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Time in a bottle



Dennis Grabhorn and Christine Williams pose with their pups

Dennis Grabhorn and Christine Williams pose with their pups in the famous conch shell flanked by employees Dylan Kelley and Sherry Santino. SHERRY SANTINO PHOTO

PSL shell shop transports customers back to a simpler era

BY CHRISTINA TASCON

In the 1950s and ’60s, U.S. Highway 1 was the mini-equivalent of Route 66 with its own share of roadside attractions. Riding along in a hot car, sticking to the seat and fighting with one’s siblings could be forgotten when the Chevy rolled to a stop outside one of those places filled with the souvenirs that would forever be connected with childhood memories.

If one happened to be on the St. Lucie County stretch of U.S. 1 that is now Port St. Lucie, Shell Bazaar was one of those absolute must stops. Even if you had drunk your fill of shot glass-sized orange juice from every grove shop or had your share of ice cream from the Twistee Treat, no trip was complete without salt water taffy at the kitschy shop, which might have more seashells than the seashore.

Stopping there today is like stepping into the past, but all the colors are so much brighter than one remembers. It is not very different than the tourist store of the ’80s but worlds away from the original shop that George and Jean Williams opened in 1953 in front of their ranch that sold cows, horses, rabbits, abalone and conch shell night lamps.

The shop and its connecting Rick’s Diner is owned by their daughter, Christine Williams, and her partner, Dennis Grabhorn, who has updated it with higher-end coral and exotic shells, T-shirts and sundry gift-shop items.

George had owned a truck stop restaurant in Ormond Beach and Jean was just coming out of the Navy as a military clerk when they first met and fell in love in the late 1940s. A friend of George’s, Robert Meade, owned a shell shop in Vero Beach on the site where Royal Ballroom now stands. When George said he wanted out of the restaurant business, Meade suggested opening his own shell shop — way down at the other end of St. Lucie County separated by McKee Jungle Gardens, P.P. Cobb’s Trading Store in Fort Pierce and miles of nothing.

“My father just picked the parcel of land and built the business,” Christine said. “It was just a business to him, he didn’t have any personal thing about shells but my mother was the shell shop.”

At first, the shop was nothing more than a tiny room in the front of their two-story home sandwiched between garages filled with farm equipment and shells they brought from Fort Myers and piles of abalone from California.

They considered themselves busy if they had three customers in one day. Jean had a bell installed at the store so people could ring it when they came in as she worked in the back making nightlight lamps from conch and abalone shells, which George put together with plaster and Christine used to wire and put in boxes. When they had created enough for a shipment, George would drive a truck to California to sell to the shops there and pick up more abalone.

The gigantic 2 1/2-ton conch shell that sits out front was added around 1959 and enticed tourists to take family vacation photos by its side. Christine remembers sitting on the shell and waving to traffic for entertainment.

“During the Bay of Pigs, the military used to drive up and down U.S. 1 and I would wave to all the soldiers,” Christine said. “It was such a thrill when they would wave back.”

As business increased, Jean opened up the garages and began selling more items. Christine, who had been working in finance and real estate in St. Lucie and Martin counties, decided to help run the store in the ’80s when her mother wanted to retire. With fresh eyes, she updated the look and added more gift items and a higher-end stock of coral and unique shells.

The shop has had a bit of a roller-coaster existence like all Florida businesses. Busy in the ’60s and ’70s, they hit a lull as people chose the interstate and turnpike. But as Port St. Lucie grew and the Mets came to Tradition Field in 1988, the area began to see a resurgence. The market and real estate crash hit them again nine years ago but they are finally bouncing back.

“I can tell how the economy is doing by whether or not we are selling the 99-cent key chains or the $2.99 items,” Christine said with a chuckle.

Through good times and bad, Christine has loved her store. As bad as the hurricanes — Jeanne and Frances — were to her shop in 2004 (it was closed for 18 months for renovations), the time had a happy ending.

Grabhorn, who was Christine’s high school sweetheart and worked on the ranch with her father, came home to help his mother clean up and reconnected with her. After three years of a long distance romance, Grabhorn retired from Newsday newspapers on Long Island, N.Y., and moved back to help run the shop.

The two live above the shop in the three-bedroom apartment where Christine was born. She never had children, but she and Grabhorn have added two young employees, who have worked for them for the last five years, to the trust to continue on. Sherry Santino and Dylan Kelley are as close as family and they know the two will run the shop as if it were their own.

“I believe ours is the last place still around from the ’50s and ’60s,” Christine said. “Dylan and Sherry are the future. People may think that working in a shell shop is fun, but it is a lot of hard work and they continue the tradition of being friendly and welcoming.”

About three years ago we agreed to add them to the trust,” Grabhorn said adding with a laugh that after they’re gone the two would probably change everything. Santino and Kelley said Shell Bazaar should be preserved as much as possible.

“We want everything to stay just like Christine would like it, to keep her legacy alive just like when she was growing up, but we will probably update it once in a while,” Santino said.

“It has to be a labor of love because it is not a high-profit business,” Christine said in between chatting with customers. “We have a lot of reasonably priced items, which the kids love, and some $100 shells and more expensive coral that people travel here to buy. You have to work hard to make it work.

“Dennis calls me a social butterfly because I go around and greet everyone, but I like to hear all the stories of the last time they were here or say hello to the little ones who are mesmerized by the gator heads and the spiny doghead sharks-in-a-bottle.”

As customers constantly drop in, there is a wonderful sense of nostalgia in the store. One woman pops a salt water taffy in her mouth at the register with a look of pure delight; two customers rake their hands through the bins of shells; and a mother passes out money to her four children, telling them they can buy anything under that amount. Off they go searching through the sea stars, pirate gear, shell necklaces and shark’s teeth.

“We are still a shell shop, but we are also a destination gift shop so we post our current sales and new items,” Christine said. “We still get people who want the Orange Blossom perfume their grandmother wore and new customers who want the absorbent car coasters with college logos and breast cancer awareness ribbons.” Christine, who is a stage four breast cancer survivor, carries a line of cancer support items.

They have retained the friendly old-time character of the shop. They even have commissioned Santino, a young photographer, to rebuild the history wall between the shop and Rick’s Diner next door. Yet there’s been a nod to modern times through the young pair’s influence… they now have a Facebook page.

“We have customers that have been coming for 25-30 years and we have local people that still come every week like four ladies who come on Sundays for breakfast at Rick’s and shop here afterwards,” Christine said smiling. “We know we will keep seeing them too because they just won a free pound of taffy each month for a year.”

Perhaps that is why business is so good these days — people are just looking for a little piece of Florida and a memory which makes them smile again. Oh, and of course, they still stop just to have their picture taken by the big conch shell in front of the shop.