Facing big box stores and Amazon, how do Orlando landmarks stay alive?
Ralph Walters can turn anything into a lamp. Deer hooves fresh from the hunt, a mismatched pair of cowboy boots, 40 millimeter bullet shells, a violin. Anything.
No one ever taught him how to do it, and he didn’t go to school to learn the trade. He’s one of those guys who naturally knows how to make or fix anything you bring him. The same way he knows where every harp, nut and knob is in his workshop on North Mills Avenue.
“Working with my hands has always been a passion. I was making duct work or testing cables and wires. I’ve always worked with my hands,” he said, shrugging off any suggestion that restoring a crystal chandelier or fashioning a feather marching band hat into a table lamp is an unusual talent.
Tucked next to Pig Floyds Urban Barbakoa and across from Psychic Readings by Dinah, you’ve probably driven past the store thousand times but never been inside. But you’d know it immediately from the mural of red strasberry, a strawberry-raspberry hybrid, painted on the side of the building.
It’s a survivor in a world now dominated by online shopping, Amazon same-day shipping and big-box stores. One of last vestiges of a bygone era, it joins a handful of other Orlando specialty shops, like Balloon World, The British Shoppe, ACME Stamp and Sign, The Flag Center and Atlantic Strings Violin Shop: The small businesses that time hasn’t yet claimed.
The Lamp & Shade Fair
Ralph and Brenda Walters’ family has been selling and repairing lamps at their iconic storefront of Orlando’s Mills 50 district for decades. On a November afternoon, an oldies station played on the radio, as a display of
Tiffany-style lamps decorated the showroom. A little wire-haired Australian terrier, Bonnie, lounged on the sofa, and employees fielded customers and phone calls that, surprisingly, didn’t seem to stop.
Walters’ in-laws, Pennsylvania transplants Carroll and Ruth Kile, built the store and opened it in 1963. Carroll Kile had worked in a furniture shop in Pennsylvania, blacksmithing iron details for lamps and end tables, and when he moved his family to Orlando, he went to work at another furniture store. The way Walters has heard the story told, a lot of customers were asking for replacement lamp shades, and the Kiles took the clue.
By 1980, after Ruth Kile had died and her husband retired, the Walters took over the shop. In 2009, Brenda Walters also passed away, leaving Ralph to run the shop on his own.
“If somebody told me even in high school that I’d be selling lamp shades, I’d have told them they’re nuts,” he said.
Walk-ins, signaled by the jingling of a little bell over the door frame, are a good portion of the business. The store sells everything from simple white, pleated shades to grand chandeliers adorned with gold leaves, like the one hanging above the shop floor that day. In one corner, there’s a small display of Sparkle Plenty cleaner with a sign asking customers, “Are your shades or chandelier dusty?”
Walters said the dwindling number of homeowners has impacted sales. Renters, he guessed, just don’t buy shades as much. Amazon and superstores like Walmart have also claimed some customers.
Walking through his workshop, he pointed to lamps that customers have either forgotten about or decided they don’t want. One order was placed in 2017 and still sits on the shelf.
“It’s a niche. I like to joke that some people will put on two roofs before they change their shades,” he said. Picking up a particular shade that’s fallen out of style, he said, “We used to stock these by the hundreds. Now we stock two.”
Walters, 76, doesn’t know when he’ll retire or if he’ll try to sell the shop. He had given some thought to his daughter taking things over, but with her recent move out of state, it doesn’t seem likely.
Looking around the glowing room, he mulled over whether he’d call his shop a landmark.
“I don’t know … when you use the word ‘landmark,’ I think of something like Mount Rushmore,” he said. “I just enjoy being part of it, doing something good for people.”
Guy Rexford and his partner, Randy Jones, have owned Balloon World almost since the day it opened in the same little white house on North Mills in the early 1980s. They bought it in 1987 from the original owner, Melanie Marecek, one of Florida’s original balloonists.
Rexford, 68, had worked in the pharmaceutical business for a decade on advertising campaigns for cardiac medication. But one day, driving back from delivering balloons to a friend, the idea suddenly popped into his head: “I thought, ‘Balloons. That’ll be fun.’ ”
“When I told my parents I was going to quit my corporate job to sell balloons, all my mom could picture was me out on the street, ‘Will you buy my balloon?’ ” he said.
