TAMPA — Have you seen Walton Mathews' gray jacket?
He left it hanging over a chair last week when he closed up Earl's Garden Shop, at 4938 West Shore Blvd.
Mathews took over the business his father, Earl Mathews, started in South Tampa 66 years ago. The small store isn't making Mathews rich, he said, but he and his father, who died last February, enjoy the work.
But when Mathews came to work on Jan. 31, he found he had been robbed.
Gone were the Adirondack table and bench that sat in front of the store.
Also gone: a $50 Mexican Talavera pot and a $59 metal two-tier plant stand.
Apparently, someone placed a wooden rack from the next-door store against the south side of his chain-link fence, climbed over and picked through his inventory.
They chose two hibiscus plants, a tray of ivy he had gotten that day, 10 coleus and 10 hanging baskets of geraniums in full lush blooms of mostly red. They also took a single bag of $7 fertilizer.
In total, Mathews said the value was about $600.
He filed a report with Tampa police and an officer came out to document the missing items. According to his report, nothing was found to dust for fingerprints. The case was cold.
"If new evidence comes in, we will absolutely look more into the case," said officer Kristin S. Hassid. "Without video, DNA or other substantial evidence, it is nearly impossible to make an arrest."
Mathews figures the thief must have come in a truck and stayed a long time. He wonders if the person owns a landscaping business, or plans to sell them at a flea market.
He's been watching craigslist.org and telling his customers.
"I've been talking to anyone who will listen," he said. "I don't want to make too big a deal about it. I know people go through worse."
Mathews' father opened his first garden shop on Dale Mabry Highway with a partner in 1947 — more than three decades before the first Home Depot.
Like his father, Mathews' work is about service.
This week, he advised a customer: "It likes to be in the sun at least four hours a day. Water it every day, on the soil, not the plant itself."
He examined a leaf and fruit under his magnifying glass that a woman brought from her troubled tangerine tree. Mathews spends half his days doing house calls for the plants he sells, analyzing soil and instructing customers, like his father had.
"Dad never made a lot of money," he said. "He just knew so many people and he was just a super nice guy. Now I hear customers ask: Do you know as much as your dad? Noooo, and I hear them also thinking, 'and you're not as nice as your dad and you're not as funny as your dad.' "
Mathews laughed. "He was just an awesome guy."
In 1952, Earl Mathews moved to Manhattan Avenue and opened Earl's Garden Shop. The shop was there 52 years before moving just south of Gandy Boulevard on Pearl Avenue. After about 8 years, Walton Mathews moved to West Shore Boulevard in October.
About 20 or 30 years ago, back when Earl's shop had no back fence at all, it was burglarized one night. Perhaps someone felt guilty; the plants were returned the next day.
Walton Mathews realizes those days are gone. He had already set an appointment to have an alarm system installed two days before the theft.
As he trimmed his rose bushes, he stuck thorny clippings along the top of the fence.
He's thinking about adding barbed wire.
"It's been kind of emotional more than the money thing," he said. "I just felt secure here. It's made me feel less."
For days after, he looked for things to find them missing. Like his gray sweat jacket.
It was a cool night before the burglary when Mathews left at 7 p.m., tossing the jacket before he left.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.