TAMPA — Not many retailers can profit from a niche market associated with pillaging, drinking rum and wearing an eye patch.
Unless they're in Tampa.
Pirate fever runs high year-round with the Buccaneers but spikes this time of year for Gasparilla, Tampa's biggest party and the namesake for races, art shows and other events.
Several merchants, from T-shirt printers to clothing boutiques and costume stores, have made a business selling Gasparilla goods. And interest continues to grow as retailers look for ways to get more gold in a lackluster economy.
Tiger Lee recently opened Pirate Fashions on Kennedy Boulevard, a high-end shop for pirate apparel, much of it handmade. Lee ran a store in St. Augustine for three years but outgrew the space and decided to relocate to Tampa, a hub for pirate lore.
"There's no real pirate history, but as far as modern pirate culture goes, this is its epicenter,'' he said. "There's more excitement here than anywhere.''
The shop, at 1711 W Kennedy Blvd., sells Johnny Depp-like outfits, custom pirate hats, nonfiring pistols and swords, which aren't recommended on Gasparilla day. Apparel ranges from a $150 "starter'' outfit to a $2,000 Captain Morgan suit. Lee leaves beads and plastic accessories to the party stores such as the Bead Barn in Palma Ceia, a staple among Gasparilla krewes.
Lee, who dresses like a pirate at the store and is writing a book on the subject, caters to members of local krewes as well as those looking to impress on Gasparilla. About half of his business, he says, comes from online sales.
Richard Moore is another Gasparilla entrepreneur. The longtime Tampa resident saw huge potential when he approached organizers of this year's pirate fest about producing and selling pirate-related shirts, hats and other merchandises.
"It's not just one event. Pirate stuff is what the town is about,'' said Moore, president of Encore Select Inc., which manufacturers and markets sports merchandise. "Gasparilla is about our history and our roots.''
For the first time, Moore has partnered with EventFest, organizer of the Gasparilla pirate invasion and adult and children's parade, to produce official Gasparilla merchandise. Based in the West Shore District, his company has created about 50 different items from shirts and tote bags to koozies and sweatshirts — because it's often cold around Gasparilla.
Much of it will have the Gasparilla Pirate Fest logo, but not the year to avoid becoming outdated. The company has produced about 10,000 items, including "My first Gasparilla'' shirts and beanies. Most T-shirts cost $18 to $20.
The merchandise will be sold along the parade routes for the Children's Gasparilla Extravaganza on Jan. 19 and the Gasparilla Parade of the Pirates on Jan. 26. Items are also available at several Publix, Walgreens, Target, Walmart and Sam Club's stores in Tampa and online at gasparillapirategear.com. A percentage of sales will go to Gasparilla organizers.
Moore hopes this year will lay the groundwork for expanding the Gasparilla line year-round to Tampa's airport, souvenir shops and tourist attractions such as Busch Gardens.
"We feel that it's a Tampa brand, a lifestyle,'' he said.
The pirate gear could even evolve into a store. Moore opened a temporary shop along Franklin Street in downtown Tampa selling political souvenirs during the Republican National Convention. It wasn't too profitable, he said, but it raised awareness about the company.
Why Not Boutique in South Tampa has boosted its inventory of pirate skinny jeans, jewelry and clutch purses this year to accommodate the growing demand for all things pirate. Almost every sale this week was Gasparilla-related, said employee Marissa Crumpton.
"Gasparilla is such a staple. People really get into it,'' she said. "They love dressing up for it even if it's just once a year. We had people start asking us at the end of November when are we going to get our Gasparilla stuff.''
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.