Traveling circuses in the parking lot. Zany flash sales and 25 cent haircuts. A cave filled with talking mermaids.
All were common sights at Webb’s City, “the World’s Most Unusual Drug Store.” For more than 50 years, the St. Petersburg shopping center and tourist trap lived up to that reputation.
Webb’s City was famous for strange promotional stunts and ridiculously low prices. It was also the nation’s first one-stop retail destination, according to Times archives. The massive store once had 77 departments that spanned 10 city blocks.
In its glory days, Webb’s City made $22 million a year and pulled in 60,000 visitors every single day. To put that in perspective, that’s a little less than the roughly 65,000 seats in Raymond James Stadium and a little more than the nearly 58,000 folks who live in Sarasota.
So what happened to Webb’s?
On the 40th anniversary of the store’s final day, let’s take a look back at Webb’s City’s delights and demise.
Tennessee-born James Earl “Doc” Webb came to Florida in the 1920s. Doc was by no means a medical doctor, having dropped out of school when he was 9 years old, but did make a name for himself peddling products that offered miracle cures.
During the Florida land boom in 1925, Doc bought a small drug store on the corner of Ninth Street and Second Avenue S. in St. Petersburg. When the boom collapsed, Doc still managed to draw in crowds by bringing down his prices.
By the time the Depression hit, Doc was set on expanding. His original 17-by-28-foot space quickly grew into a sprawling mass that swallowed up all of Second to Fourth Avenues South, between Seventh and 10th streets.
The store had blossomed to 85,000 square feet by 1951, positioned just east of where Tropicana Field stands today. The retail behemoth was so popular that a traffic officer was hired to monitor the 2,000 parking spots spread across the store’s nine lots.
Doc pulled all kinds of promotional stunts, from shooting a family out of a cannon in the parking lot to bringing in trained chimpanzees.
At Webb’s City, ducks played baseball and bunnies kissed. A dancing chicken — yes, a real bird, not an animatronic creature or stuffed animal — performed a jig for just 10 cents a dance. Mannequins dressed like mermaids were another crowd pleaser, voiced by hidden employees who chatted with customers through a microphone.
Maybe it was these gags, or maybe it was all of the signs that peppered the roads. In a time before Disney World, when St. Petersburg was still sleepy, Webb’s City drew tens of thousands of tourists.
The low prices and variety lured in the locals. Sure, shoppers could fill their prescriptions at Doc’s Original Drugstore. But they could also enjoy a mile-high cone at the ice cream shop, get their tires changed at the auto service station, pick up a bouquet at the florist, or shop for just about any item. Furniture City alone spanned seven floors.
There was cough syrup, surgical equipment and fertilizer. Groceries, including Webb’s ground coffee, meat and fresh produce. Clothing and towels and bedsheets. Even Christmas trees.
All of it was sold at low prices. Doc priced his items just underneath those of his competitors, even when they begged him to stop. His favorite saying, after all, was "stack it high and sell it cheap.”
In a flash sale, New Zealand steak went for 37 cents a pound. Webb’s City barbers offered haircuts for 25 cents. A whole breakfast plate was just two cents.
One of Doc’s most famous acts was selling dollar bills for 95 cents each and then buying them back the next day for $1.35. He did it again later, but dropped the price of a dollar to 89 cents.
Then there were Topsy Turvy Days.
“Imagine walking into your local Wal-Mart and finding a special on underwear right next to the Brussels sprouts," wrote St. Petersburg Times reporter Holly Atkins in 2002. "A little, uh, weird? Well, this is what happened on Topsy Turvy Days at Webb’s City. Customers came to expect 5-foot, 5-inch Doc Webb to jump suddenly on a counter and announce that bed sheets were now on sale for the low, low price of $2.69 — at the soda fountain.”
Even a behemoth like Webb’s City was no match for the rise of shopping malls. As shopping habits changed and theme parks popped up throughout central Florida, tourist traps and roadside attractions began to wither.
The store stopped being profitable in 1973. The next year, Doc sold his stock to Texas-based Mermaid, Inc.
Over the next five years, execs tried to save the store. The Economic Development Administration loaned $1.1 million to it in 1977, but it wasn’t enough. Bankruptcy filings soon followed.
Finally on August 18, 1979, the main Webb’s City store in downtown St. Pete closed its doors to shoppers for the last time. The other nearby offshoots — including a trading post, a gas station and an optical center — also closed after that.
The actual demolition of the main store didn’t happen for another five years. The iconic Webb’s City mermaid sign stayed up until workers peeled it away, piece by piece, in January 1984. Shortly after that, the building was torn down.
Doc wasn’t around to see the last piece of his empire crumble. He died in 1982 at age 85.
According to Times archives, he is buried in an unmarked grave in Royal Palm Cemetery. In May 2019, the St. Petersburg City Council rejected efforts to make his former house a historic landmark, which would have saved it from being sold to developers.
Webb’s City left its mark on the retail world. According to lostparks.com, Doc’s son claimed that the store was the birthplace of the Express Check-Out Line. It also predated modern one-stop shopping stores that are popular today.
St. Petersburg hasn’t completely forgotten the kooky store. The former Webb’s nursery location at Ninth Street S. and Third Avenue bears the name Webb’s Plaza.
There’s also Webb’s City: The Musical, a show written to celebrate Doc’s spirit. After premiering in 2000, the show has been performed sporadically in the years since.
Those feeling nostalgic can pour one out for Doc at Webb’s City Cellar. Green Bench Brewing Co. opened this tasting room and barrel aging facility next to its original location at 1133 Baum Ave. N. earlier this year.
The tasting room is filled with subtle details that nod to the original store. Green Bench consulted with the St. Petersburg Museum of History and acquired a few pieces of Webb’s memorabilia, like the sign depicting a strong man carrying a globe. Visitors even place their ciders on coasters advertising “the world’s most unusual cellar.”
There’s no mermaid cave or battles over two-cent cucumbers in St. Petersburg anymore. Still, it’s nice to know you can find pieces of the past.
Have memories of Webb’s City? Want to know about another icon from Tampa Bay history? Let us know in the comments.
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which was compiled using Times archives.