It had only been one week since Erika Strahle had made the journey from MacDill Air Force Base to Tampa Bay's only all-anime store, but she had to come back.
"I'm so glad you held it for us," said Strahle, 22, who moved to Tampa from Seattle two months ago with her husband, David, an airman. "We just have to have it."
Booby Koonce, owner of Anime Fix in St. Petersburg, pulled a box off the wall behind the counter and opened it to reveal a finely crafted music box with a 10 inch figure of The Baron, a cat-headed character wearing a white suite from the 1995 Studio Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart, written by Hayao Miziyaki.
"Ghibli pieccs are rare," Koonce said. "Whenever I order a case or set, they'll send me half. They are so well made they'll always be in high demand."
He'd only had The Baron for two weeks before the Strahle's found his store at 6185 N Central Ave. That's mostly how his business works, he said.
"We have people who come specifically to this store to shop. They seek us out on the Internet or hear about us at conventions," Koonce, 38, of St. Petersburg said.
The far-western Central Avenue location is a matter of convenience for Koonce, who is legally blind and needs to walk or bike on sidewalks to work. Every day he opens at noon with Melvin, his trusted Chihuahua/weiner dog mix (Chiweenie!), who lies in front of the door and greets customers. When he decided to open an anime-only shop eight years ago, a realtor pointed him toward a space on Central because it would be easy to find — even if it wasn't particularly prone to foot traffic.
"They told me that I didn't want a mall location because my customer base is so specific, the rent would be too high," he explained. "Now we get people on the way to and from the beach who see us and stop by."
Every square inch of wall space in his small shop is covered in books, DVDs, figurines and model kits with prices ranging from the $3 gashapon ball figures to gigantic $400 gundam model kits.
Koonce tries to the run the gamut, watching tons of new anime to keep up with what will be on trend so he can keep his store in stock. His clients could buy their collectibles on the internet, but often the picture doesn't really do something justice.
"You have no idea what the real difference in the level of detail and craftsmanship is between and 8-inch and 10 inch model of something," Koonce said. "I order them and sometimes even I am impressed by the difference."
Smaller trinkets from trendy shows are Koonce's biggest seller, and his most loyal customer base may be shocking.
"The girls are just better. Sorry guys," Koonce laughed. "Guys will come in and look at pieces but won't buy because they are afraid of what other people will say about the anime figure on his desk or something. Girls come in, see a pretty boy they like, and say, 'I want him.'"
Shoujo (girl's) anime characters have prominent places around the store, but they haven't replaced the old standards just yet. Naruto, One Piece and even Pokemon merchandise is always on hand.
Koonce said he's stocking fewer books and DVDs than he ever has, due to the change in consumption with his customer base. Even he streams series online through apps like Crunchyroll — which he believes will make DVD box sets obsolete. "The future is in the merchandise, the figures and other things because no one reads books or watches the DVDs anymore," he said. Books and DVDs take up only a quarter of the wall space, leaving room for items that move quickly.
"Right now, it's all about Free! and Attack on Titan," he said. "Who knows what it will be next month, but right now the interest is high with these shows."
Still, fandom is cyclical and animes that were popular in the late '90s are making their way back to the fore.
Before the Strahles left the store, Erika made sure to pick out all five Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Sailor Scout gashapon balls to add their haul. "I saw these online and I need to have them," she laughed as she fished through a bag to make sure she got one of each. In Japan, she could have just gone to a vending machine, but most people in America have to wait for a convention and pay an inflated price.
"There is definitely a customer base here," Koonce said. "Paying $35 to get into a con means you won't have any money to spend once you get inside. We are here for them."