Dancing chickens, ducks that played baseball and mermaids
were all part of Webb's City, the "World's Most Unusual
The tales of James Earl "Doc" Webb selling
dollar bills for 95 cents, selling underwear in the grocery department
and canned goods in the clothing department all are true.
Doc Webb would do anything to get customers into his store.
In its heyday the store was a giant complex of more than 70 stores
in a seven-block area that extended from the "core store"
at M. L. King (Ninth) Street S and Second Avenue S, to 10th Street
S on the west, Seventh Street S on the east and Fourth Avenue
S on the south. It was a $30-million-a-year business that drew
60,000 customers on an average day, served by 1,200 employees.
The Seaboard Air Line Railroad, which began in New York City,
ended at Third Avenue and Ninth Street S, smack in the middle
of Webb's City. People would get off the train and ask "But
where is St. Petersburg?"
And that is how Webb's Plaza at Ninth Street S and Third Avenue,
one-time site of Webb's Nursery, got its name.
Cosmopolitan magazine once referred to Webb as the "million-dollar
medicine man," because Webb made substantial money hawking
patent medicines he concocted himself. He left school at age
9 in his native Nashville, Tenn., tried a variety of jobs and
finally created medicines for "unnatural diseases."
In 1925, Webb was offered a partnership in a small drugstore
in St. Petersburg and that was the beginning of it all.
Webb bought out his partner after a year and renamed the store
"Webb's Cut Rate Drug Store." In the years when everyone
else was going bankrupt, Webb was flourishing. It was said in
old St. Petersburg Times articles that he kept the Times
going with his full-page ads during the Depression.
He became the champion of the little man, with a motto of
"stack it high and sell it cheap," offering to undercut
any other prices by 10 percent. Competition with the late Hubert
Rutland's department store set prices of breakfasts at 2 cents.
Dry cleaning, shrubs, clothing, hardware, furniture, groceries,
meats, a cafeteria, haircuts, optical supplies, a chain of filling
stations -- Webb even ground and sold his own brand of coffee
and made his own ice cream.
His son Jim Webb, who worked with his father the final 10
years he was in business, remembers an order of 800 bushels of
cucumbers coming to the store in one day. "They were an
enormous draw because women used to do their own pickling. We
decided to sell them at 1 cent (each)."
Then came an emergency call from the grocery department. "Women
were buying 125, 150 of them and the checkers (clerks) were having
to count them all out, clogging up all the check out lines,"
His father told the clerks to ask the shoppers how many cucumbers
they were buying and to take them at their word. "Not more
than 1 percent of the people are crooked," the senior Webb
was known to say.
A check of the cash register tapes showed a 1 percent loss.
This proved one of Webb's favorite theories, his son said: "If
you're honest with your customers, they'll be honest with you."
But what people remember most was the hoopla in the store.
One of Jim Webb's favorite recollections is of the Flying Zacchinis
bringing their cannon to Webb's parking lot and shooting Zacchinis
out over the power lines into a safety net.
Another of Webb's innovations was the fast check-out line
for customers with 10 or fewer items, but Jim Webb claims it
was his idea. "And you know, he never did give me credit
for it," he said.
Lawyer Bob Willis, whose father, R. H. Willis, was a Webb's
City director and headed the grocery division, spent summers
working there as a teen-ager.
"Mr. Webb was always well dressed, every time you saw
him," Willis said. "And he was always fair with my
family. If he gave his word he kept it."
It was in 1974 that Webb's City began to falter. Webb had
opened a big new store in Pinellas Park and bought a store in
Gainesville just before the 1974 energy crisis. He sold his majority
stock interest that year. He watched from the sidelines as the
"World's Most Unusual Drug Store" went bankrupt in
1979 and closed. A legend ended.
Three years later, Doc Webb died at the age of 85.