Author compiles photos, stories of longtime Tampa businesses

Published July 5, 2012


In 1931, Rubel Larmon opened a furniture store in Ybor City. It's still there. In fact, his granddaughter Elizabeth Kalamaras and her husband, Jimmy, own Larmon Furniture and split their time between the original store and a second site in Town 'N Country. ¶ Steve Haubenstock is a third-generation owner of local Ethan Allen Home Interior stores. His family's roots in the business go back to the 1930s when their original store, Southern Furniture Company, opened downtown on Florida Avenue.

Stories of historic family-owned businesses such as theirs may have been lost, if not for another Tampa family by the name of Cinchett.

By the late 1940s, Frank Cinchett had moved to Tampa and begun operating a neon sign business that put dozens of signs throughout the city in lights. Over the years, they took pictures of their signs.

Today, those photos can be seen in a book by Frank's grandson John Cinchett. Vintage Tampa Storefronts and Scenes is a collection of local biographies of longtime Tampa families. It includes hundreds of black-and-white photos from the 1940s to 1960s from the Cinchett family's personal treasure trove, as well as pictures that John collected through talking with locals about their family businesses over the years.

"Thank God my mother saved these photographs," John Cinchett said. "I love my family's history and my city's history."

A large number of historical photos from the Cinchett family collection were donated to the Tampa History Center, and at least one is part of a permanent display.

Rodney Kite-Powell, a curator at the history center, said the Cinchett photos document a period of Tampa history in a way that some other collections don't.

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When he was younger, John Cinchett worked alongside his father (also named John) at Cinchett Neon Signs and got to know local business owners who frequented the shop.

Today, Cinchett, 45, lives in Brandon and works as a computer programmer. He is also an organist for St. Joseph Catholic in West Tampa and music minister for the chapel at Bay Pines VA Medical Center in Pinellas County.

He has compiled two books featuring historic Tampa photos. His latest began taking shape three years ago when the amateur historian was on tour promoting his first book, Vintage Tampa Signs and Scenes. Cinchett chatted with readers and signed copies of the tome stocked with 200 photographs of street, business, and store signs that dotted buildings and roadways throughout the city. At almost every signing, Cinchett encountered someone who was connected to the stores and businesses pictured in the book. In some cases, people left a photo behind. Others were shocked gazing at photos they had never seen.

After collecting a number of photographs and stories, Cinchett realized his next book was already in the making.

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"This whole thing has been an amazing experience for me," he said. "My inspiration for this comes from my readers."

He began researching family histories and interviewing descendants of business owners he'd met years before in the family's sign shop. Their stories became part of his latest book.

At first glance, the book's pictures pull the reader back to Tampa in its heyday after World War II through the 1960s — when much of the city's population and economy were booming.

The book features everyday scenes of Tampa life, such as shoppers crowding downtown sidewalks and business owners posing outside their buildings. Downtown Tampa, Ybor City and Seminole Heights are among the communities highlighted.

The time period when the photos were taken is as significant as the people and scenes in Cinchett's books, Kite-Powell said.

For decades prior to the war, brothers and professional commercial photographers Jean and Al Burgert took huge volumes of pictures of Tampa. But by the mid 1940s, the brothers were retired.

Cinchett's books showcase a collection that picks up where the Burgert brothers left off, Kite-Powell said.

"Over the years, we've had some interesting collections given to the history center that attempt to fill in the gap," he said. "But they're personal snapshots."

Cinchett's photos have a broader range, inviting readers along in the building of the city after the war, he said.

The family business stories are key to the story of Tampa's history. In his research, Cinchett said, he was surprised to learn that some businesses featured in his book are still in operation.

"I found out that many are owned by local families," he said. "We're talking about three to four generations."

Cinchett's work sheds light on a sliver of Tampa history that many aren't aware of or know little about — the family-owned small business and how it helped shape the city, said Jimmy Kalamaras, who is married to Rubel Larmon's granddaughter.

"That's the heart of this country," he said.

Haubenstock, whose family owns Ethan Allen Home Interior stores, said he's excited that Cinchett profiled his family and its roots in the furniture business.

"Tampa's not that old, but I'm sure there's a lot more stories to be told," he said. "(Readers) get an understanding of how far the city has come."

They also get a glimpse of what it used to be.

Cinchett said he was heartbroken to learn that many of the buildings and businesses — as well as the neon signs — in the photos are long gone.

Still, he said, the snapshots bring awareness of Tampa's history to a new generation.

Kenya Woodard can be reached at