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  1. Hillsborough

As Tampa Tile closes, the city loses another multi-generation family business

Jerry DiFabrizio, the owner of Tampa Tile, is closing the family business after nearly 66 years on Columbus Drive. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Jerry DiFabrizio, the owner of Tampa Tile, is closing the family business after nearly 66 years on Columbus Drive. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Jul. 17, 2019

After nearly 66 years of distributing wall and floor coverings, Tampa Tile will close on Friday.

Third generation owner Jerry DiFabrizio, 64, doesn't want to shutter the family business that has stood at 2910 W. Columbus Dr. in West Tampa since 1953. But he says he has no choice.

"I have tried everything," DiFabrizio said. "I can't compete with big box stores."

Admittedly, DiFabrizio said he is not sure if the area will feel the architectural loss.

The artists and small factories from around the world where he purchased handmade tiles for distribution, primarily for home use, once made his store unique.

"Now, someone can make something new and a week later, it's replicated by everyone else," DiFabrizio said. "It's all digital. I don't think it's the same quality, but do people care?"

Still, he said, there is one thing chains cannot replicate — those stories of the local family businesses that tell Tampa's tale.

It's not just homogenization of the tile industry that DiFabrizio fears.

He also worries the city's culture is being sterilized as family businesses close.

READ MORE: Founding family sells Ybor's La Tropicana cafe, but business continues as usual

Even Frank F. Garcia, second-generation owner of Gulf Tile that opened in 1960, laments the loss of a longtime competitor.

"Tampa Tile represents Tampa history," Garcia, 64, said. "You hate to lose that. We've always respected each other because we have similar stories."

READ MORE: Internet buying is killing the malls, reminding some shoppers that malls killed the downtowns

Garcia's father, Frank L. Garcia, was born in Tampa to immigrant parents from Sicily and Spain who worked in the Ybor City cigar factories. Frank L. Garcia produced his own cigar brand before getting into the tile distribution business.

Tampa Tile was founded by DiFabrizio's grandfather, Domenic DiFabrizio, who came to the United States from Penne, Italy at the age of 16.

"He had a third-grade education," DiFabrizio said. "He started as a laborer in the laundries of Philadelphia and then the coal mines of West Virginia."

From there it was on to Chicago where he installed terrazzo flooring. That work brought him to Tampa in the 1920s, DiFabrizio said. His grandfather founded Dixie Tile with four partners but would later start Tampa Tile so that there was a family business to pass down.

"The location back then was the outskirts of town," DiFabrizio said. "Next door was a city dump and north of here was mostly dairy."

By the early 1960s, Tampa Tile employed over 100, including a full-time mechanic to tend to a fleet of trucks that delivered tiles to customers.

They used to install the tile too. But DiFabrizio's father Ernest DiFabrizio phased that out in the early 1980s to focus solely on distribution.

"It was a business decision," DiFabrizio said. "We wanted the big contractors to buy from us, but they wouldn't if we were also competing with them."

DiFabrizio took over Tampa Tile in the early 1990s, but he started working for the company when he was a child.

"I literally grew up in the tile business," he said. "I appreciate the product. For some people, it tends to be about floor covering and wall covering. I look at it as an art."

The company, which in its final months employed nine, recently sold its last two trucks. The remaining tile will be sold by appointment only.

Architectural historian Del Acosta said enough small local companies provide handmade tile that he doesn't think Tampa's Latin style that is linked to decorative floor coverings will take a huge hit.

But he agrees that the loss of another multi-generational family business impacts the local culture as the city modernizes.

"You never want to lose those historic links," Acosta said. "But I guess that is the nature of the way everything is going."

DiFabrizio lamented that Ybor City's Design Interiors, a 76-year-old family-owned business, is also closing this summer. That store's founder, Belarmino Cadrecha, came to Tampa from Spain in 1914 with a sixth-grade education and later started the company by selling furniture to cigar workers.

READ MORE: Design Interiors, launched to sell used furniture to Ybor cigar workers, closing after 76 years

"It's sad," DiFabrizio said. But he wonders if others care.

"Perhaps I don't know what customers want," DiFabrizio said. "Perhaps I don't understand this generation."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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