of Riverwalk.
Pricher, of Discover Crystal River, said COVID forced people to take shorter trips and they rediscovered some of the more local attractions.
“Hopefully, that’s one of the things that will continue,” he said.