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   Now in our fourth calendar year
   PCR #174  (Vol. 4, No. 30)  This edition is for the week of July 21--27, 2003.

  La Floridiana

   William Moriaty

LA FLORIDIANA
"Webb's City, Inc. - - The World's Most Unusual Drug Store"
by Will Moriaty
THIS WEEK'S MOVIE REVIEW
"Bad Boys II"
by Mike Smith
COUCH POTATO CONFESSIONS
"Mega-Opolies"
and who owns television and more by Vinnie B.
ASHLEY'S HOLLYWOOD
Ashley answers her critics...again!
 Ashley Lauren
SPLASH PAGE
"GAIMAN, GAIMAN and more GAIMAN!"
by Brandon Jones
CREATURE'S CORNER
HeroClix, New movies, and Comics
by John Lewis
MATT'S RAIL
80s horror films are over-rated?
by Matt Drinnenberg
MIKE'S RANT
Webb City revisited...Ashley...Happy Birthday...By Your Command...Passing On
by Mike Smith
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Webb's City, Inc. - - The World's Most Unusual Drug Store
A profile of J.E. "Doc" Webb - - Florida Folk Hero and Entrepreneur Extraordinaire

Sadly, the day of the Florida Entrepreneur Extraordinaire is basically long gone. It was pronounced a death sentence when Webb's City closed its doors in 1979 and became a fact when James Earl "Doc" Webb died in 1983.

Webb, born in 1899, migrated to Florida from his native Tennessee. In 1925 he bought into a small drug store in St. Petersburg, Florida, and within a year, the diminutive two employee store was purchased by Webb and renamed 'Webb's Cut Rate Drugs". This would be the beginning of one of the biggest retail empires in the world.

Dubbed the "P.T. Barnum of retail", Webb built his business on the philosophy of "Stack it high and sell it cheap!" In addition he used hard work, made courageous decisions, and threw in some hucksterism in order to move from a 40' x 60' floor space drug store with receipts of $38,990.45 in 1925, to a retailing behemoth covering ten city blocks that was visited by over 60,000 customers a day!

By 1951, Webb's empire had 85,000 square feet of retail space with more than 1,400 employees, with cash receipts of over $20,000,000.00. But statistics aside for the moment, Webb's magic was his ability to do something that few Florida entrepreneurs know how to do today - - fire the people's imagination, and delight them with creative sales gimmicks to get their minds off of their problems and into a buying state of mind - - this was crucial to his survival and growth during the Great Depression era and Second World War in St. Petersburg.

"More Fun Than A Circus!"
J.E. "Doc" Webb was a brilliant merchant who was never bashful to innovate, bend the rules and make shopping at his kingdom a truly memorable experience. As the circa 1951 brochure that I purchased from "Miami mike" Hiscano so aptly stated, "In work he will try anything once, win, loose, or draw". Such bold sales gimmicks included a limited time offer on selling one-dollar bills for ninety-five cent; selling breakfasts for two cents; featuring live shows featuring mermaids, baseball playing ducks; chimpanzees; dancing chickens and kissing rabbits, just to name a few. He even shot the Flying Zacchinis out of a cannon in one of his store's parking lots!

To get to his original location in St. Petersburg to see such acts, you would park in one of four store parking lots that required the supervision of twelve full-time attendants to supervise them. The Webb's City store complex was located from 2nd Avenue South down to 4th Avenue South and between 7th to 10th Streets South. Principally nicknamed "The World's Most Unusual drug Store", Webb's City was also nicknamed "Florida's Greatest Showplace". Here's what one could expect in 1951 while visiting Webb's City:

1.. The first escalators on Florida's West Coast.
2.. Twenty-four barbers (on two shifts) working 16 hours a day furnishing haircuts at "Pre-War Prices."
3.. A photographic department that processed 60,000 rolls of film a year.
4.. A candy department that sold three tons of candy a month.
5.. A delicatessen with gourmet foods. On an average Sunday, 3,000 quarts of milk was sold from the delicatessen.
6.. The longest soda fountain in the world, staffed by sixty people.
7.. Over 70 stores including men's, women's and children's fashions departments; toy, electrical, house wares, home furnishings, giftware, furniture, soap, insecticide, cosmetics, and produce departments (the produce department sold a record ten tons of onions in eleven and a half hours, with no customer buying more than three pounds each). Additionally, the soap department was the largest of its kind in the United States.
8.. A separate "Trading Post" building that housed a service station, complete with fishing tackle and supplies. More gasoline was pumped there in a day than the average service station did in a month.
9.. A drug and prescription area that was the largest of its type in the world. Up to 3,000 bottles of medications were sold in a day.
10.. A coffee shop and a cafeteria known as the "Subterranean Room".
11.. A grocery store, which sold 80,000 pounds of sugar and 22,500 cans of soup in a day.
12.. One of the world's largest meat stores, which in an eight-hour time frame sold 40,000 pounds of fresh meats and 3,600 pounds of cheese.
13.. A "Tobacco Counter" the size of "doc's" original 1925 store, which sold an average of 16,000 packs of cigarettes a day.
14.. An Arthur Murray Dance Studio on one of his store's rooftops.
15.. An Express Check-Out Line (10 Items or Less), first of its type in the world.

