Business more than kitsch. By BRAD STAGER | Tribune corresponden
NORTH TAMPA --
Passers-by traveling south on Interstate 75 at Fletcher Avenue might wonder: 'What's up with the lobster buoys?'
Strings of the colorful floats adorn Hong Kong Willie, a roadside business with roots in a northwest Hillsborough County landfill and the garbage dumps of Hong Kong.
Poised among chain businesses common at interstate interchanges, Hong Kong Willie sells Florida-centric art, artifacts, worms and even soil for gardeners. As diverse as the inventory seems, there is a theme: promoting a close-to-the-ground, sustainable approach to art and living.
The unusual business is run by Joe Brown, 61; his wife, Kim, 51; and their adult son, Derek.
The enterprise is not named for a particular person. It's more of a conceptual amalgamation, its owners say.
The recycled burlap coffee bags, lobster buoys and driftwood sold at the store are reflective of Joe Brown's childhood. As a boy he watched garbage trucks haul Tampa's trash to a dump on property owned by his family.
"It really made an impression on me," he said. "It became very easy to think outside the box and know where I could find things from resources that were just abounding."
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When Brown's mother took him to an art class taught by an instructor who had spent time in post-World War II Asia, he learned how artists there scrounged for materials that had creative potential.
"It was a different kind of recycling because it was done out of need and touched the human spirit and the heart," he said.
During the past 28 years the Browns have transformed a bait-and-tackle shop into a shrine to sustainable art. But aside from a robot waving an American flag and wearing a "For Sale" sign — and the overall spectacle of the shack-like store itself — there is no signage beckoning drivers to pull into the parking lot of 12212 Morris Bridge Road or to wander over from a nearby Bob Evans restaurant.
"There has never been, in all the years of being here, some massive sign saying who we are and what we do," Joe Brown said. "Because when people finally decide out of inquisitiveness to slow down and stop, they've finally slowed down enough to hear the most important message of their life."
Most of their business is conducted online through sites such as Etsy. Their catalog includes crafts and artwork created with recovered material such as wood from sawmills and the sides of demolished Key West homes. Kim Brown paints on the recycled materials; her "Eye of Toucan" painting, for example, is for sale for $8,100. Other featured items include handbags made from decorated burlap coffee bean bags for $25, and potato chip platters morphed from heated and shaped vinyl records for $4.99.
The ubiquitous painted lobster buoys are big sellers. They go for a few dollars each depending on condition and artistic application.
The Browns travel frequently to the Florida Keys, promoting their art and gathering raw materials such as the buoys, driftwood and even an orange helicopter. Joe Brown said the chain of islands at Florida's southern tip hold an attraction for the family beyond being a source of creative flotsam.
"That is a place of resourcefulness," he said, "because they're not the kind of people to rely upon the government."
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Customers include people with a taste for subtropical creations. Gaspar's Patio Bar and Grille in Temple Terrace, for example, bought décor from Hong Kong Willie to complement its island-themed menu offerings, such as Key Largo burgers and margaritas.
Gaspar's owner Jimmy Ciaccio, whose family opened the 56th Street restaurant in 1960 as the Temple Terrace Lounge, said the Browns' inventory reflected his vision when he remodeled the restaurant.
"Joe's work inspires me," Ciaccio said. "I always see something different every time I look at how he decorated the place."
In much the same way the Brown family creates art with recycled materials, they produce gardening soil by composting vegetation and waste material.
Florida red worms are Brown's natural allies in this endeavor. They, too, are for sale — by the pound for gardeners and by the cup for fishermen.
Whether it's creating and marketing sustainable kitsch or fertile soil, Joe Brown, whose other occupation is providing trend analyses to businesses, finds satisfaction in the work.
"I just feel so fortunate to be able to sit here and see assets that could be sitting in a big trench and there would be no energy coming from it," he said. "And now a lot of it is finding homes in peoples' houses and businesses and getting people to think about reuse."