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Tampa’s Sunshine State Garage, operated by one family for 73 years, is closing

The Castellano family ran the auto body repair business in Palmetto Beach.
 
Sam Castellano, 83, at Sunshine State Garage, 407 N. 22nd St. After more than 70 years of business, the Castellano family is closing their Sunshine State Garage body shop.
Sam Castellano, 83, at Sunshine State Garage, 407 N. 22nd St. After more than 70 years of business, the Castellano family is closing their Sunshine State Garage body shop. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 14, 2020
A look inside the Sunshine State Garage body shop at 407 N. 22nd St, in Tampa.
A look inside the Sunshine State Garage body shop at 407 N. 22nd St, in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

TAMPA — The 73-year-old story of Palmetto Beach’s Sunshine State Garage begins with stubby thumbs.

The late Leo Castellano expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and roll cigars, but his thumbs made that a skill too difficult to perform.

“They were just too stubby,” son Sam Castellano said. “He had to find a new trade.”

That new trade, auto body repair, allowed him to open Sunshine State Garage in 1947.

More than seven decades later, the story of that body shop ends with a back — 83-year-old Sam Castellano’s bad one.

“I’m very fortunate that I had real good years of labor,” he said “But, it produced some problems with my back in the process.”

So Castellano, the second-generation owner of the family business, will close the body shop at 407 N. 22nd St. by next month.

“Yeah, I will miss it,” Castellano said. “But it was time.”

Sam Castellano, 83, in his office along with pictures of his parents Mary and Leo Castellano, both deceased, at Sunshine State Garage, 407 N. 22nd St,  in Tampa.
Sam Castellano, 83, in his office along with pictures of his parents Mary and Leo Castellano, both deceased, at Sunshine State Garage, 407 N. 22nd St, in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

After a career in the cigar industry didn’t pan out, Castellano’s father delivered ice and worked as a laborer at a dairy.

“He was a hard worker who grew up in the Great Depression,” Castellano said. “He did what was needed.”

The owner of an auto body shop on Albany Avenue recognized that work ethic and offered to train Castellano’s father. He worked there for a “for a bit,” Castellano said, “and then got a job with Ferman Chevrolet where he stayed for 14 years until he started his own business.”

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When it first opened in 1947, Sunshine State Garage was located on Nebraska Avenue between Palm and Ross avenues, Castellano said.

Castellano worked in the garage the day it opened. Just 10 at the time, his father started him sweeping floors and, over the years, taught him the trade.

By 1949, according to newspaper advertisements published in the Tampa Tribune, the garage had moved to the corner of Madison and 13th streets.

Advertisements then place them at their current location in the Palmetto Beach neighborhood on the outskirts of Ybor City by 1953. Around six years later, Castellano said, he took over the family business.

A newspaper advertisement for Sunshine State Garage that ran in the Tampa Tribune throughout the 1950s.
A newspaper advertisement for Sunshine State Garage that ran in the Tampa Tribune throughout the 1950s. [ Times (1954) ]

Sunshine State Garage was nearly a victim of Interstate 4 expansion in 2006, according to news archives. But the state’s historic preservationists declared that “the business is really an anchor in the community” and decided to build around it.

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The business has transformed over the years due to new technology, Castellano said, but that was easy to keep up with. The most difficult change to overcome has been that the shop used to rebuild total wrecks for customers. Today, people buy another car instead.

“The economics of the auto body repair business have changed,” he said, and that added to his decision to close the shop. The negative economic impact of the pandemic also was a factor, but “just a small one,” Castellano said.

The tow lot company that he owns on that property will remain open, day-to-day operations taken over by another businessman, Dennis Creech.

Creech also owns Sunstate Wrecker Services, the tow lot on N. Florida Avenue with a basketball court-sized piece sitting on top of Zion Cemetery, the erased all-Black segregation era burial ground that archaeologists recently discovered was not moved when the land was developed from 1929 through 1950s.

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Creech said this business decision has nothing to do with him eventually losing the cemetery portion of his land when it becomes part of a larger memorial park.

“It was just time to expand,” he said.

And Creech has no desire to change the Sunshine State Garage name on the 22nd Street tow lot.

“It’s what people know,” he said. “Why change it?”

Castellano is proud that the name will live on and hopes the legacy does, too.

“It is a legacy of sweat equity, being self-sufficient, he said, “and being part of a hardworking class.

A picture from the early 1970s that hangs on the wall inside the office at the Sunshine State Garage body shop at 407 N. 22nd St. in Tampa.
A picture from the early 1970s that hangs on the wall inside the office at the Sunshine State Garage body shop at 407 N. 22nd St. in Tampa. [ CASTELLANO FAMILY ]