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Shop is blueprint of an era gone by

After 76 years of business and tradition, St. Petersburg Map and Blueprint Co. will close its doors on Sept. 27.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Clinton Massey's dog tells you part of the story.

Beau, a white Samoyed mix whose startling, affectionate eyes tend to melt humans, walked into St. Petersburg Map and Blueprint Co. a few days ago.

Massey, a designer, had to pick up some equipment. Beau moved among other customers, greeting them and absorbing attention.

The scenario, said third-generation shop owner Todd Robbins, said much about why the business remained a downtown fixture for 76 years.

"That's why people come to us. We're not faster, not cheaper. We like to think we do better work. But they like coming in here because it's like coming into an old general store. The only thing I need is a checkerboard or an old pickle barrel," said Robbins.

A longtime tradition, he said, is counting back the customer's change from a purchase rather than just noting the amount from a register's display screen and handing back bills and coins without comment.

"We count pennies back," Robbins said. "That seems to amaze a lot of people."

But an era is over. St. Petersburg Map and Blueprint will close Sept. 27, ending the tenure of one of the city's oldest continuously operated family businesses.

Robbins' grandfather, Harry F. Robbins, was 20 years old when he started the business in 1924. To get it going, he bought the only blueprint machine in town from a fellow named George F. Young.

(George F. Young founded a respected engineering company in St. Petersburg and the firm still exists, though Young's descendants do not own it.)

Newer, faster processing means plans can be produced and reproduced with computers. Blueprinting has become relic technology.

"The big accounts need the speed," Robbins said. "We can't compete with that."

Robbins, 40, doesn't go for all the modern scanning and digitizing.

"I love the old way of doing things," he said, conceding that it might be unusual for a man of his generation to feel that way.

"I feel like I'm young enough to feel awkward saying I don't like this newfangled stuff," he said.

Robbins will retain a mail-order business to sell tools of the design and architectural trade, including the triangular scales, electrical erasers, the Dazor drafting lamps, and drafting chairs and tables that can be difficult to find elsewhere.

Customers can find Robbinson an Internet web site:http://www.stpeteblue.com.

"We've never had a catalog of supplies," Robbins said. "Now we're going to have one."

Harry Robbins and his brother Arthur first operated the business at 704 Central Ave. in the old Sumner Building.

The Robbinses later moved to 657 First Ave. S, when railroad tracks still stretched down the avenue. In 1972, the business moved across the street to 620 First Ave. S, where it remained.

Harry Robbins' sons, Harry Jr. and Robert J., took over the business after World War II and daughters Jean Robbins and Margaret Perry also took their turns helping to run it.

Todd Robbins, the first Harry's grandson, took over in 1994.

Architects, engineers, draftsmen, surveyors, lawyers, Realtors and even court reporters have been steady customers for supplies, printing jobs and plat maps.

The map element came about when Harry Robbins began drawing plats during the Great Depression. "He did the entire city," said Todd Robbins.

The last update was done in the 1970s, he said, but people have continued to ask for them.

Ronn Ginn opened his architectural practice nearly 35 years ago. He still recalls his first experience at the map and blueprint business.

"I was looking and I walked into Harry's. I'd been in town less than a week," Ginn said. "Harry said, "Just write your name down here, young man, and give me your phone number, and you have an account open.'

"They did it on a handshake," Ginn said. "They didn't know me from Adam's off-ox. That's been the secret of that outfit for a long time."

Massey put it like this:

"If you picture a pocket on a shirt, that's what they were. A man can't live without a pocket on a shirt."

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