Webb's City pamphlet
Front cover of the promotional brochure highlighting "Florida's Poster Girls" and that Webb's City was "more fun than a circus!" Circa 1951 from the author's collection.
"Florida Poster Girls"
Always the showman, "Doc" Webb was also the promoter of the internationally famous 'Florida Poster Girls". Sponsored by Webb's City, the intent was to promote locally, the company's "Playtime Fashions "(primarily female swim ware). This featured young women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three from all over Florida putting on fashion shows throughout the United States. They appeared in newsreels, magazines such as Life), and in coast-to-coast newspapers. Each year, eight women were chosen from more than 1,000 entries to be a "Florida Poster Girls".

"Doc Webb Was Always One Helluva Salesman"
Here is what others in the late forties and early fifties had to say about this Lord of the Retail Kingdom:

Life Magazine, August 19, 1946: "A big publicity stunt for the Poster Girls. A contingent of teenagers hired by J.E. ('Doc') Webb of St. Petersburg to model the latest fashions at his drugstore. The eight girls were selected as some 300 he trains as models."

Ernie Pyle: "If the famous one-armed paper hanger with the hives were working in Webb's drug store, he would look as if he were in a coma."

Collier's Magazine: "Doc Webb is the best publicized small town merchant in America."

American Magazine: "Doc Webb is one of the most interesting people in the American scene."

True Detective: "Webb's merchandising stunts broke the back of the black market."

American Druggist: "Florida is famous for its sunshine and Webb's, the world's most unusual drugstore."

St. Louis Globe Democrat: "Doc Webb has truly built a Better Mousetrap."

Holiday Magazine, January 1948: "Doc Webb runs his famous "bargain-basement" drug store on bargains and publicity."

Knoxville News Sentinel: "Doc Webb always was one "Helluva Salesman."

Webb's City pamphlet back cover
Back cover: Webb boasted in this brochure "43 stores operating under the one roof including five eating establishments serving "THE BEST FOOD IN TOWN". In all, Webb's City at its prime had 70 stores, four parking lots, and 1,400 employees and took up ten city blocks. Circa 1951 from the author's collection.
Doc Stands His Ground
The faint of heart never leave an impression on the world like the courageous, and J.E. "Doc" was no exception to this. "Doc" was a vocal and powerful proponent of free trade, fighting for years against Florida's state sales tax and the fair trade Act. As a result many companies sued him, including Bristol-Myer in 1938. He also stood shoulder to shoulder with the African-American community during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Plazas, Malls, Suburbia and Urban Decay Take Their Toll on Webb's City
As all things rise and fall, Webb's City was no exception. By the 1960s, the neighborhood surrounding this once flourishing empire began deteriorating. Upwardly mobile business and people were moving out of the downtown and into the suburbs where plazas and malls featured free parking, and by the early 1970s, "Doc's" gimmicks became passť as unheralded social change in America began to take hold. Webb's City's days were numbered. In 1974, Webb sold out his majority of stock holdings. In 1979 the company went bankrupt and the doors were closed forever on this once glorious retailing empire.

Although my mother and father had shopped at Webb's City in the late forties and early fifties when they lived in the Bahamas Shore area of St. Petersburg (and yes, they even took the Bee Line Ferry to Piney Point and back in those days to go to Sarasota), up until the mid-fifties when the had moved to El Prado Street in South Tampa, I only caught passing glimpses of what would be the last days of this once unique and wonderful empire.

My last recollection of Webb's City was the Webb's City Outpost located at the corner of 4th Street North and Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg. It closed its doors by the late 1970's and would change hands becoming the Lucky Buddha restaurant.

Webb's City, "The World's Most Unusual Drug Store" would fade into history, but it, and its creator, James Earl 'Doc' Webb, must never be forgotten for their incredible contribution to Florida's rich and historic past.

Webb's City Resurrected
A musical play written and directed by St. Petersburg native Bill Leavengood entitled "Webb's City'" debuted June 22, 2000 at the Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, and then played at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. For more information on this play link to the following sites:

Live Arts Peninsula Foundation: The Amazing Story of "Doc" Webb
http://www.liveartspen.com/webbs_city/story.htm

Other fascinating information can be gleaned from the following links:

Florida's Lost Tourist Attractions: Webb's City
http://www.lostparks.com/webbs.html

St. Petersburg Museum of History:
http://www.stpetemuseumofhistory.org/about.html

Roadsideamerica.com
http://www.roadsideamerica.com/roger/QueryTips.php3?tip.AttractionName=webb's+city&tip.Town=st.+petersburg

And even more fascinating, the Paul Bunyan figure from Webb's City that was relocated to Starkey Road Auto Parts, 11900 Starkey Road in Largo! http://www.roadsideamerica.com/muffler/track.html#fl


"La Floridiana" is ©2003 by William Moriaty.  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2003 by Nolan B. Canova.