He started with a shop called Balloon-A Go-Go in Gainesville, where he had attended college. In the middle of the night, he’d get calls from confused customers looking to hire go-go dancers. “Not that kind of go-go,” Rexford would tell them.
When he bought Balloon World, it was a different time, before Publix, the Dollar Tree and Party City stocked balloons. Back when people lined up and down the sidewalk to buy balloons on Valentine’s Day, or hired clowns to make balloon animals at birthday parties, or ordered singing telegrams.
Since then, the balloon industry has dealt with helium shortages — it’s going through another now — and criticism from environmentalists over the harmful effects of releasing balloons outside. Rexford has switched to biodegradable balloons and is usually hesitant to take those jobs on.
Despite the changes, Rexford and Jones said they’re busier than they’ve ever been with thousands of jobs a year. The shop supplies balloons, from a few dozen to twisted works of art, for hospitals, car lots, apartment leasing offices and Disney. Rexford also decorates venues for high school dances.
Most of the time, the customers who call or come into Balloon World are planning a celebration — like the couple who has celebrated their first date, engagement and birth of their first child with balloons from Rexford’s shop.
But there’s been times Rexford can remember when his balloons were needed for a more somber occasion.
At his shop this past week, surrounded by packages of deflated balloons and helium tanks, he recalled the time a family ordered an assortment of multi-colored balloons for their child’s funeral. They were released at the cemetery in their memory. Rexford attended.
“Just to watch those people’s faces, I still get chills,” he said. “They were smiling — at a very sad event.”
“There’s just something about balloons,” he continued. “They make you feel.”
The Flag Center
Except for a few phone calls, the shop on East Colonial Drive was quiet the afternoon Cheryl Alonso recounted its history. She sat in the back at the same desk her mother did when she ran the store.
To her, The Flag Center is the embodiment of her late mother and stepfather, Glenn and Marilyn Miller, who opened the store in 1972. Alonso, now 68, took over the business in her late 30s after her parents retired.
“I don’t think I could sell the business,” Alonso said. “It would be like selling them.”
Over the years, the store’s flags have appeared on flag poles across the city, at Universal Studios theme park and in the movies, including the “Jaws” franchise, “Passenger 57” with Wesley Snipes and “Honky Tonk Freeway,” a film shot in Mount Dora that required much of the town’s buildings be painted pink. The shop printed the original flag design for the city of Orlando that was adopted in the 1980s and sells the updated design the city’s review committee picked in 2017.
Flipping through an old scrapbook, Alonso looked at photos of flags her family sold to the Amway Center, for the Orlando Solar Bears, the “Ellen DeGeneres Show” and even the Orlando Sentinel.
She’s sold flags from every country and in every color, as well as lapel pins, banners and flag poles. In the window now are a rainbow flag, popular after the Pulse nightclub attack and during Pride week; the Haitian flag; and a black-andwhite checkered flag. But their biggest seller is the American flag.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there was a line out the door.
“We had to lock our doors,” Alonso remembered. “The fire department was calling, ‘Cheryl, you can’t have all those people in that building.’ ”
“When something bad happens, it’s like somebody turns the light on and everybody wants a flag.”
When asked what she believes the The Flag Center has meant to Orlando, she started, “I hope …” but then trailed off, a little stumped. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
“I could tell you what it’s meant to me,” she continued. “It’s been a lifesaver for me. It’s a place to go, a place to meet people. … And I think it’s The Flag Center that’s kept me going.”
The store will celebrate its golden anniversary in three years.
“I don’t care if I have to crawl in here,” she added. “If I have to get my neighbor to pull me in in a little red wagon. I will not close this place until we get to 50 years. I will be here.”
The Lamp & Shade Fair owner Ralph Walters sits in his store at 1336 N. Mills Ave. in Orlando.
Balloon World co-owner Guy Rexford stands outside his shop at 828 N. Mills Ave. He bought the store in 1987.
The Flag Center owner Cheryl Alonso assists a customer at her store at 715 E. Colonial Drive.