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Book 'Vintage Tampa Signs and Scenes' born of forgotten '50s photos

TAMPA — He loves the din of chrome diners, the growl of hot rods and the crinoline of poodle skirts. His favorite TV show is Happy Days.

John V. Cinchett is fascinated by the 1950s, the years when his father was busy supplying neon signs to a growing, bustling Tampa.

In time, Cinchett's passion for the 1950s and his love of commercial neon art would collide. He spent years compiling and organizing rare photos of Tampa from that era. The photos were the genesis for a book, Vintage Tampa Signs and Scenes, which debuted this month.

Cinchett's collection, one local expert said, provides a unique glimpse of Tampa because it picks up where other historic photo collections leave off.

The book is about family history as much as civic history. Cinchett never knew his grandfather but was able to gain a sense of his life through the photos.

"This has been such a joy for me," Cinchett said. "I have discovered so many treasures."

The book's 200 photos reveal the Tampa that was — a thriving commercial center as well as a place where teens slipped into sinkholes for a quick dip, chatted at drive-ins and monkeyed with muscle cars.

A lot of Cinchett's book focuses on the era's neon signs: princess-cut diamonds for a jewelry shop, a curvy sombrero for a Mexican restaurant, a hanger and a clock for a Florida Avenue dry cleaner.

That's because the company his grandfather started in 1948 molded the glowing glass tubes for many Tampa hot spots. Cinchett's mother, Delia, was the family shutterbug, snapping shots of the company's work and the surrounding cityscape. Those photos are the bedrock of Cinchett's book.

When Cinchett came across these images, he didn't imagine they'd be published.

"I never really knew what to do with them," he said. "I never knew what the right direction would be."

Hidden treasures

His path to becoming an author was accidental. He works in financial services and plays the church organ, and had never written anything for print. He stumbled upon the photos in an unassuming, paint-splattered storeroom of the shop.

His father, John F. Cinchett, wanted to downsize operations in the late 1980s, and gave his son the task of cleaning and organizing. An employee, Cinchett said, was about to junk a dusty box of old magazines. Then he saw an antique snapshot's brittle yellow corner poking through.

"I said, 'No, let's not throw that out yet,' " he said.

So he stored the photos at the shop again, then moved them to his mother's attic after his father's death in 1997. A few months later, a newspaper writer began periodically asking Cinchett for historic Tampa photos. This prompted Cinchett, 42, to organize the photos. He also had them cleaned and restored, removing the accumulated paint spots, mold and mildew. Some $1,000 later, the photos were preserved.

An aha moment

It wasn't until Cinchett saw a book of Tampa photos from Arcadia Publishing, the same company that ended up printing his book, that he knew what to do. Cinchett was able to select his favorite photos and a lightweight book format that Tampa's elderly community could easily read.

"I thought, 'That would be the perfect format for my collection,' " he said.

Arcadia agreed, finding the images' quality and Cinchett's attitude refreshing, said Luke Cunningham, an editor for the South Carolina publisher.

"We were just really impressed with what he had," he said. "It really wasn't about him or writing a book per se. He was more interested in the memories he was going to re-create for the people who'd read the book."

Similar collections just can't be found in local libraries, said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the new Tampa Bay History Center.

"The neighborhood that his pictures cover and the subjects that his pictures cover are really great, and some of them are really one-of-a-kind pictures," he said. "The pictures that are in John's book come kind of after those big photography firms had already closed."

For Cinchett, the end of the yearlong process doesn't just conclude a crash course in interviewing, researching and fact checking — he verified buildings' addresses and chatted with locals to write photo captions and chapter introductions. Instead, it begins a tradition with a new generation of Tampa residents.

"It's about sharing the memories," he said. "I wish I would have had more room."

Victoria Bekiempis can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or vbekiempis@sptimes.com.

Book 'Vintage Tampa Signs and Scenes' born of forgotten '50s photos 02/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 12, 2009 3:30am]
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