CLEARWATER — Once upon a time, downtown was a place where you could get your hair cut, buy a suit, catch a movie, try on shoes, shop for toys, replace your tools, and even kick the tires on a new car.
"Everything you could think of was downtown. No matter what you were looking for, you could find it," said Lillian Trickel, owner of Trickels Jewelers.
Trickel, 91, has stayed in business downtown for an astounding 63 years, through thick and thin, prompting Clearwater officials to recently award her the key to the city.
And now that Webb's Gentleman's Clothing on Fort Harrison Avenue has shut its doors, Trickels appears to be the last of the old-time, mom-and-pop, Leave-It-to-Beaver-era stores left downtown. She's the last vestige of a bygone time when downtown was truly the center of things.
"When we started there were no malls, no Countryside, no East Clearwater," she said, sitting in her business at the corner of Cleveland Street and Myrtle Avenue. "From Myrtle to Osceola Avenue, it was all stores."
Longtime Clearwater families recall going downtown to shop at Maas Bros. department store or Wolf Brothers clothing or Peltz Shoes. They'd see a film at the Carib Theater, get a chocolate malt at Brown Brothers Dairy Store. They bought their cars at Dimmitt Chevrolet and Stone Buick. Visitors stayed at the Fort Harrison Hotel.
"The malls helped bring on the demise of downtown businesses," said former City Council member J.B. Johnson, who has frequented Trickels since the 1960s.
"Then when Scientology came into downtown, it certainly wasn't accepted by people. More businesses started closing, and a lot of them moved out to the malls."
Today, there are a lot of vacant storefronts. There are also a lot of plans to boost a declining downtown: landscaping on Cleveland Street, boat slips in the harbor, condominium towers opening up and a theater to be run by Ruth Eckerd Hall.
"Everything that's happening now has taken years and years of planning," said David Albritton, chairman of the Downtown Development Board that Trickel served on for 30 years. "A lot of the groundwork was laid by her and people like her."
These days, Trickels sells jewelry, pewter, flatware, figurines and crystal to a clientele of old Clearwater families, Scientologists and moneyed visitors from Belleair, Sand Key, Island Estates and Palm Harbor.
But the downtown business climate could be better.
"The city is trying, I think. They're putting a lot of money into it," said Trickel's daughter, Debbie King, who helps run the business. "If they fill even half these condos, that'll help."
Lillian Trickel established the business in 1945 with her late husband, William, a jeweler and watchmaker. He took a train from Philadelphia to buy a tiny Clearwater jewelry store for sale at 24 S Garden Ave.
The store grew and moved to 528 Cleveland, then 625 Cleveland. In 1979, they bought their current 7,000-square-foot building at 714 Cleveland with its own parking lot.
William Trickel died of a heart attack in 1996 at age 83.
All of those old familiar downtown stores disappeared. Another local institution, Webb's Gentleman's Clothing, recently closed after 45 years in business at its iconic pink building on Fort Harrison Avenue.
"Back when we started, there were only three stoplights in town, and they went on caution at 6:30," said the shop's owner, Kernan Webb, who has retired.
At the age of 91, Lillian Trickel perseveres. Strong-willed and feisty, she has harshly criticized the city government on occasion. Yet the key to the city is now mounted on a plaque on her wall.
She comes to work every day with her Doberman pinscher, Misty — the third Doberman in the Trickel family to bear that name.
"We came in 1945 and we're still here," Trickel said. "We've survived."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.