TAMPA — In 1973, a University of South Florida graduate who couldn't get a job scraped together some cash with a friend called "Fuzzy" and opened a novelty shop in a Fletcher Avenue strip mall.
Fuzzy's girlfriend named it the Wooden Nickel.
The significance of the new establishment was not lost on USF students down the road.
They no longer had to learn how to carve a Schlitz can into a bong.
With its black light posters and water beds and potpourri of paraphernalia, the Wooden Nickel became a Tampa institution.
It survived "Just Say No" and a federal raid, a gunpoint robbery and the back-to-back deaths of its two founders.
But not the economy of 2012.
By New Year's Day, the iconic head shop will close for good.
• • •
For generations of USF alumni, the Wooden Nickel served as the backdrop of some of their best stories from college.
"It had a smell," recalls 51-year-old Blake Gray, "like patchouli oil over un-dusted basement. …
"I bought music there before I knew better — Pink Floyd, Supertramp. Some real '70s crap."
As he perused the vinyls one day with his friends, a fellow customer approached him with a business proposition wrapped in aluminum foil, an ounce of what they were told was hash in exchange for $90.
"We were deer-in-the-headlights teenagers," Gray said. "We're not European. We were so excited and we got home and we smoked it and who knows what long-term damage we did to our lungs. … Later, many years later, I went to Belize on vacation and discovered it was the spice they make chicken soup with."
A decade later, in the early '90s, a young couple in the sex toy aisle argued over who would make the walk of shame to the cash register.
"You do it," she told him.
"No, you," he said.
As she darted for the naughty greeting cards, and he worked up the courage to pay, he heard someone calling his name. It was the cashier, a former roommate.
"He'll never, ever, ever forget that embarrassing moment," said 43-year-old Catherine Durkin Robinson. "Here we are 22 years later, and we're married with children."
• • •
Vincent Oliveri was good at knowing what would get people to come into his shop.
He rented out records until the record companies made him stop. Then he sold cassettes.
He made patrons sign statements they wouldn't use the store's pipes to smoke anything illegal, and when agents indicted his and other paraphernalia businesses in 1991, Oliveri told the Times, "They don't need a pipe I sell to use drugs."
Halloween costumes proved less problematic, and profits soared. Oliveri had no problem feeding the 1995 demand for generic masks that resembled O.J. Simpson.
His 22-year-old daughter, Megan Oliveri, recalls the excitement of picking out her costume every year, and having her dad come to the Great American Teach-in to put on theater makeup demonstrations for the kids.
Old Polaroid snapshots of Oliveri modeling costumes still fill catalogs in the store. Flipping through them is bittersweet. He died of cancer in 2007 at 56.
That same year, "Fuzzy" died, too. By then, the partnership had split.
In recent years, people have kept coming in to look at costumes, but just for ideas. Bigger companies with deeper pockets can rent giant, vacant stores for the season and offer more.
And now, bashful young couples can make their intimate purchases online, where they also buy their music, and their gifts, and their bongs.
Sometimes, old patrons return for nostalgia, said Megan Oliveri. "If I had a dollar for everybody who came in and said, 'I haven't been here for 20 years' …
"I think a lot of people are going to be sad that it's not going to be there anymore."
Carrie West, who later opened the MC Film Fest novelty shop in Ybor City, remembers when the Wooden Nickel was one of the first businesses willing to promote nonprofits that helped the gay community.
Rob Lorei, news and public affairs director for WMNF-FM 88.5, counts the Wooden Nickel as one of the public radio station's earliest supporters.
And Wendy Leigh, who once ran the grass roots Loft Theater upstairs from the Nickel, said Oliveri was there any time she needed a last-minute prop.
Now, the decades worth of merchandise — the Where's the Beef? button and the time-weathered mask of Ross Perot — are on sale with everything else.
Everything must go. The store management has been notified of a future tenant at the space in 1441 E Fletcher Ave.:
A Metro PCS store.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected]ampabay.com or (813) 226-3354.