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Rooms go south of border

The first time Ron and Dorothy Herbinger walked into their house in Tampa Shores, they nearly shouted, "We'll take it!"

It's hard to imagine now, but the walls were covered in flocked wallpaper, and wrought iron festooned much of the interior.

What caught their eye, though, was the view: a straight shot down the Imperial Key canal, a long, dreamy stretch of water flanked by boats.

They decorated the house with the furniture and accessories that have since become their passion and business, Southwestern Accents.

Both avid travelers to Mexico (Ron works as a part-time airline reservations agent), they started their Southwest collection with a Talivera pottery frog that now hangs on the front of the house.

"Everyone loved the frog, which we bought from a vendor on the side of the road in Mexico," Dorothy recalls. "I thought, Well, I can get more where that came from."

Their interest in collecting soon blossomed into a booth at the Oldsmar Flea market. Dorothy had earned a master's degree in business at the University of Tampa, after years of working in management for electric companies.

"My goal was to get the degree before I was 50 and by the millennium," she says.

She did, earning her way through UT full time as a graduate assistant. After a few years working for an Internet company on Harbour Island, she decided to try her hand at her own business.

"I thought: It's time. It's time because I've always worked for other people," she recalls.

Their stint at the flea market was successful, even in a "down market," Ron says, so they decided to take the business a step further. They opened their store on Feb. 2 on U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs. They chose the location because it was the site of another family-run Southwestern store for more than a decade. The Herbingers draw more than half their customers from Ruskin, Lutz, Odessa and Brandon.

It's clear they love what they sell: the leather urns, the 1,000-year-old pottery shards, the 5-by-7-foot swath of cowhide (with the brand still showing) that they toss over the sofa as a throw. They sell antler chandeliers, decorative ladders, paintings, fountains, linens and tribal-silk rugs. Customers with equal zest for the Southwest come to the store to buy the rustic items that mix well with antiques, like the Herbingers' big, Civil War-era chairs in their living room. Many have cabins in the mountains of North Carolina. A customer building a house in New Mexico ordered a massive, 8-foot-tall entertainment center made of mesquite, wormwood and pine and outfitted with old church doors.

"Most people are looking for something besides tropical," Dorothy says. "This is a very warm look, a very grounded look."

The Herbingers don't have children, so they devote their attentions to two shy, pudgy cats, Simba and Pandora, a long-haired breed known as "rag dolls."

The couple sipped hazelnut coffee one morning last week in their den with its view of the screened porch filled with wicker rocking chairs and then the postcard view of water. Outside, winds from Hurricane Ivan stirred the water and rustled the leaves. From where they sat, they could see Ron's award-winning rose bushes, more than 100 in the front yard and back.

"We're known in the neighborhood as the rose house," says Ron, a past American Rose Society judge. "It started with six bushes and ended up taking over the house."

Ron, who started growing roses seven years ago after joining the Tampa Rose Society, has since won armloads of awards, delicate crystal vases and trophies that they display in their den.

Outside, he shaped one of the tiers in his stepped terrace into the shape of Florida. He also carves totems into palm tree stumps.

The Herbingers, who moved to Florida in the 1980s from Allentown, Pa., admit they're now true Floridians. They own two canoes and love to boat and fish, something they haven't gotten to do much of lately because Dorothy works 12-hour days in the store.

"It's just us; we don't have any employees yet," she says. "But we're the only Southwestern store around, so we do well."