Store provides an escape to the past

Published May 25, 2007

Some saw an old West Tampa boarding house for cigar factory workers that had fallen into disrepair.

Some saw a building that once housed one of Tampa's more notorious bars.

Some saw an aging monstrosity destined for demolition.

Some didn't see it all because they were too busy whizzing down Howard Avenue just north of Interstate 275 to recognize the building.

Barbara Baker, however, saw a place where she could live a dream and reconnect with her rural Ohio roots.

After a $1.25-million reclamation effort, Baker & Co. serves as a general store and antiques emporium, but those words cannot fully capture the wonder of the facility. Only Doc Brown's nuclear-powered DeLorean can do a better job of taking folks back in time.

Inside the 10, 000-square-foot, 100-year-old building, you can saddle up to an old-fashioned ice cream bar, snuggle in a 1925 stadium seat from Wrigley Field, marvel at a 60-year-old vintage baby doll or study a Life magazine cover featuring Lyndon Baines Johnson. You can see a photo of Webb City, a birdhouse from Rock City and a double-breasted coat circa 1860.

Sprinkle in novelty items, pet supplies, old-fashioned toys and retro candy such as Mary Janes, and you begin to understand why Baker bills her store as a tourist destination.

"People come in here, and it's escapism, " Baker said. "There is not one person who can walk in here and not find something they relate to and feel good about it. I think a lot of them go back to emotions that maybe have been hidden for a while.

"I have people come in here and cry, I have people who give me hugs, I have people who can't wait to call someone, or they call someone and say, 'You've got to get over here and see this.' "

More than 5, 000 people have found their way to Baker & Co. since it opened in October. Baker's database includes customers from as far as Orlando, and she says she routinely draws folks from Brandon, St. Petersburg and South Tampa.

Yes, people are venturing north of Kennedy to experience the store, and it's not just to search for antiques. Baker has played host to a variety of events including weddings, concerts, family reunions and Victorian teas. With three decades of experience running her own promotions company, Baker says there is no theme she can't create.

The question is: Why has Baker chosen to breathe life into this West Tampa location once known as the Gold Nugget Bar? In a word: community.

The store embodies the traditional values Baker knew as a child in rural Ohio. Back then, the town store brought the entire community together, and her current store fulfills a similar role.

She also is driven by her desire to be part of West Tampa's revitalization. Most of all, Baker revels over the reaction of her customers.

"People come back five and six times, " Baker said. "It's like therapy. There's a good energy about this building."

And Baker is the generator.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or 813 226-3406.

If you go

Baker & Co.

2502 N Howard Ave.

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Monday.