Anyone who traveled to or in Florida during the days before Interstates turned the trip into a vista of advertising, all-purpose fuel stops, McKingBurger joints and outlet stores, will remember the shell shops. They were a fixture along the major highways, especially US 1 (otherwise known as Dixie Highway), US 27 and US 19, the eastern, central and west coast routes to the tourist traps of Central and South Florida.
This was back in the days before Walt had despoiled Anaheim, let alone Orlando, which was a sleepy little town of about 10,000 bucolic souls that centered its interests on citrus and cattle, not rodents. However, not to be outdone by the southern beaches and resorts, the small towns and cities along the highways — including Orlando — set out their own devices to capture the dollars of their willing tourist accomplices. “Keep Florida Green” was what it said on the signs, but Bring Money was the unspoken addendum. There were Silver Springs, Parrot Jungle, Cypress Gardens, Monkey Jungle, Gatorland….. We could increase the list ad infinitum.
The shell shops, some of the more benign repositories for the tourist gold, at least gave you something for your money that was pretty and wouldn’t offend the sensibilities of people with a smidgen of taste, if you avoided the owls, turtles and representations of saints and other religious motifs. The shops offered a broad selection of seashells from the corners of the world, in good condition, and with a great deal less effort that it would have taken to amass such a collection by doing any actual beachcombing, especially if you had to go to Thailand to do it.
That was then. Today the traffic is on the Interstate, the Sunshine State Parkway and Alligator Alley, and the mom and pop stores are languishing. Shell shops are a practically unknown species, having been replaced by the one-size-fits all purveyors of Chinese-made gew-gaws that now pass for the Florida souvenir (a Quebecois word meaning “bring me something from Florida”).
But wait! What’s that on the east side of US 1, there in Delray Beach? Is it? Could it be? Indeed, it is a remnant of that once omnipresent species, and — although for sale — it’s open!
Michele and I went in to have a look and cop some product for one of her craft projects. I, of course, had my trusty K10D, and here are my results — photos of a vanishing Florida icon: The Mom and Pop Shell Shop. (If, BTW, any of these look fuzzy, I was shooting without flash to preserve the atmosphere. The Pentax’s shake suppression is good, but I shake better.)
The proprietor and I had a chat. He has been in business at this same location in Palm Beach County since well before I moved here in 1962.
Here we have the requisite case of shell jewelery.
This case holds the valuable stuff: Chambered Nautilus, polished Abalone, and other pricey items likely to be broken or ripped off.
More common, sturdier examples are stored in gallon pickle jars.
Disney characters hanging from the ceiling — symbolic, ya think?
My Shel, in shell shock.
I forget what these are called, but they dye up a nice pink, and probably click together pleasantly in a breeze.
An actual herd of turtles
No — I mean NO — Florida roadside shop would be complete without at least one gator head for sale. The things hanging below are small shark jaws, complete with a compliment of tiny, razor-sharp teeth. (If you ever handle one of these, do not run your finger over the teeth — not even lightly. You have been warned.)
At least one…
…often belies the product.
Sputnik urchins (no kidding)
Tiny detailed works of art they are.
The old building is made of “Dade County Pine,” an expression used for boards from any old-growth pine trees. It was once the preferred building material for homes and their supporting structures in South Florida, which explains why there are no old-growth pines left. The wood is so laden with pitch that it is literally termite-proof. The downside (besides the rape of the environment, an old Florida tradition) is that it burns like a match head.
Well, you have to have something for the folks with more refined taste.
I mentioned shell owls with a snark earlier…
…but these guys are adorable! Doesn’t the one on the right look like Maxine?
Interior of a Queen Conch
No shell shop would be complete without post cards to send “back home.”
This guy’s still got poodle stains on his teeth.
And of course…
I wholeheartedly recommend this emporium to my faithful readers. Not that the two of you will make much difference to its eventual demise, but it’s located on US 1 about three miles south of Boynton Beach Boulevard, on the east side of the road and just south of Sande’s Restaurant.