DOWNTOWN — Father Andrew Reitz isn't a typical small-business man.
The pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church is more interested in souls than in sales. He's more likely seen wearing the brown full-length robe of his Franciscan habit than a golf shirt emblazoned with a company insignia.
But for the third time in his 38 years as a priest, Reitz is launching a business affiliated with his parish. The Sacred Heart Gift and Book Store opened this week at 507 N Florida Ave.
"I have no idea how I got into all this except somebody needed to do it," Reitz said of his three parish stores.
Previously, in New Jersey and Rhode Island, Reitz said people opened up about their lives while browsing for books on grieving or some aspect of their faith.
"I'd even hear an occasional confession in the back of the store," he said.
Workers have remodeled the 887-square-foot former florist shop next to Sacred Heart with new floor tile, dropped ceilings, fresh beige paint, new shelving and display cases.
Volunteers will staff the store, which is scheduled to operate from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, for about an hour before the 5:30 p.m. Mass on Saturday, and from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
Reitz came to Tampa four years ago when the Franciscans replaced the Jesuit order, which had overseen the landmark downtown church for 100 years. Next year, Sacred Heart will celebrate its 150th anniversary as the first Catholic parish in southwest Florida.
A commemorative anniversary Christmas ornament is part of the seasonal merchandise Reitz hopes will attract customers in coming months. Other items will include rosaries, crucifixes, medallions of the saints, stoneware and garden statuary.
Customers will find 200 titles including Bibles, biographies of St. Francis, children's books and seasonal guides. Magazines such as National Catholic Reporter, America, U.S. Catholic and Commonweal may be stocked eventually.
Also, Reitz said, he is exploring whether to sell jellies and preserves produced by Trappist monks and a line of fair-trade products such as coffees and teas.
Prices will range from about 75 cents to $100, he said.
Frank Murphy, spokesman for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, said parishes are free to undertake such ventures on their own, though the Sacred Heart venture is higher profile than most. "It's pretty uncommon to have a storefront like that," he said.
Churches typically sell books and religious items from racks or out of a cabinet, Murphy said, perhaps filling a table during a coffee social after Mass.
In Tampa, independent Catholic book and gift shops have had mixed success.
Saint Thomas Café — formerly Just for Heaven's Sake — closed in January after 13 years at 4135 Henderson Blvd.
Owner Darlene Yetta told City Times that she couldn't compete against big box chains and online retailers, especially during the slumping economy.
But in the Wellswood neighborhood, St. Anthony Catholic Gift Shop at 4415 Wishart Blvd. is nearing its 20th anniversary in February.
"Everybody knows I'm here, so they do come from different areas of the city," owner Sylvia Sierra said. "I think there is room for everybody."
How big is the market? The St. Petersburg Diocese estimates there are 425,000 Catholics within its five-county region, or about 15 percent of the population.
Gail Lewis, a Sacred Heart volunteer with 30 years of retail management experience, thinks the new store will fill a void left by the closing of Saint Thomas Café.
The church's downtown location, she said, should attract tourists and other foot traffic, similar to the scene at the well-known St. Louis Cathedral gift shop in New Orleans' French Quarter.
"We have more square feet and display area (than the New Orleans shop), so our customers can really take their time and browse," Lewis said. "It is going to be a neat little niche in downtown Tampa."
Sacred Heart has signed an 18-month lease, and any profits that aren't rolled back into the store will be used by the parish for other ministries.
"The first thing we have to do is to pay our bills," Reitz said.
Mark Holan can be reached at email@example.com.