Looking Back: A Final Sale for Webb's City (Aug. 19, 1979)

Webb's City was once a retail empire that was a beacon for shoppers, but it grew old, inefficient and expensive to operate. 

Times staff
Webb's City was once a retail empire that was a beacon for shoppers, but it grew old, inefficient and expensive to operate. Times staff
Published August 24 2017
Updated August 24 2017

Mermaids, dancing chickens and more merchandise than a WalMart. Doc Webb and Webb's City was St. Petersburg's version of Walt Disney and Disneyland without the rides, but 30 years earlier. As an 8-year-old at the time of this story my only memories of the "World's Oldest Drugstore" was of old, crumbling buildings and the story my mother told me from the time she worked there. She told me that if you worked for Webb's City you HAD to buy your groceries there because ol' Doc would send spies to the other grocery stores to try and catch you in the act of high food treason. St. Pete's biggest tourist attraction closed its doors 38 years ago this week.

This story appeared in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times on Aug. 19, 1979. What follows is the text of the original story, interspersed with photos taken of Webb's City over the years by by Times staff.

Webb's City closes; only the gods cry

By Annette Drolet

Times staff writer

By 5:30 p.m. Saturday, the last shopper in the "World's Most Unusual Drug Store" had exited through the electric doors – the only one's not boarded up in the 54-year-old downtown landmark known as Webb's City.

It was a mercy closing – the end of a five-year financial skid that began when James Earl "Doc" Webb sold his stock in 1974.

TIMES | Barbara Hansen

Discounts are the order of the day at Webb's City in downtown St. Petersburg as a final stock liquidation sale continues.

TIMES | Barbara Hansen

The "World's Most Unusual Drugstore" closes its doors Friday after long and involved bankruptcy proceedings.

But there were no tolling bells, no eulogies and no flags lowered to half staff. No ceremony commemorated the closing of the four-story, downtown building, once thriving center of Doc Webb's mini-metropolis.

Instead, it rained. A downpour started just as security guard Louis Strassner, a Webb's employee for 15 years, locked one of the doors. "I never thought this would happen," he said repeatedly.

TIMES | George Trabant

Webb's City, shown in this 1977 photo, was a dominant feature of downtown St. Petersburg in its heyday.

A simple announcement over the loudspeaker made it final. "Our Webb's City store is now closed," a woman announced. "Come visit us in the Trading Post Monday at nine o'clock.

The lights in the grocery store were turned off. Customers, hunting bargains on the last day of the liquidation sale, took their time checking out. It was, after all, the last time. They were in no hurry.

Time had run out on President Herb Selak's bid for a miracle to keep the store open. It ran out just like the ice cream, the baked goods and the soda pop machine inside the store.

Outside, 74-year-old Margret Linda stood in the sprinkling rain, dejected, wondering what to do. She had come by bus to shop, she said, but had arrived too late. The store was already closed. The phones had been disconnected. She couldn't call a cab.

TIMES | Fred Victorin

"I have nothing to eat in the house. I don't know what I'm going to do," she mumbled.

Other elderly residents face the same plight, customers said minutes earlier, because Webb's was the nearest and cheapest place for the poor and elderly to shop.

"It's going to be a disaster for this area," said one woman. "The people around here have no place to go," said an employee of 11 years.

TIMES | Staff

Webb's City, pictured here in 1957, was St. Petersburg's original shopping center.

But customers weren't the only ones to lose out Saturday, said Selak, who is also chairman of the board.

About 25 people from the main building will help run the last remaining bits of the empire, which includes the Little Super, the Trading Post, the optical center and the gas station, all located nearby.

"We're going to furnish meat and produce in the Little Super" for the same price as the main store, said Selak. "We'll move over to the Trading Post tomorrow." Customers will be able to buy baked goods, mail letters, pay their utility bills and buy tobacco goods at the Trading Post, he said.

It won't be the same, not like it was in Doc Webb's heyday. Those were the days when Webb's was a bustling, $22-million-dollar-a-year business, the nation's first one-stop shopping center.

TIMES | Weaver Tripp

James Earl "Doc" Webb, Webb's City president.

TIMES | George Trabant

Webb sold his business in 1974.

"Stack it high and sell it cheap" was Doc Webb's motto. Over the years, he built his empire from a small drug store at Ninth Street and Second Avenue, opened in 1925, to a sprawling bazaar of 77 stores, covering seven city blocks.

Webb was as much a national legend as his stores. The unorthodox, merchandising medicine man always had a gimmick to lure thousands of customers through the doors.

TIMES | Fraser Hale

At ten cents a dance, no wonder the Dancing Chicken generated excitement at Webb's City in this 1975 photo.

He sold dollar bills for 89 cents and bought them back the next day for $1.35. He offered three-cent breakfasts, brought in animals that performed at the drop of a coin and mermaids who "talked." He made other merchants mad because he sold his wares below the suppliers' suggested prices.

But the business started to falter in 1973, and the stores haven't made a profit since then. Webb sold out in 1974 to Mermaid Inc. from Lubbock, Texas.

TIMES | Ricardo Ferro

St. Petersburg Times columnist Dick Bothwell once wrote, "Over these many years, the single largest attraction within Webb's City conglomerate has been the Mermaid Show -- the Real Live Mermaid Show -- the oldest practical trick in the town."

TIMES | Tony Lopez

Truth is, these were mannequins. A behind-the-scenes employee, speaking into a microphone, would patiently answer customers' questions about life as a mermaid

TIMES | Tom Wilson

The empire began to crumble and blend into a blighted downtown. Sales, profits and shoppers dwindled as shopping malls sprang up all over town.

Numerous efforts were made to resuscitate the dying store. A $1.1-million loan in 1977 from the Economic Development Administration (EDA) staved off collapse for a while. But Webb's still lost $800,000 in 1978.

The EDA refused to grant another loan request in 1978. But Webb's was granted protection from about 500 creditors under bankruptcy statutes.

"> TIMES | Fraser Hale

Workers take down the mermaid at Webb's City piece by piece in January, 1984.

"> TIMES | Fraser Hale

The main Webb's City building would be torn down two months later.

Webb's executives were given until March to come up with a reorganization plan to satisfy their creditors. But nobody would loan Selak the money to keep up with taxes, overhead and other expenses on the main building and the bordering buildings that had already closed.

On Aug. 10, Selak asked a federal bankruptcy judge to approve a plan to close the downtown building. The judge agreed. Saturday, that plan was carried out.

TIMES | Fred Victorin

The World's Most Unusual Drugstore would finally be knocked down on March 10, 1984.

TIMES | Fred Victorin

TIMES | Fred Victorin

TIMES | Fred Victorin

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Jeremy King

Twitter: @TBTimesArchive

e-mail: jking@tampabay.com