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Straw Goat closing doors

The Straw Goat "is like part of the St. Petersburg family,'' one says. But the owners have something else on their minds after 31 years: travel.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- They put clogs on our feet, Swedish crystal on our tables and sheaves of wheat on our doors. On Monday, John and Karen Erickson put something new up in the Straw Goat: notice that after 31 years, they are closing their Beach Drive shop.

"Business has always been good. It's still good," he said. "But we're tired. Our youngest son is finishing college this year. We want to take some time off to travel."

Their decision ends a retail history that spans some of most tumultuous years in the city's downtown development.

The Ericksons opened the Straw Goat in 1969, the same year that all the green benches were removed from downtown. She was a 24-year-old teacher; he was 25 and had just finished a tour of duty with the Navy. Both sets of parents had retired to St. Petersburg, and the newlyweds fell in love with idea of a small business offering only Scandinavian products.

"That was our heritage," said John Erickson, whose grandparents, as well as his wife's, immigrated to the United States from Sweden.

They leased a small storefront at 130 Beach Drive NE "because it was the most beautiful part of the city," Karen Erickson said. "We were so naive. We had no idea what we were doing."

Fellow tenants were mostly women's retail shops: John Baldwin, Clementine's, Carol Beecher and Le Pavilion.

On the first buying trip to New York City, "we met some wonderful people, who helped us get to the right sources," Karen Erickson said. The shop stocked Orrefors and Kosta Boda crystal, Swedish clogs and unusual items such as the small wheat bundles and straw wreaths imported from New Sweden, Maine, that quickly became a ubiquitous decoration in many houses. Spare lines and natural materials were a dominant trend in home decor, and the unpretentious, high-quality Scandinavian products the Ericksons introduced to local consumers struck harmonic notes.

Still, John Erickson said, they quickly realized that the market for only Scandinavian products, both on the supply and demand side, would not support a business. They broadened the scope, adding a line of paper products, candles, china and kitchenwares.

"The thing that helped was when Cuisinarts (the French food processors) were brought to America," he said. "That opened up the whole gourmet cooking business."

Longtime resident Rosemary Hempel remembered that an employee demonstrated the use of the Cuisinart by making peanut butter every day at the Straw Goat. "No one was doing that. It sold a whole lot of food processors," she said. "I still have mine."

By the end of the 1970s, the Straw Goat had become popular both as a gift store and a purveyor of esoteric kitchen gadgets that ranged from a pop-up sponge for one dollar to the food processors, which could cost several hundred. During that decade, downtown changed. The old Million Dollar Pier was demolished and replaced by the now-familiar inverted pyramid building, Interstate 275 was extended through St. Petersburg, 29-story Bayfront Tower became the first high-rise dwelling downtown, Webb's City closed and Tyrone Square Mall opened. Tyrone was a mortal blow for downtown department stores such as Sears, which closed in 1972. Maas Brothers limped along, finally closing in 1991. Both stores had decamped to the new mall on the west side of St. Petersburg.

The Straw Goat continued to thrive. As space around them opened up, the Ericksons expanded their shop to the current size, 2,300 square feet.

"There wasn't a bad time for us," he said. "We've always had a loyal following."

He said the 1980s -- the era of Bay Plaza downtown -- were "stressful."

The developer planned to take over that block and replace the small strip of shops with a large complex, part of a multimillion-dollar project that ultimately failed because its leaders could not land a major retail tenant.

Bay Plaza's demise spared Straw Goat from eviction. Through the next decade they watched as some downtown retailers were felled by inflated expectations of Major League Baseball fans. They swept out construction dust that settled in their shop from condominium projects along Beach Drive. They endured the inconvenience of road closures and water issues as BayWalk went up a few blocks north. None of it, they say, deeply affected the flow of customers, though they also say they are, of late, seeing more new faces, the result of increased activity downtown.

John Ball, a senior associate with Prime Sites USA, is handling the search for a new tenant of the Straw Goat space, which will lease for about $20 per square foot.

"We would like to get retail," Ball said, "men's wear, women's handbags or shoes, a golf shop maybe. But we won't turn anyone away. It's getting tough for giftware because they're getting hit by the Steinmarts and Targets."

Erickson agrees.

"We're kind of like a dinosaur," he said. "Retail is moving to outlets, big discount places."

The Straw Goat will be the second longtime gift shop to close on Beach Drive in little more than a year. B. Chandlers, which occupied space north of the Straw Goat, closed last year because its owners said the rent increase was too high. A financial business settled in. Most of Beach Drive remains retail, with business good at upscale shops such as Johnston of Florida, said its manager, Suzanne Fisher. "Our business has been excellent for the last two years. We're going to miss the Straw Goat. They are good merchants and brought a uniqueness."

On Monday, a day after a small ad announced the closing sale, loyalists began calling and coming by. "How long have I shopped here?" said Herb Melleney. "How long has it been open? This is like part of the St. Petersburg family."

"It's going to leave a big hole in my life," said Jim Murphy, who has an annual fall party, for which the Straw Goat does the invitations. "I'm usually out of town when the invitations have to go out, so they always just do them for me and mail them."

John Erickson thinks that level of personal service was the key to the shop's success. "We try to make up for the competition with more service, which can work, but it requires a lot out of us."

The Ericksons have a Straw Goat Web site, http://www.strawgoat.com, and plan to continue selling some of their signature items such as clogs, Norwegian sweaters and some holiday merchandise even after their doors close for good, probably by the end of May.

"The Straw Goat," he said, "will still exist."

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