SMALL-BUSI­NESS SUR­VIVORS

Fac­ing big box stores and Ama­zon, how do Or­lando land­marks stay alive?

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Caro­line Glenn

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.”

Bal­loon World

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.”

JOE BUR­BANK/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

The Lamp & Shade Fair owner Ralph Wal­ters sits in his store at 1336 N. Mills Ave. in Or­lando.

RI­CARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Bal­loon World co-owner Guy Rex­ford stands out­side his shop at 828 N. Mills Ave. He bought the store in 1987.

JOE BUR­BANK/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

The Flag Cen­ter owner Ch­eryl Alonso as­sists a cus­tomer at her store at 715 E. Colo­nial Drive.

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