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The difference an 'A' makes

For students or folks on society's A list, the alphabet's first letter is a big deal. But the phone directory's white pages? There, the A's don't mean A thing.

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001

[Times photo: Patty Yablonski]
You may not have noticed, but the A's are on top.

No, not the Oakland Athletics. They're mired hopelessly in second in the American League West.

We're talking A as in the letter -- specifically, the curious assortment of listings leading off the Verizon white pages of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa that begin with the letter A.

But this is not A's Auto Repair or A Better Bagel.

It is simply and unabashedly A.

Not since the Fonz and Happy Days has "A-A-A-A-A-A" been so popular.

The 10 A's in Tampa, the nine in St. Petersburg and the 10 in Clearwater all include a number to dial, and most include an address. But none tell you what, or whom, you are calling. Just the letter A.

So let's get this straight: People are going to the trouble of jockeying for the best phone-book position -- but not providing a clue as to why anyone should dial their number?

This a-nonymous phenomenon called for an investigation. First stop: Local Verizon headquarters.

"I never really noticed it until now," said Verizon spokesman Bob Elek. "My best theory is that it's the old Al Davis adage, "Just win, baby.' I think some people really just want to be first."

Could this be true? The only way to know was to ask the A-list, starting with the very first number in the St. Petersburg white pages. Phone rings; message kicks in: "Hello, this is A, we're an insurance information service, please stay on the line . . ."

Several tries later, a man answers. He says the company has been "A" for some 27 years. But he adds that he never realized he was No. 1 in the listings, doesn't care about it one way or the other, and furthermore, doesn't really wish to be part of any story.

These A's are modest folk.

A call to another St. Pete "A" leads to a doctor's receptionist, who suggests we call her boss on his cell phone. He answers, but says he does not wish to comment for the story. He adds that he's not the doctor, that the doctor is out of the country. Does "A" help business?

"It's just a name. People call. It's just like ABC," he says.

Well, actually, several ABCs pop up a few pages over, but they're businesses listed as ABC Auto, ABC Bicycles, ABC Costume -- relying on the old give-the-caller a hint philosophy.

Another A is called -- the same doctor's receptionist answers. She explains they have several numbers, but politely passes on further questions.

The next number leads to A-A-A Attorney Referral Service, which holds down the fifth A position in St. Petersburg, the fourth in Clearwater, and the first in Tampa -- as well as the first detailed advertising box in the book. No luck getting through to anyone there who has any answers.

Ditto for virtually every other A in the listings -- all connected with businesses, such as locksmiths, auto and commercial insurance offices and chiropractors. One receptionist from the latter office offers that she fields a number of calls from confused people wanting roadside service from AAA. But nobody wants to talk. Clearly, they have watched too much 60 Minutes shows.

Finally, after dialing a dozen A's, we got a break in the case.

Jeff Johnson is president of a busy Tampa vacuum business, officially incorporated as A, but advertised as "A & A Discount Vacuums." Johnson not only was happy to talk, but provided a plausible explanation for the entire state of a-ffairs, later embraced by Verizon's Elek.

First of all, Johnson says none of the A businesses care about where they fall in the white pages; zero business is generated there. The name of the game is getting the best position in the Yellow Pages, where the A's are grouped according to business, and often provide more details.

"That's where we spend our big money, and GTE gives us a free listing in the white pages -- they just stick us in there in whatever order we fall," he says.

In other words, the A's wind up atop the white pages by default. It's a throwaway listing. "Exactly," Johnson says.

Last year, he was No. 1 in the Yellow Pages after listing the business as "A." But this year, another vacuum company added "dot dot dot after their A, and knocked out us out of first," he says.

Meanwhile, in the white pages, the A's have it.

They just don't seem to care if we notice.

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