PINELLAS PARK — Staffers at Bill Jackson Inc. meet six days a week, usually over coffee in one of four classrooms at one of the country's most famous outdoor stores.
Tuesday's meeting was like no other in the store's 67-year history. Employees learned that Bill Jackson, who with instinct and drive had launched the iconic sporting equipment store just after World War II, had died early that morning, a few weeks after suffering a fall. He was 98.
Almost from its inception, the store better known as Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure has enjoyed a reputation as a supplier of quality merchandise customers couldn't find anywhere else. In 1952, the man employees called "Mr. J" opened the inventory of the store, then located on Fourth Street S, to include scuba gear. He was the first retailer in Pinellas County and one of the first in the state to do so, according to his son Darry Jackson.
Over the decades, his supply in comfortable backpacks and spin-fishing equipment drew customers from across the country. When they arrived, customers found energetic staffers who had been there and done that.
"Mr. J would always tell us, 'People come to this store because of the people who work here,' not because of what we sell,' " said Rob Vincent, 41, a former Eagle Scout who sold camping gear at Bill Jackson's in the early 1990s and is now Gulfport's chief of police.
Other former employees include St. Petersburg dentist Randy Hedrick and Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner. The store's longtime employees include two women who previously worked in professional fields, one as an architect and another as a microbiologist, Darry Jackson said.
"He employed the very best people in their field, knowing they were going on to something else — to school, another job, even to a competitor," said chiropractor George Stovall, 69, who sold canoeing and kayaking equipment for Mr. Jackson in the 1970s. "But while we were there, we worked really hard. It made him successful and it made us successful."
Bill Jackson's has always been a family business. Sons Darry and Doug have spent their time at the store since before they could see over the cash register, and now both serve as vice presidents. Their mother, the former Harriet Rogers, married Mr. Jackson in 1946, shortly before he began selling Army surplus materials out of a garage, and has remained a vital part of the business.
"Mr. and Mrs. J are a good example of a great couple side by side," said Dee Schilling, 49, who started selling camping equipment at the store in 1997. "I enjoyed seeing their interactions together."
William Benjamin Jackson was born in Atlanta in 1915, the son of a real estate and insurance salesman. His first job was with an A&P grocery store "the day I got out of the sixth grade," Mr. Jackson once told the Times.
"I didn't learn to swim until I was 21," he said. "I worked all my life. Never had time for hunting, fishing or swimming."
He entered the Army Air Corps in 1941, and served in England and at MacDill Field in Tampa. He was promoted quickly in the 3rd Air Division and was discharged as a major, his family said.
Shortly after his marriage in December 1946, he attended an auction at MacDill and bid on surplus items, including a ton of laundry bleach and 500 pounds of rat poison.
Those items, in short supply during the war, sold well in St. Petersburg. Soon Mr. Jackson had stocked several garages all over town with other Army goods from Army blankets to bayonets, furniture and gas masks.
Now needing a place to sell the merchandise, Mr. Jackson set up shop in 1951 on Fourth Street and 11th Avenue S. The business would change and expand twice more on the same block before moving to the 9500 block of U.S. 19 N in Pinellas Park in 1968.
Shrouded in palms and palmettoes Harriet Jackson insisted on saving, the new store on 5 acres included a swimming pool big enough to teach scuba diving, canoeing and kayaking. It has only expanded since.
In an era of big-box, big-name sporting goods stores, such excesses might seem impractical. But that's what makes Bill Jackson's, well, Bill Jackson's.
"If accountants were running this store, they would say a snow ski deck and a pistol range and a swimming pool is not worth it," said Darry Jackson, 65.
At Tuesday's staff meeting, it was up to Darry to break the news that the store's patriarch had died. Employees reacted with tears and hugs.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.