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Store grows up with community

Annabelle's, a tiny, family-owned antiques store, evolves over a quarter of a century into a large retail business.

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 27, 2002

ODESSA -- Before there was Cheval, before there was Keystone Shores, before there were Van Dyke Farms, the Eagles and StillWater, there was Annabelle's.

The home furnishings store shares space with a Feed Depot and a convenience center in a highly nondescript Odessa strip center.

It's the location that Annabelle and Jack Johns chose nearly 25 years ago when they began selling antiques to the handful of locals and South Tampa folks who spent weekends and summers in nearby vacation homes. The store's reputation spread, and soon antiques enthusiasts came from as far as Lakeland and Sarasota.

Back then, says Annabelle, "A blind man could have walked across Gunn Highway and been safe."

Times have changed.

Busy intersections and crosswalks now line Gunn Highway, and multimillion-dollar lakefront mansions and tony gated communities fill Odessa.

Annabelle's has grown just as exponentially.

The store evolved from its original 1,600 square feet to 17,000, not including a warehouse on State Road 54. Annabelle's stopped selling antiques: It was difficult to find quality furniture, and the refinishing business came with environmental perils.

Today, mid- to high-end furnishings from such famous makers as Maitland-Smith, Leathercraft, Habersham, French Heritage, Councill, Custom Craft and Lexington Home Brands fill the showroom.

Hot sellers are the West Indies styles by Bauer International and Lexington's Tommy Bahama line, introduced in April 2001.

"It's traditional in style, so I think it's going to have some longevity," Annabelle predicts of the look.

Jack died three years ago, but Annabelle's remains a family affair. Two of Annabelle's three sons and all three of her daughters-in-law work with her. Jeff Johns serves as the company's CEO, and his wife, Sherri, is sales manager. Tim Johns and his wife, Christine, run the warehouse and handle delivery and repairs. Daughter-in-law Nora manages the office.

Although prices can go as high as $12,000 for a Councill bedroom suite, selections, including those among the clearance merchandise, accommodate a variety of household incomes.

"If you want a sofa that's under $1,000 we can do it," Sherri says.

Clients range from young, single women who agonize over the cost of two chairs to professional football players who walk in and buy everything they like. Working within budgets, though, is always important.

"Even people with tons of money shop price," Sherri says.

Customers may call on the expertise of one of the eight members of Annabelle's interior design team when furnishing their homes.

"Someone can come in and buy one piece of furniture or we can take the house from the ground up," Annabelle says.

Designers assist with selection of everything from floor coverings and paint colors to counter tops, crown molding and tile. The store's color room holds choices of carpet, tile, wood, granite, marble and other building materials. Fabric samples from Ralph Lauren, Lady Ann, Kasmir, Robert Allen and others cram a storefront adjacent to the Annabelle's showroom.

Cecilia and Carlos Hernandez, who moved into their Odessa home three weeks ago, relied on the wisdom of senior staff member Connie Klein even before Costanza Home pounded the first nail into the frame of the four-bedroom residence.

"She has the knowledge of Einstein," Hernandez says of Klein. "She has my house beautiful. I call her my angel."

Klein helped choose every piece of furniture, lighting, glass, granite and even the pavers of the driveway that leads to the 3,100-square-foot house. Klein helped furnish the theater room and suggested that Hernandez put a mural in the domed ceiling of the family room. She accompanied Hernandez on a shopping expedition to find bedding that will be used temporarily while Hernandez trains her three cats to stay off the furniture.

Hernandez says she first walked through the doors of Annabelle's two years ago at the urging of a cousin.

"She said, 'You've got to see this place.' As soon as I walked in I knew that was it," Hernandez says. "I always said if I built a house I would buy all my furniture there."

The process was "fun and expensive," Hernandez says, but she loves her home.

When designing a home, Klein says she considers every aspect of a customer's life to come up with a unique look.

"A designer's relationship with a client has to be almost intimate," Klein says. "It's their home, and the closest thing to their heart, that you're invading."

Katherine Park invited Annabelle and members of her staff to work their magic on four different homes. Most recently, interior designer Bridget Robb helped Park blend her household with that of her husband, whom Park married in July. Robb helped choose wallpaper and drapes and fabric for reupholstering antiques, many of which Park originally purchased from Annabelle many years ago.

"Some people are just born with outstanding taste, and Annabelle was. She knows how to pick and select," Park says. "She's gone out of her way to be good to me, and that's why I keep going back to her."

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