TAMPA — It started with a small fryer, a six-seat bar and a five-year plan.
In 1980, Vince McGilvra helped build cypress walls around Skipper's Smokehouse, sold cold beer with hot fish and hoped to turn a profit.
But the bar held out for more than five years. And so did a crowd of regulars, a collection of colorful murals and McGilvra in a tie-dyed T-shirt.
"You know I'll still be here," said the 62-year-old Skipper's co-owner, who retires Sunday after nearly 28 years of marketing for the venue. "But I'm ready to step back."
He's stepping back from the cypress walls, now plastered with posters covered by the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famers, Grammy Award winners and local musicians who walked the halls between them.
McGilvra said he and co-owners Tom White and Andy Bastman, who sold his share 20 years ago, set it up small and watched it grow.
"When we first opened the place, business was not real brisk, so on a Saturday, I'd be out front, plantin', diggin'," he said.
Back then, music at Skipper's was a risk instead of a staple, he said. He started it with a Sunday jam and followed that with reggae Wednesdays. It flourished when the kitchen — which got big enough to fit 60 — started serving up to 600 a night.
"What we were really looking for was a place where you could drink beer and throw peanut shells on the floor," McGilvra said.
What they got was an icon.
"In this prefab-drywall, quick-buck kind of society, every sense of business logic says we should not be here," said Mark Warren, guitarist for the Vodkanauts and Sarge and the Aeromen, who will take on McGilvra's marketing duties. "We are an improbability that is now a certainty."
Regulars say it has something to do with McGilvra.
"There's something special about playing here, and Vince is part of that," said Bill Fawcett, whose band, Sawgrass Flats, has played at Skipper's.
McGilvra thinks of it as magical. "It's like a little paradise, with a little bit of inferno thrown in."
It's hard to let go, said McGilvra, who will keep co-ownership, but will spend less of his time at the bar.
The way he lives — "you know, peace, love, understanding and good music" — will shape his retirement. He'll travel with his wife, start swimming again and seek spirituality, he said. He'll spend a lot more time in his garden.
"I like being outside, digging in the dirt," said McGilvra, who's been growing herbs and flowers for years.
"I have a few roses, but I've never had much luck with them," he said. "They're more hands on."
He likes Florida friendly plants that last if he lets them be. Ones he can set up small, he said, and watch grow.
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (813) 269-5301 or [email protected]