VINTAGE ST. PETE is a series focused on our city’s illustrious (and occasionally notorious) past. Many of these features have appeared in the Catalyst over the past 2 1/2 years, and new stories (like this one) will be added as time goes on.
From the corner of Rui Farias’ office, Doc Webb is always watching.
Farias, director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History, considers Webb – the founder, president, chairman and namesake of Webb’s City, the massive retail center that dominated downtown for over half a century – a pivotal figure in local history.
The black and white cardboard standup that leans ever-present in the corner is just shy of life-sized. Webb was a wiry 5-foot-5, weighing 130 pounds, always immaculate in a white linen suit and shined-up white shoes.
He built and ruled an empire that came to cover 10 city blocks. Between the four-story main building on 9th Street and 2nd Avenue South, and the ancillary shops, Webb’s City at its zenith included 77 different departments.
It was, at least until the advent of the neighborhood shopping center in the late 1950s, and the suburban mall tsunami of the ‘70s, the center of the St. Petersburg retail universe.
Webb’s City virtually invented “one-stop shopping.”
Webb’s City sold groceries, clothing, shoes, pharmaceuticals, auto parts (and even automobiles), housewares, furniture, toys, records, carpeting, sporting goods, garden supplies and pretty much anything else you might be looking for (except liquor, which Webb chose to discontinue after the first few years). There were restaurants and there were snack bars, a bakery, a barber shop and a beauty salon.
The eye of the hurricane, James Earl “Doc” Webb, arrived from his native Tennessee with an elementary school education, $5,000 saved up, a satchel full of energy and some very big dreams. It was 1926, just before the Florida land boom went bust. And the wet, black blanket that was the Great Depression.
“He was one of those guys that people told ‘It will never work, you can’t do this’ and that just fueled his fire,” observes Rui Farias. “He did it anyway.”
Webb, Farias explains, was part smart businessman and part carnival barker. His motto – well, one of his mottos – was “Stack ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap,” and because he bought produce and product in bulk, he was able to do both. Which probably explains how Webb’s Cut-Rate Drugs, as it was known until 1946 – was able to not only survive but thrive during the Depression.
“He came at a time when the city was exploding with growth,” says Farias, “when every schemer in America came to Florida trying to make a buck or two. He didn’t just come down here and say ‘Let me sell you some swampland.’ He used crazy promotional antics, but he was here for the long run. He actually used it to help build the city. He didn’t just promote his store; he promoted the city.”
Billboards on US 301, US 19 and US 41 advertised “The World’s Most Unusual Drug Store,” for hundreds of miles in every direction. Webb’s advertising included five consecutive full pages in each Sunday’s edition of the St. Petersburg Times. He brought singers and circus acts in to do shows in the parking lot, and constructed an outdoor amphitheater on the roof. The Arthur Murray Dance Studio rehearsed and performed in the “Roof Garden.” Webb himself was known to croon there on occasion.
By promoting Webb’s City, Webb was promoting St. Petersburg.
He is credited with the nation’s first “express line,” for 10 items or less, and with installing the first escalators on Florida’s west coast.
It was said – by Webb himself – that Webb’s City sold 80,000 pounds of sugar and 22,500 cans of soup in a single day, and 40,000 pounds of fresh meats and 3,600 pounds of cheese in an eight-hour period. Webb claimed to sell an average of 16,000 packs of cigarettes a day.
Then there were the zany promotions. He sold dollar bills for 95 cents. Breakfast (one egg, two strips of bacon, three slices of toast, grits and ham gravy) cost three cents. Two barely-dressed young ladies lounged in a bathtub full of bubbles, on the sales floor, as Webb shilled for a brand of “sweet-smelling soap.” He and his senior staff dressed in hillbilly garb to stage a little skit in which Webb, because of his low, low prices, was sent packing, back to Tennessee. He sold “Florida Sunshine in a Can,” and folks bought it. His “Poster Girls,” beautiful young women in bathing suits, accompanied him on promotional rounds. That got people’s attention.
Fortune Magazine profiled Webb in 1948, under the headline The $12,000,000 Drug Store! In addition to buying in bulk directly from manufacturers, Webb’s success was attributed to taking advantage of the proffered two percent discount by always paying in cash, turning over inventory quickly (thereby avoiding cost markdowns necessitated by an overstuffed warehouse) and keeping the overhead low (Webb himself did not have an office, but stayed on his feet all day, every day).
About 10 years ago, I tried to do it all myself and found it utterly impossible – it nearly killed me. Now, we have managers who are responsible for the operation of the 59 separate stores in Webb’s City … An executive’s first function of importance, I feel, is trouble shooting. I expedite. Rather than president, I regard myself as chief executive. I think an executive has to know a little bit of everything in regard to the operation of a store.
In 1926 our store was 15 feet wide and 20 feet long, and the gross sales were $38,000. In 1956, our gross sales were $25 million. Our growth averages 10 to 15 percent a year, far above the national average. Our cash registers ring up 150,000 sales daily.
J.E. “Doc” Webb/St. Petersburg Times, June 16, 1957
In that same issue of the Times, Webb’s five pages of ads included this (sic):
Being Advertising Director for Webb’s City I Probably Deserve More Sympathy Than a Guy With Two Fractured Legs. The Other Day When Things Were Fairly Routine I Had a Warning Call From Mr. Johnson, Our Vice President, Saying Doc Was On the Move Again And Was On His Way To The Advertising Department. Again, I Said. That’s a Crock. I’ve Never In Twenty Two Years Seen That Guy Without That Moving and Remodeling Glare in His Eye. All He’s Done Lately Is Tear Down 38 Houses To Make Parking Places For 350 More Cars, Moved the Nursery, Remodeled Plant City, Put in New Bird And Rare Animal Cages, Finished A New Florist Shop, Enlarged And Remodeled The Music Store, Completely Remodeled The Downstairs Cafeteria And Installed New Tile and Rest Washrooms, Remodeled And Expanded The Retail Meat Section Of The Super Market … Doc Bounded Into The Advertising Department. He Had Passed Up The Elevators He Was In Such A Hurry. “Get Your Pencil And Paper” He Yelped. “I’ve Got It.” I Didn’t Know What He Had But I Knew It Wasn’t Going to Be Good For Me.
