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Sock Monkey store stuffed with wholesome, kitschy flashbacks

By ELIZABETHE BETTENDORF, Times Staff Writer
Published August 31, 2007


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I was watching a program on TV the other night about the controversial CBS reality show Kid Nation when the host interviewed actor Christopher Knight, who played Peter Brady on my favorite childhood show, The Brady Bunch.

More interesting than the ensuing discussion were the clips of The Brady Bunch, which got me thinking of how things looked decades ago.

Coincidentally, I recently spent an afternoon checking out the very cool South Tampa store Sock Monkey Vintage and talking to the owner, Paula Smith, about the era and the decor that went with it.

Sock Monkey specializes in art, accessories, furniture and home decor from the mid 20th century. It's a crazy, wonderful place tucked into a 600-square-foot store at 4301A W El Prado Blvd.

Though Smith sells clothes and jewelry, too, it's the funky stuff for home decorating that kept me captivated.

You can't miss the store because of the two dozen or so sock monkeys perched in the front window. If you don't know what a sock monkey is, it is a stuffed toy literally made of a heavy wool sock and homemade yarn pompom. The hardscrabble toys first appeared during the Depression and then made a comeback in the 1950s in the form of do-it-yourself kits.

I spent several hours combing the store, studying the artifacts that symbolize my 1960s and '70s childhood as well as those of millions of other people.

"I remember hanging upside- down on my Heywood Wakefield bed set listening to records and sewing clothes for my troll dolls," recalls Smith, who was born in 1953 and grew up in Tampa.

Her passions run from Lucite furniture and lamps to 1950s accent furniture and Florida kitsch art of alligators and flamingos. Smith also loves old linens, from psychedelic to June Cleaver.

She collects schoolroom globes, Haeger pottery, butterfly chairs, vintage salt and pepper shakers, sleek 1960s clocks and cool Danish modern coffee tables.

Large period advertising art depicting everything from Marine World to alligators draws all kinds of customers, including some who live in downtown lofts and want to give their modern spaces appropriate panache.

Her clients, she says, span all ages, but it's mostly the nostalgic who "get it" and wander in wanting to buy.

"Recently a group of women my age came in after a wedding where they had been drinking bloody Marys," Smith recalls with a smile. "I've never had so much fun in here. They were trying on all the clothes and jewelry and taking pictures of it all."

We're nostalgic for midcentury, she says, because it was an easier time in some ways, especially for children. "I ran loose with my friends all day long, and you knew where everyone was by the sound of the screen doors slamming."

Smith, a collector herself, is married to respected Tampa artist Frazier Smith, known for his beautiful wooden quilts. .

As I lingered over a Little Kiddles miniature doll case similar to one I once owned and marveled at a giclee of John F. Kennedy on the beach - also like one I used to own - I asked her about incorporating such items into home decor.

Her own Palma Ceia house is decorated with both a free spirit and a sparing hand, occasionally punctuated by the outrageous. To decorate with midcentury nostalgia you have to have both an eye for collecting and a sense of how to place it around the home.

So just where do you put a pair of thigh-high platform disco boots like those she has for sale?

It helps if you have a funky little house like Smith's.

"It's sleek and modern, but with wildly colored walls and ceilings and giant crown molding," she explains. "I call it 'urban beach.' I even have chrome alligators."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com

[Last modified August 30, 2007, 22:29:31]


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