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Who was Doc Webb?

photo
[Times file: 1974]
This photo shows part of Webb’s City as it appeared in 1974. In its heyday, the store occupied 10 blocks in downtown St. Petersburg.

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000


Doc Webb had a style all his own and a showman's flair for bringing in the customers.

Born in Nashville, Tenn., in 1899, Webb had to drop out of school at age 9 after his father was injured in a truck accident.

But by the age of 20, he had transformed himself into such an entrepreneur of patent medicines, he was known as Doc Webb, the nickname he'd keep through the rest of his long life.

A business offer -- and a big blue car he bought from World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker -- brought him to Florida in 1925, just before the land boom went bust. No matter. He took over a 17- by 28-foot store at 128 Ninth St. S and grandly named it Webb's Cut Rate Drug Co. Even through the Depression, Webb thrived. He promoted himself as a friend to the little guy and proved it with price-cutting strategies that had other merchants tearing at their hair and even landed Webb in court on occasion.

photo
[Times files: 1967]
Doc Webb’s “old” drugstore was preserved inside Webb’s City.
"I didn't care a damn about money. I wanted customers," later recalled the man who sold $1 bills for 95 cents to customers who then happily spent their bucks on Webb's dizzying array of merchandise. At its height, Webb's City covered 10 city blocks with more than 70 shops -- including a florist, bakery, grocery store, meat market, beauty salon, travel agency, hardware store, gift shop, clothing stores, coffee shops and a cafeteria. Oh yes, and a drugstore.

But it wasn't just the variety, the deep discounts and the easy credit that would eventually send 60,000 customers a day flocking to "the World's Most Unusual Drug Store."

For at Webb's City, the fun never stopped. Whether your tastes ran to bathing beauties, talking mermaids, dancing chickens, circus acts or the 9-cent ice cream cones sold on the way out to the parking lot, Doc Webb had it all.

Return of Webb's City
When you try to explain Webb's City to people who weren't in St. Petersburg during its heyday, you soon find yourself reduced to muttering words like "Disney World . . . the '30s . . . mall . . . P.T. Barnum . . . cheap shopping fun . . . carnival." And that's before you get to the mermaids, the kissing rabbit and the tic-tac-toe-playing chickens.

Webb's City: The Music
"Friends have come up to me and sung these faux songs," Ahlin said, wincing at the thought of imitations he has heard, such as a gravelly voiced Al Jolson-style version of a hat-and-cane number on The World's Most Unusual Drug Store.

His flair for sales didn't just benefit the business. During World War II, he once sold $1-million worth of war bonds at the store in four hours. Then he brought a Metropolitan Opera singer to town, rounded up a bunch of service bands and sold another $1-million in bonds at the old Florida Theater in two hours.

For all his retail razzle-dazzle, Webb's private life was pretty routine. Even into his 70s, he put in 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. work days, interrupted by thrice-weekly tennis matches. He and his wife, Aretta, lived in a colonial-style house in the Allendale section of town. In later years, he ran the business from the blue-and-white dinette just off the kitchen.

Sartorially, however, he could make a statement. Webb admitted that some of his 100 suits and 50 sport jackets made Liberace's getups pale by comparison. Fortune magazine attributed the 5-foot-5 Webb's "propensity for ostentation to a feeling of inferiority because of his small size."

photo
[Times files: undated.]
A mermaid and palm trees adorned the sign at Webb’s City Outpost on Gandy Boulevard just east of Fourth Street, shown here at night.

Webb's City may have been one of the first shopping malls, but it wouldn't be alone for long. And even "the World's Most Unusual Drug Store" couldn't compete with the new suburban malls springing up outside the old downtown. Webb sold the business in 1974, an event that a Times editorial dubbed "a most significant event in the history of St. Petersburg."

By 1979 the business went bankrupt and closed, and the area it occupied suffered. On the day Webb died in 1982, the city sold a piece of what had been Webb's land to a developer. Wrote the Evening Independent, "May it (the sale) begin a new era of prosperity in a location that knew plenty of success, Doc Webb-style."

Information from Times files and St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream by Raymond Arsenault was used in this report.

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