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Don Barco was everybody’s best friend (or at least he made them feel that way)

At King Corona, good cigars and good conversations were easy to find
Don Barco was known as the Don of Ybor City. (Photo on the left courtesy of Richard Midulla, photo on the right, Times file)
Don Barco was known as the Don of Ybor City. (Photo on the left courtesy of Richard Midulla, photo on the right, Times file)
Published Apr. 8, 2019
Updated Apr. 8, 2019

The square table sat four, but Don Barco always made room for more chairs.

For years, for hours each day, he’d sit with customers turned brothers near the register at King Corona Cigars in Ybor City. With his back to the window, through the sweet haze of cigar smoke, they’d solve the world’s problems. Or talk politics. Or baseball. Or the Beatles. Or books.

“It became this space that doesn’t really exist in our society anymore,” said Joe Howden, Mr. Barco’s best friend.

“We would just talk sometimes for six, seven hours,” said Tony Alfonso, Mr. Barco’s best friend.

“People would just congregate around the table,” said Ali Jenzarli, Mr. Barco’s best friend.

“He made that business not just a place to go buy cigars and have a drink,” said Richard Midulla, Mr. Barco’s brother-in-law and best friend. “It was a place for guys like me and Ali and Tony to hang out.”

People returned again and again to King Corona Cigars. And, for a lot of them, Mr. Barco was the reason.

He died on March 25 of complications from multiple health issues. He was 68.

Don Barco and Brenda Garcia Barco. If he was the heart of King Corona Cigars, she was the head. (Photo courtesy Richard Midulla)

For a white guy from Ruskin, Mr. Barco spoke pretty good Spanish.

“Don’s Spanish was better than my Spanish,” said Alfonso, a commercial real estate agent and retired airline pilot, “and I was born in Cuba.”

Mr. Barco learned it in Ybor City as a young man, working with his wife, Brenda Garcia Barco, and her family at Tampa Rico Cigars. In 1998, the couple opened King Corona on 7th Avenue at the site of the old Raul Vega dress shop.

Howden first came in as a customer, then designed cigar labels and art work for Mr. Barco. Over the years, there was a barber shop in the back, a hardware store, a cafe. And always, conversation.

Joe Howden, Don Barco and Ali Jenzarli around the table at King Corona. “He never annoyed me, which is really kind of remarkable when I think about it,” Howden said. (Photo courtesy Joe Howden)

The core group at the table fluctuated. It included the late Fred Punzo, a University of Tampa professor and worldwide spider expert, and more recently, Arizona Jenkins, an advocate and activist for disability rights.

They laughed and sparred and shared. Now and then, privately, Mr. Barco spoke of his late son, Jerry, and the trip they’d taken to New York City, where they listened to jazz at the Blue Note and visited John Lennon’s memorial at Strawberry Fields.

“We both really liked the Beatles,” Alfonso said. “There were days where he would play nothing but Beatles music inside the cafe, and we would sing along to every song.”

The Barcos - Jerry, Brenda, Don and Samantha. (Photo courtesy Richard Midulla)

Mr. Barco was the face of King Corona, “the floor guy that hugged people and shook hands and listened to them or entertained them or let them entertain him,” said Jenzarli, a professor at the University of Tampa, “but Brenda was the books and the operations.”

Mario Núñez knew Mr. Barco for six years and recognized in him someone who embraced and embodied what it meant to be a Tampeño.

“He bridged the gap between then and now,” said Núñez, host of The Tampa Natives Show. “He knew Ybor City history, and since he was so well-read, he could see a little bit around the next corner.”

That meant the power brokers made their way to King Corona, too. Mr. Barco served on the Ybor Chamber and the Merchants Guild. His was the first business in Ybor City to add wi-fi.

Mario Núñez and Don Barco at King Corona Cigars in Ybor City. (Photo courtesy Sally Núñez and Kimberly DeFalco)

Mr. Barco sat around that table, with Howden, Alfonso, Núñez, Midulla, Jenzarli and anyone else who pushed up a chair, until 2017, when the Barcos retired and sold King Corona. On the day of Mr. Barco’s death, many regulars returned, this time to talk about the Don of Ybor City.

“There was a reason there was only one TV screen when he owned it, back in the far corner,” Núñez said. “The place was a place to come in and have an exchange of ideas the old-fashioned way, belly-to-belly, eyeball-to-eyeball, have a cafe con leche or an ice cold beer, and talk the way people are supposed to do, not yelling at a screen.

“He orchestrated that.”

Joe Howden created a diorama at King Corona Cigars. It’s still there. (Image courtesy Joe Howden)

A celebration of Don Barco’s life will take place at 6 p.m. Monday, April 8, at King Corona Cigars.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Want to know more about Don Barco? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem and see one way he’ll be remembered. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at epilogue@tampabay.com.

Read recent Epilogues:

Brady’s Backyard BBQ owner loved a good time

Catholic nun found her calling in the classroom and left lasting impression

Owner of China City restaurant savored good food and big family


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