CLEARWATER — Inside the Berry Beautiful Salon and Spa on Court Street, there are lots of things designed to relax and soothe. There are tasteful, low-lit, wood-paneled rooms stocked with massage tables and lotions and creams.
But outside, the spa has a provocative sign that's been ruffling some feathers. In red letters facing the busy street, the sign reads, Notice: This is one of the only spas in downtown Clearwater not owned by a Scientologist.
The salon's owner, Travis Wilkinson, says he's not trying to offend anybody: "I'm not trying to start a fight. I'm just trying to protect my business."
After being open at his current location for nearly a year, Wilkinson began to suspect that many potential customers were avoiding his establishment because they assumed he's a Scientologist, since he's close to downtown Clearwater where the Church of Scientology has its worldwide spiritual headquarters. Many of the surrounding salons are owned by Scientologists.
That's why Wilkinson, a Southern Baptist and conservative Republican, decided to put up the sign a couple of months ago. He says business is up since then.
Now, he's encouraging other local businesses to follow his example and post signs of their own.
However, some Clearwater business officials aren't fans of the sign.
"I don't think, in this day and age, that this type of comment is appropriate," said Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce. "It really doesn't serve the business community well. The Church of Scientology is not going to go away. The community has made great strides in trying to coexist on a very professional basis with the church."
A local spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, Pat Harney, said, "We appreciate the fact that the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce finds the sign inappropriate, as do other downtown business owners."
Wilkinson says he's been getting supportive emails from around the globe since the story of his sign first made the news.
Wilkinson used to have his business in Largo. After he moved to the current location on Court Street near Missouri Avenue, he said he noticed a problem with a book he was offering for sale. It's a book his uncle wrote called Diabetics Handbook, with a bright orange cover. But according to Wilkinson, some customers thought it said Dianetics Handbook, referring to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's theories.
"People would see that and actually turn around and start to walk out. It occurred to me that it was really hurting our business," Wilkinson said. "I just want to make a statement of fact. I'm just telling people we're not Scientologists."
Wilkinson, who also works as an accountant for small businesses, has launched a website for a group he calls the Clearwater Small Business Coalition. He claims to have 18 interested businesses so far, and when the group has 30, they'll all post similar signs. "We'll have strength in numbers," he said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.