Hometown News Stand and Cigar Shop used to be the place where University of South Florida students got their news from back home.
The shop, a staple of a neighborhood near Fletcher Avenue and 15th Street, assembled newspapers and other publications from all major cities in the United States.
"Nobody carried the amount that we did," said Frank Russo, owner for more than 30 years. "At the beginning there was no competition."
When giants like Barnes & Noble and Borders cut into his business, Russo fended them off by offering more obscure publications.
Now, with a lagging economy and unbeatable competition from the Internet, Russo is closing the shop that has been his life's work for 36 years.
"I didn't think I'd be in it this long," he said.
A fourth-generation Tampa native, Russo got a job at the newsstand when his cousin opened it in 1974. Russo was 17 then. A few years later, he took over as the owner.
They aimed for the college kids, knowing that out-of-state USF students might want to read about what was going on at home.
The game changed when supermarkets and drug stores began selling newspapers and magazines, and bookstore giants did the same.
"We really had to be on our game to compete with those guys," Russo said. "We were able to wage a good battle and still win."
After a time, the big stores became his biggest advertisers, he said, when they began referring customers looking for hard-to-find titles to Hometown News Stand.
He also sold cigars.
Russo's personal connections with the family of Arturo Fuente, one of Tampa's famous cigar barons, allowed him to build a selection of Fuente cigars — still the most popular at the shop — and other hard-to-find tobacco products. He started with five brands and eventually grew the selection to over 200.
Russo became known for going out of his way to find the rarest comic books for kids or the finest cigars for eager customers. He always thanked his customers and he always meant it, he said.
Customers from all walks of life came to know Russo.
Men lined up in the parking lot when Playboy and Penthouse magazines provided models for autograph sessions.
Students from USF worked at the store. Some former employees have called in recent days, upset to hear that the business is closing.
As Russo tended to the last of his merchandise Wednesday, Deputy Chris Grecco of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office stopped by to help pack boxes and load a pickup truck. Grecco told of the newsstand's reputation as a friendly place for law enforcement.
"Tons of deputies used to come here," he said. "In the days before cell phones, your senior officers would take you to the mom-and-pop businesses to use the phone or use the bathroom or get a glass of water."
Retired deputies were known to gather at Russo's newsstand to chat about the day's news and politics, Grecco said.
Russo is struggling to find a way to replace the living he has made for so long. He has applied for jobs in public relations and retail management. But a lot has changed in 36 years.
Applying for a job recently, he was stunned when the young interviewer asked why he was wearing a suit. Russo knew then that the job wasn't for him. "It's a different world," he said. "I don't think it's going to be an easy thing."
Dan Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3321.