Webb’s City was slightly south of downtown proper, in an area of the city with a predominantly Black, and poor, population. Webb had done this intentionally, because the land was cheap, and those 38 houses he bought and razed for his parking lot were “slum shacks with outside toilets,” he told the Evening Independent in 1972.
Webb had a handshake relationship with St. Petersburg’s African American population. Blacks were welcomed in Webb’s City – green was the only color he really saw – but as with so many other white-owned businesses of the mid 20th century, there were restrictions on where “they” could shop.
“We were not allowed to eat in Webb’s City at the counter and restaurant,” customer Doreen Baker recalled in the PBS documentary Remembering Webb’s City. “They had two water fountains, and one was labeled ‘colored only,’ the other ‘whites only.’”
Although nearly 10 percent of Webb’s 1,700 employees were Black, in 1960 the NAACP picketed inside the store, insisting that the number was disproportionate to the number of Black customers. A lunch counter sit-in took place on Dec. 2.
I don’t understand why this group picks on us. In my opinion we have been among their very best friends in the entire country and I make no apologies for any treatment of the Negro race … I have always appreciated their patronage and have given them the same service I have given to all. We have kept competition keen for them and know that we have saved them many thousands of dollars … We have thousands of Negro customers and friends throughout the county.
J.E. “Doc” Webb/St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 3, 1960
In 1962, 17 St. Petersburg stores, including Webb’s City, lifted all restrictions on lunch counter service. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against people because of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
“It wasn’t just a store.” When Rui Farias gets talking about Webb’s City, he is testifying. “You could go there and spend hours and hours. As a kid, I lived four or five blocks from Webb’s City. It was like your playground. I would beg to get my hair cut every week so I could get a free ice cream cone. They had a floor of tourist tchotchkes – shrunken heads and coconuts, and all kinds of weird things made out of shells.
“The fourth floor was the toy department – it was a gigantic toy department, like a kid’s dream. You used to be able to test-drive the toys. See what they were and play with them. Then you could buy them and take them home.”
The fourth floor was also where the coin-operated “cool” stuff was – the baseball-playing ducks, the kissing rabbits, the duck that banged out “Sweet Georgia Brown” on a toy piano, and the chicken that danced (according to legend, the bird was standing unceremoniously on a hotplate, which switched on when the customer’s dime dropped).
And the mermaid cave, with mannequin mermaids (whose apparel, over the years, got scantier, as per Webb’s orders). A store employee would innocently ask a visiting child his or her name, and within seconds the “mermaid” was instigating a conversation with the wide-eyed youngster: “Hello, Debbie. How are you today? Have you ever met a mermaid?”
Rui Farias grew up in the late ‘60s and remembers it all like it was yesterday. Webb’s City was already a little long in the tooth – fraying around the edges – but in his mind’s eye, it was magical, “like going to an amusement park, without the animals or the rides,” he says.
“Two of my cousins and my brother worked at Webb’s City growing up. I used to hang out with the mermaid on Saturday mornings, behind the magic glass, while she talked to people.
“I would just pedal on my bike over to Webb’s City. My mom would say, just be home for dinner. Nobody even thought twice about that. I don’t think we even locked our bikes.”
The city’s westward expansion, into the suburbs, began to make downtown – and shopping in the old spots – obsolete. By the dawn of the 1970s Eckerd Drugs, J.M. Fields, Zayres and Woolco were seriously eating into Webb’s City business. More and more, the aging giant was catering to elderly customers, the faithful holdovers from an earlier time and those living on fixed incomes, and the residents of south St. Pete neighborhoods.
The Department of Health, meanwhile, cited Webb’s City for numerous violations.
In 1972 Webb bought and refurbished an enormous building at the intersection of 66th Street and Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park. “Webb’s Big Super” performed well at first, but in the end it could not compete with the big-box stores that were cropping up on every other suburban street corner. The location was shuttered after just four years.
Doc Webb had retired in 1974, stepping down as president and selling his shares in the company he’d built from scratch. Devastated by the death of his beloved wife Aretta, dismayed at the inevitable decline of his empire, and freshly diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, he gave it all up at the age of 74.
With downtown in an economic tailspin, Webb’s City failed under its new management. Times ads blared Webb’s City Needs Cash – Entire Stock ½ Price!, and the final sale of sales took place on Aug. 18, 1979.
Doc Webb was 85 years old when he died in 1982. The building at 9th Street and 2nd Avenue South, empty and decrepit, was demolished two years later.
Rui Farias teaches Florida History at St. Petersburg High School. His students, he says, love to hear him talk about Doc Webb and the “City” that bore his name. They look at him in disbelief and hang on his every word.
“Now, anything’s available to them,” Farias explains. “You can go to Publix in the middle of winter and get watermelon, from Chile or somewhere.
“I remember when it was a big deal when it was watermelon season, and the trucks would come in and unload thousands of watermelons in the parking lot at Webb’s City. And there would be lines of people waiting, because it was the first watermelon of the season. Or when the Georgia peaches came in, by the trainload.”