NEW PORT RICHEY — It's hard to miss Eula and Joe Grove's Coral Reef Rock Shop. It's nestled in a 1960s house with metal awnings along Green Key Road, so close to the Gulf of Mexico that if you drive a little farther the oaks give way to scrub and eventually dead-end at the beach.
Out front is the family dive boat and a large rusted anchor from a fishing vessel known as a "smack," which probably sank off the Florida coast more than a century ago. There are carved wooden fish and mermaids and tubs of shells and sea fans and fat unpolished gemstones on tables that sit right out under the sky when the weather's fine.
Come early enough and you'll seen Henry, the great blue heron that lands on the roof and swallows the hot dogs the Groves toss him as part of their morning ritual.
"Joe and Eula are Old Florida — this place is Old Florida," raved Eleni Simeon-Oakley, a fourth-generation Floridian who owns the Get a Guru soap shop in Tarpon Springs. "It's like time-traveling in a way and so sad because of what has been done to Florida."
Simeon-Oakley and her sister, Maria Eigner, from Cedar Key, pulled off U.S. 19 on Thursday morning on a whim to browse the shop their grandmother "YaYa" used to bring them to when they were young. Eleni sat on Joe's tool box in the shop's back room where she and Maria sorted through thousands of exotic beads that the Groves sell cheaply to a loyal following of customers.
As Eleni explained, it's not just a rock shop, really but a "treasure trove" of almost any curio a person might need — or not really need at all but think they do.
After all, if you live in Florida, a $7.50 wooden mermaid and a $10 mega conch shell are the irresistible non-necessities that even a reasonably sane spender has hard time walking away from.
It's easy to spend hours and hours browsing the 1,200-square-foot house where the Groves have had their shop for nearly 40 years. Long before they moved to their current home in Gulf Harbors, the Groves raised their three children in the little house on Green Key Road.
Joe came to New Port Richey as a boy in the 1940s when his father traded work in the Pennsylvania steel mills for a job as a carpenter in Florida. He remembers well when U.S. 19 was little more than a country road and when Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) was filmed at Weeki Wachee Springs, then the road's most famous attraction.
"My sister had her picture taken with (actor) Ann Blyth," recalls Joe, whose class at Pierce Elementary School was so small that he still keeps in touch with his 25 classmates, all of whom are still living. He met Eula at a party when he was 16, married her, and, a little more than a decade later, started his own business with $100 and a truckload of rocks and gems he bought off a "rock hound" in Hudson.
They ran the rock shop out of the front room, where besides rocks, they sold cypress clocks Joe used to make by hand.
It's a pre-Disney relic
These days, says Eula, who along with Joe spends much of the year at trade shows, "we sell a lot more than rocks," she says.
And she's right: You can blow big bucks on a hand-carved jade koi pond that costs $10,000, or walk out with a handful of old marbles, five for $1. Heaps of shells are mounded in tubs inside and out. So are sand dollars, starfish, sea urchin lights, shark teeth, rooster conchs, glass net floats, sea beans (for good luck), agate slabs and insect-filled pine sap.
"A lot of this stuff you can't get anymore; I just still have some of it around," said Joe as he pointed out two diamondback rattlesnakes forever frozen in mid-strike. Ditto for the gator toes, the old bottles he found while diving in the Suwannee River, and the arrowheads that aren't for sale, but instead mounted as part of a display for visitors to look at.
"We're known all over the world," Eula says. "A policeman from England told us once that he was sitting in a pub and overheard the people behind him saying they love our shop."
No doubt the shop is a relic from the pre-Disney days when Florida was full of such places that offered tourists and locals a little amusement as well as a unique shopping experience.
The Groves, both 66, used to scuba dive for the shells and shark's teeth they stocked on their shelves, but now leave the diving to their grandkids.
The couple now devote much of their time to buying and selling at big wholesale trade shows. They also sell copies of Chinese artifacts, large hand-beaded salamander wall hangings and beaded birds from Africa.
Their bead collection is enormous and unusual and draws loyal customers like Nancy Brake from Traverse City, Mich., who stopped in Thursday with two friends.
"Every time I come down here I come in to buy beads," Brake says. "I've even had them mail me beads in Michigan."
Regular customers know to call first — (727) 849-0817 — to make sure the Groves aren't away at a trade show. Get there early if you want to see them feed Henry the heron on the roof.
And make sure to give yourself time to look at the huge fiberglass shark's jaw (filled with teeth Joe found) or his miniature gold mine or meteor posters or coral specimens.
Snakes, shells, and gator toes await.
As does some really lovely stuff.
"They've got kitsch and really, really fine collectibles," Simeon-Oakley said. "Coming here is like visiting the past in Florida. Even the Groves haven't changed. It's like coming home again."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at email@example.com.