Let me tell you about a community institution you can find at a rural crossroads about 5 miles north of Brooksville. It dates back to the 1950s, and, after all these years, the exterior is a rough patchwork that covers up the damages of past firestorms. The interior may not be perfectly square in every corner, but is probably more interesting because of it.
And, after a recent period of being shut down, or close to it, it's back — open to the public and, by some measures, even thriving.
Maybe you've guessed by now that I'm talking about the Lake Lindsey Grocery (a.k.a. the Lake Lindsey Mall), the convenience store/stand-in town hall for this little community on Snow Memorial Highway.
I am, but I'm also talking about the man with the recognizable face behind the counter: former Brooksville police Chief Ed Tincher.
I first saw Tincher there a couple of weeks ago when I was on a bike ride and did what most motor- and muscle-powered bikers do when they see the store: stop, grab a drink and say hello.
But I also wanted to check on the mall, as you would a friend with an illness that just might be terminal.
If its owners could charge rent for the bench on the front porch or the prime conversation spot in front of the cash register, this would be a gold mine. Instead, they have to get by selling cigarettes, drinks, sandwiches and the occasional loaf of bread.
"You make your money not by dollars, but by nickels and dimes," said former business owner Carolyn Todd, who walked away from the business in late 2008 because, in the collapsing economy, she wasn't making any money at all.
Tincher and his wife, Melody, whose family has owned the property since the 1920s and started running the store in 1955, found a replacement for Todd, but he couldn't keep the doors open, either.
So the Tinchers took it over in December, Ed Tincher said, because by then he was ready.
He had left the Police Department after nearly 30 years in mid 2007, under investigation for evidence, including cash and guns, that apparently had vanished from a storage locker.
Since then, he's had time to be cleared of criminal charges; investigators found that a lot of documentation was missing, but little evidence.
He's had time to get caught up with his wife, his 12-year-old son and the long backlog of chores on their farm in Citrus County.
"Twenty-nine years worth of honey-dos is a lot of work," he said.
And he's had time, apparently, to forget his hard feelings over the negative stories I'd written over the years. Mostly. He only reluctantly agreed to be interviewed last week, saying he'd been kicked a lot "by the St. Petersburg Times, and the swelling still hasn't gone down."
As gray-haired people usually do, we first talked old times.
The murder of Russell Coats, a white teenager killed 20 years ago in a fight between two racially divided groups of kids, was a tragedy for Coats' family and the community. No disagreement there.
I always thought Tincher's department could have better controlled the drug trade that has devastated South Brooksville over the past 30 years. Tincher said his small force did what it could, considering dealers draw customers from four counties and that the kids who see this money changing hands have so few options.
"You can only tell them for so long that they can do anything they want in life before they realize they can't," he said.
Tincher called the evidence locker investigation a "witch hunt," and said that it, like several controversies during his career, was the work of political enemies. I believe he brought a lot of his problems on himself.
At this point, we're not going to resolve these differences, and the good thing is, we don't have to. Members of the public aren't entrusting him to enforce the law or with their funds, other than maybe the price of bottle of Gatorade. At 59, he doesn't have to be a cop anymore, just a neighbor and a business owner.
I remember the reaction of a columnist from our paper's Tampa bureau who covered a Ku Klux Klan rally in Brooksville after Coats' death. When she returned to the office, she seemed stunned that a police officer in such a podunk town could speak articulately about both the Klan's right to assemble and the repulsiveness of its message.
"I met your police chief," she told me, sounding amazed, "and he's not an idiot."
Not at all, as matter of fact. And my impression, when Tincher was chief, was that he could be as intimidating or as likeable as he wanted to be.
Now, "the tough guy just runs the register and does what his wife tells him," he said, and so he can just be likeable. Maybe even as likeable as the mall's most successful owner, Warren Sizemore. He was so highly regarded that he was called the "mayor of Lake Lindsey," and when the store burned down in the early 1990s, neighbors helped rebuild it.
Tincher recently corralled a customer's runaway miniature goat. He has set up a bulletin board by the counter to encourage patrons to leave their business cards, and when a regular such as Doug "Boss Man" Cole, 64 — a Harley rider from Inverness — actually fails to show up for a couple of days straight, Tincher calls to check on him.
It seems to be working. Cole calls the store "a good place to hang." As I sat in front of the store talking to him and Tincher, a steady stream of customers filed out carrying sodas and beer and enough sandwiches that the smell of cheesesteak followed them. So did a little bit of goodwill.
"Everybody who walks out that door is my friend," Tincher said.
Hard as it is to believe, he might even mean me.