In the more than 90 years since Largo's downtown feed and garden supply store became the hub of a rural community, the business has changed with the landscape and the needs of its customers.
Horse feed, liniments, supplements, clippers, buckets and tack are still in demand, but the inventory now includes foods, toys, leashes, houses and a host of other supplies for pet dogs, cats, exotic birds, rabbits, snakes, turtles, fish, iguanas, chinchillas and ferrets. The most expensive item in Largo Feed and Pet Store is a $450 bird cage.
The store's 3,500-square-foot showroom was expanded several months ago to accommodate the increase in pet-related sales. At the same time, the exterior of the two-story building at 210 West Bay Drive was improved with fresh stucco and paint, new lighting and signs and awnings in the hunter green of the city's downtown rejuvenation project.
Plants and planters still have to be added to the storefront, said Tony Gentile, who owns the business with his wife, Mary Jane, and son Adam. The price tag for the expansion and renovation was $100,000.
The store's large business customers include Sunken Gardens and the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, as well as farms keeping a variety of animals that range from cows to llamas.
"We can feed everything from aardvarks to zebras," Tony Gentile said.
Evie Wolfe, who opened Silver Stirrup horse farm last year in Pinellas Park, said she buys horse feed, rolled oats and bran from Largo Feed.
"They bring it out, back up the truck to the shed and stack everything nice and neat and leave the bill," she said. "If the feed is sour, as that occasionally happens, they replace it promptly from the Park Feed store, no questions asked. I'm extremely pleased with their service."
The Gentiles also own Park Feed Store in an old free-standing building at 5775 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park, and son Brad operates it.
Tony Gentile said the Largo operation sells a lot of hay, "more hay than I want _ mainly for horses, but also to construction companies for road projects, churches for nativity scenes at Christmas and at Halloween. Halloween is crazy."
"We sell a truckload a month of food for caged birds," Gentile said. "We sell a trailer load (550 bales) of timothy-alfalfa hay a month from Michigan and Canada and 200 bales a week of coastal Bermuda hay from the Lake City area in North Florida. During Halloween, we sell 500 bales a week."
The Halloween spike is attributed to hay being used in outdoor displays.
Justin McQueen, who is a vice president of the business and has worked 12 years at the Largo store, said the employees have dogs, cats, horses and birds and have used most of the products the store sells. It's a hands-on business when it comes to customers, he said.
"When a customer comes in with a problem, say a dog with a skin allergy, we suggest a specific product and explain how to use it," McQueen said.
The business still sells garden and yard fertilizers and insecticides and also offers low-cost pet vaccinations twice a month from a traveling veterinary clinic, which gives rabies shots for $5 and issues county licenses, McQueen said.
Gentile said the business became mainly a pet foods and supplies store when it moved from its original location about a block east of the current store. "We made the pet business a big thing when we moved here," he said.
When the Gentile family bought the Largo Feed Store business in 1984 for $250,000 and then the historic building a couple of years later for $125,000, they knew the building and the business would eventually have to move to make way for the widening of West Bay Drive and Missouri Avenue. The building was 3 feet from West Bay Drive and its side bore marks where vehicles heading west had sideswiped it. The CSX railroad track also was just a few feet from the building, and passing cars rattled the building, which wasn't air-conditioned.
The move came in 1992.
The circa 1910-1912 building made of sand block and heart-pine flooring was moved east to nearby Largo Central Park. It was later restored and is now used for meetings. The Gentiles bought the two-story building for $245,000 located about a block west from the original store. The building required a lot of remodeling. "We poured enough concrete to raise the floor 8 inches," he said. The total cost of the project was $140,000.
Local historians claim the community's feed supply business began operating in 1902 or 1903 where the original building was constructed, which would make it the oldest continuously operating business in the city.
Owner Tony Gentile pushes a cartload of horse feed to a delivery truck at the loading dock. "We have just about every kind of feed and pet food there is," he said.
James Thorn picks out a trap at the Largo Feed and Pet Store. "I'm getting it to try and catch whatever is crawling around in my garage," he said. The store's most expensive item is a $450 bird cage.
and Pet Store
210 West Bay Drive, Largo
+ Retailer of all-natural specialty foods and supplies for dogs, cats, birds, exotic animals, livestock and horses, as well as garden fertilizers and insecticides.
+ Five full-time employees
+ "I came here originally because it was the only place you could get cracked corn and bird feed in large quantities to feed birds and squirrels. I kept buying more and more things for my cats and dogs because they kept getting more and more things. The other nice thing is they put (the heavy bags and cartons) in the car for you."
_ Lesley Collins of Largo, a nine-year customer.