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    Shops are up antique lovers' alley

    For those who can find it, a tucked-away collection of stores offers an eclectic sampling of items from times gone by.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


    BELLEAIR BLUFFS -- Sue Bauer walked about the narrow corridors of the small shop with the look of a big game hunter.

    She spied the items in the glass chest.

    Nice, but not exactly what she was looking for.

    She moved to the front counter.

    Ah, an ivory sewing piece and a pin cushion made in the mid 19th century. Just what she wanted.

    After settling up with shop owner Sue Tiffon, it was on to the next shop. Bauer bounced next door to Collum Antiques.

    "I always enjoy coming here," said Bauer, who lives near Lake Erie in western New York. "I love it."

    This is Antique Alley, an eclectic smorgasbord of 18 specialty shops inside four one-story buildings. It is considered the largest grouping of its kind in Pinellas County. Antique Alley also is thought to be the oldest cluster of antiques shops in the county.

    But blink and you might miss it.

    On a narrow street a few blocks north of West Bay Drive, off Indian Rocks Road, Antique Alley actually is just that -- an alley.

    "People are always saying we never knew it was here," said Jami Wood, owner of Catique's, a shop that specializes in antiques and other items for cat lovers.

    Today, the alley will be on full display as vendors host the first of their two yearly shows. In addition to the 18 shops in the alley, an additional 50 outdoor antiques dealers will be on hand. Thousands of shoppers are expected, converging on a city with a population of 2,200.

    "It's just wall-to-wall people," said Bauer, who has come to a few shows. "It's crazy."

    Antique aficionados know Antique Alley very well. Many say it is the only place in Pinellas to find true antiques: century-old items as opposed to pieces made in the 1950s.

    "It's one of the few places you can go any more that has antiques," said Elizabeth Reid of Seminole, who owns a booth at rival Park Street Antique Center in St. Petersburg. "It's different because there are dealers that have real antiques."

    Although Antique Alley is known for items like Victorian-era shelves or large, mahogany furniture made in the 1920s, some merchants sell gifts such as a fireplace mantel made of old coffee tables.

    "We're all kind of unique," said Sherlie Kittelson, owner of Sherlie's Stuff. "You've got new and old. It's just a nicer blend of shops."

    The evolution of Antique Alley began in 1980 with Tiffon's shop, the Posh Pineapple.

    "Twenty-two years," said Tiffon, thinking about how long she has been in business. "That sounds awful."

    Tiffon, who lives in Belleair, noticed a vacant building near Indian Rocks Road and decided to open a business there. Like many Antique Alley merchants, Tiffon started out by buying items at garage sales.

    "Like so many people, you start accumulating things," she said.

    Originally, the alley was a collection of storage garages. But as the owners slowly left the area, the antiques dealers scooped up the vacant spaces.

    There was initial confusion about what to call the place. One dealer preferred "The Promenade," inspired, perhaps, by the small boardwalk along one row of shops. Others called it "The Village."

    Eventually, it became known as Antique Alley.

    As a way to promote themselves, merchants devised the shows to drum up business. A few shopkeepers grumble that the city will not allow them to post enough signs to let people know they exist. There is just one sign with the words "Antique Alley" near the front entrance.

    Some customers come alone. Others arrive in small groups, often after having lunch at the French Hen, a restaurant at the eastern end of the alley.

    Many of the customers are antiques dealers who buy items and sell them in other states. Some are simply looking for trinkets for their home. A few are gift hunting.

    Some shoppers complain that some of the stores are a tad expensive.

    "Shop prices are extremely high," said Joe Knisell, who owned antiques shops in New Hampshire and Missouri.

    Still, he likes coming to the alley. In addition to the quality of the items, Knisell said he is drawn by the decor.

    "It's a nice place and I'll continue to go there," he said.

    The exterior walls of some shops are painted in lively colors such as yellow or purple. Inside, the stores all are different.

    Catique's, for example, has the face of a cat on a clock. Its tongue wags back and forth as the minute-hand moves.

    "I just think this has a little individuality," said Wood, explaining its charm. "Every one does their own little decorations to the place."

    Competition is not fierce. Some say they came to the alley specifically because there are other shops in the area.

    "If I'm in antiques, I will find this place," said Bill Murphy, owner of Encore Events and Antiques.

    Peering out her window, Tiffon is amazed that she is still here after all these years. However, she is not surprised that the alley has thrived.

    "There will always be antique shops," she said. "People will always be interested in nostalgia and collections."

    What's there?

    The spring Antique Alley Show will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at 562-596 N Indian Rocks Road. There is no charge for the event.

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