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Recalling Pinellas

Webb's City offered deals by the acre before mall era

As a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965, Jerry Blizin covered some of Pinellas County's biggest stories.

James Earl "Doc" Webb and his "World's Most Unusual Drug Store" have been eulogized many times in St. Petersburg history. And no wonder. The man really knew how to sell. So when he offered steaks for 37 cents a pound on March 10, 1953, the Times sent me to cover the event.

The great beef sell-off pulled 'em in. By 11 that night, Webb had sold 100,000 pounds of New Zealand beef to 25,000 customers, some of whom waited in line for more than an hour.

Butcher Ben French said his first customer ordered 100 pounds for his deep freeze, but guessed his average order was $5. As he was talking to me, he wrapped up 12 3/4 pounds of T-bone steak for about $5.

Webb's meat manager, Jack Holland, put 30 butchers to work, cutting, selling and wrapping. Sirloins, T-bones, club and rib steaks went for 37 cents a pound. Other cuts went as low as 15 cents a pound.

That made a big difference to pensioners and others on tight budgets. At that time the average couple on Social Security got $81.50 a month, and the maximum was $120. Outside supplemental earnings were limited to $75. Other retirees got even less, notably former civil service personnel and railroad pensioners.

As I recall, Doc Webb made a brief public appearance at the sale in a white power suit and the two-tone shoes he sometimes affected. Webb was a clothes horse who boasted that he owned 100 suits, 50 sport coats and 63 pairs of shoes. Just 5 feet 5, he always cut a dapper figure.

Webb, a Tennessean, started in St. Petersburg in 1925 during the height of the Florida land boom. He bought a small drugstore and started selling nostrums once hawked from the back of wagons — Sorbo Rub, Indian Wahoo Bitters and Doc Webb's 608. After the real estate boom collapsed, he began a sell-it-cheap campaign that morphed the drugstore into an empire that at one time covered 10 city blocks in an area east of the present site of Tropicana Field.

Webb's City's property ran from Second to Fourth avenues S between Seventh and 10th streets and at one time boasted 77 stores. In 1951, it included 85,000 square feet of retail space, 1,400 employees and more than $20 million in cash receipts, according to a profile by William Moriaty.

I bought everything from cough syrup to lawn fertilizer at Webb's City. Never, however, did I risk a 25-cent haircut by one of the 24 barbers who worked there.

Webb always claimed Herculean sales results, like 10 tons of onions sold by the produce department in 11 1/2 hours. The photo department claimed sales of 60,000 rolls of film per year. People in town took it as an article of faith that Webb's City was truly the home of low prices.

No gimmick was too outrageous for Webb — like selling 2,000 one-dollar bills for 95 cents each, (followed by 2,000 more at 89 cents each), plus breakfast for 2 cents. Trained chimps cavorted there, and the famed Zachinni family shot each other out of cannons. (They even shot Webb himself into their net.)

Among the long-running promotional fixtures at Webb's City were the Florida Poster Girls, teenage beauties in the era of the eternal bathing beauty photo. However, the famous mermaids in Webb City's show were only mannequins.

His live animal exhibits like the dancing chicken, kissing bunny and baseball-playing ducks would never survive in today's animal rights world. But back then people willingly deposited a coin to see a captive fowl do some scratching for the reward of a few grains of corn.

Webb thrived because he understood customers and foreshadowed the malls and discount houses of the future. But the glory of his mercantile world gradually faded as shopping malls came to the fore. In 1974, Webb sold his empire, and in August 1979 Webb's City closed. The showman died three years later at 85.

Jerry Blizin, who lives in Tarpon Springs, can be reached at [email protected]

Webb's City offered deals by the acre before mall era 08/24/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 24, 2010 5:28pm]
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