Jewelry, glass and pottery, lamps, paintings, wall hangings and bric-a-brac crowd the aisles and walls of Victoria's Parlour Antiques. But the heart of the business is a back room jammed with a jumble of Oriental rugs, some standing upright in rolls, others on open stacks. The only way to see the sizes, shapes, colors and designs of the rugs is to thumb through books featuring them in more than 200 photographs.
Pat France grew up in the rug business and has spent a lifetime developing an eye and taste for them. Her collection represents every major rug-making area in the world, she says. Some are a century old.
"I have a lot of Persian rugs, some Turkish, Armenian, some Chinese," she said. Styles range from art deco to traditional and modern.
When France was a child, her playground was a store filled with more than a thousand wool and silk rugs from around the world — Paulson & Co., a family business in Swarthmore, Pa., established by her grandfather in 1914.
From age 4, she played on the store's rugs, watched them being cleaned and saw them displayed for customers.
On family outings to museums with her brother and sister, "we would always play a game," she recalled. "Whatever was on the walls — paintings or rugs — we would have to describe why we liked it, whether it was the beauty of the colors, the clarity of the design or something about it that caught our senses."
Seeking a warmer climate, Wesley and Dorothy France left their hometown of Swarthmore in 1957, moved to Largo with their three children and started France Rugs.
At the time, Pat France was 8 years old and entered Mildred Helms Elementary School.
She worked summers in the family store as a teenager and after graduating from Florida Southern College in 1971, she joined the business.
When she turned 20, her uncle, Paul Paulson, invited her on a buying and selling trip to New York City. The only room for her was in the back of the truck on top of rugs.
It's one of her fondest memories.
"It was the neatest experience," she said. "We would stop at a dozen places a day. I got to go into all the showrooms and warehouses and see how different people do business."
She also learned the art of rug repair and reweaving. Her teacher was award-winning artist Mildred "Muggsy" Kelso, who learned her craft at the Philadelphia Institute of Art.
When her parents retired in 1984, some of the rugs went to the family store in Swarthmore and Pat France took some when she started her own business that same year in Antique Alley in Belleair Bluffs.
"For years, I had customers that I inherited from my parents," she said. "I've always liked the challenge of finding things for people. I brought paintings and jewelry for one customer, then her kids and now her grandkids."
With the changing economy, her buying has become more selective.
"I used to buy everything under the sun. Now I'm much more particular, much more critical," she said.
"I buy as high quality as I can or something that's really unique. Things have to have something extra to sell these days. Usual isn't going to cut it."
Chris Cosdon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.