Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Flora & Flipp

Riding up Fleming Street last night I saw the still empty store front of the building at 811 which has never seen a business appear after the last one closed in September 2009. The newspaper reported the guy who became famous for running aground a very large sailboat bought the store and since then nothing has happened. I miss it. It was a nice place to stop while cycling home from my job working in the sun captaining boats at the Westin (then Hyatt). I remember the owner being a really sweet woman and of course she endeared herself to me by keeping a bowl out for passing dogs, including mine when I wasn't working. There are certain experiences that embed themselves and I still think about the place as it was, when I go by and see it forlorn and empty. Especially considering how much Key West is being occupied (temporarily I hope) by vapid national chains.

From the Key West Citizen, this rather splendid article (Link) from Sunday September 13th 2009:

Neighborhood institution to close
Flora Flipp's has been a grocery store since the 1920s
Since the 1920s, people in one Old Town neighborhood have been coming to 811 Fleming St. for cold beverages, sandwiches and friendly conversation.
Some form of grocery or convenience store has existed there under various names over the years, including Flora Flipp on Fleming for the past 14 years. Now the future of the building is uncertain as its owner, 76-year-old Nancy Larsen, plans to close up shop at the end of the month.
"I felt it was time to retire," Larsen said. She bought the store in 1994 with her husband, Ron, who died in 2006.
The building, which has a one-bedroom apartment above the store, was purchased earlier this year by Peter Halmos for $545,000. Larsen said she doesn't know what he plans to do with the building. Halmos could not be reached for comment.
Larsen admits she wasn't sure about moving to Key West and becoming a business owner in 1995. She didn't even know how to use a cash register.
"Ron had been 'downsized' as they called it back then," recalled Larsen, who had taken a job selling automobiles to help support them. "He was desperate to move to Key West; I was desperate for income."
Larsen said the store was Ron's baby, and he was thrilled to be in Key West -- though she wouldn't agree to live on a boat.
The store was called Flora & Fiona's when the Larsens took over.
"I figured I would be Flora, but Ron didn't want to be Fiona," she said, laughing. So "Fiona" became "Flipp" simply because it had a nice ring to it.
Larsen said she was grateful that one of the employees agreed to stay on and show her how to work everything and make all the sandwiches on the menu.
"I walked in and said, 'I don't know how to do all this,' " Larsen said. "She said, 'Well, you own the place, so you better learn.'
"She kind of showed me the ropes here. I called the con leche machine the electric chair. I was scared of it."
Larsen and her husband ran the store side by side until he passed away three years ago.
"It made a hole in my heart and a hole in the store when he died," she said.
She has been operating the store seven days a week by herself since then.
"I think it helped me," she said. "It gave me something to do. ... My grandmother said hard work never hurt anybody."
Larsen said she likes to be busy. She shakes her head at her young friends who complain about being busy at work.
"I don't understand people today," she said chuckling.
The store is modest by all accounts and has been lovingly described as "shabby chic" by tourists who amble in for a soda, candy bar or suntan lotion, Larsen said. The building itself has been around since at least 1899, according to city maps from that year. The old-fashioned counter looks decades old, and the rows of shelves behind the register likely date to when the building housed a pharmacy in the 1940s.
"We had a very good time," Larsen said of her tenure at the store. "Everyone knows a store like this is not a big moneymaker, but we've enjoyed it very much and we've lived comfortably."
Flora & Flipp is kind of like the "Cheers" of convenience stores -- Larsen seems to know everyone's name.
It's clear after spending some time in the store that her regular customers adore her. She asks with genuine care about their children, inquires how work's going and keeps dog treats under the counter for their four-legged friends.
"It's almost like I've been adopted -- like I'm a surrogate mother," she said.
Timmy Viers, owner of Timmy Tuxedo's across the street, said he's going to be bored once the store closes. He likes to watch the people coming and going from the store from his doorway and stops in to visit with Larsen almost daily.
"I'm going to miss her, of course. And I'm really going to miss the store because it's entertaining," he said. "A real cast of characters have come through this place."
Viers remembers when the store was known as Bina's Grocery in the 1970s and '80s. In those days, shrimpers lined up outside the store to buy beer after work. Owners Albina and Jesus Romo sold cigarettes by the cigarette.
"This is a great little store," Viers said. "It's an institution."
Customer Sheila Mullins agreed. She's been coming to the store since 1976. Located just a block from her house, she said the store has been like a pantry for her over the years. She can remember running over for eggs and bread all the time. She still comes in for coffee and a newspaper most mornings.
"This is the social heart of the neighborhood," Mullins said, explaining how the store often serves as a gathering place for people to share information. "It's going to be a different neighborhood without it."
She jokingly asked Larsen whether she could come over for her famous "very cheesy" three-cheese sandwich once the store is closed.
Larsen said the best part about owning Flora & Flipp is the people she's met. Thousands of Key West travelers from all over the world have stopped in over the years, with many returning to see Larsen on subsequent visits.
One customer from Hershey, Pa., brings her a giant Hershey's Kiss each time he comes to Key West. She gets a real kick out of people coming back to see her.
"I could never go work at a computer. I think that's why I was so successful selling automobiles, because I like people -- well, most of them," she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Larsen said she plans to stick around Key West for a while to decide what's next for her. Her first priority is making a trip back to her native Minnesota to meet her first great-grandchild.
amswary@keysnews.com