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Faklis, Tarapani families celebrate 100 years in department store business in Tarpon Springs

TARPON SPRINGS

In 1892, two men were born more than a thousand miles apart. One, born in Greece, soon learned how to make shoes from his uncle. The other, born in Lithuania, developed a knack for peddling wares.

They would meet in Tarpon Springs after immigrating to the United States, each stopping briefly in New York before moving south. They would settle in north Pinellas County before it was officially a county. They would leave to serve in the Army in World War I, but they would come back and raise their families here.

And 100 years later, the stores they opened in the early 20th Century are still mainstays on downtown's Tarpon Avenue.

• • •

John Tarapani, 61, stands in a store that he made his own, different from when it was his father's — more like his grandfather's.

Two generations after Tarapani's Department Store opened in 1911, it has been transformed from a clothing store that fitted customers for trousers and shirts to an antiques and art business.

When John Tarapani's grandfather, Abraham Tarapani, opened the dry goods store downtown, it was one of many local department stores. Abraham's son, Buddy, took over and renovated the place to look more modern.

But the next generation, John, has restored the old feel with white molded ceilings. Like his grandfather, he traveled to bring new merchandise into the store. But he went way past New York, favoring eclectic Central American imports.

Now the store is filled with delicate glass, furniture, textiles, belt buckles, antique spoons, wall paintings.

"We try to bring the world to Tarpon also," John Tarapani said.

Sometimes the world walks into the store. On a recent day, a local tour guide led a group inside. The people stopped near the furniture — across from where three portraits of the Tarapani men hanging on the wall — to hear the family story.

When a customer walked into the store, Tarapani greeted her. He could tell she was browsing and he let her wander unbothered.

"They're not dealing with a corporation," he said of his customers. "They're dealing with a neighbor."

• • •

In the front of Faklis' Department Store and Shoe Repair, across the street from Tarapani's, the store's original shoe-making tools sit in one window. In the other, heavy sponge divers' boots bear Faklis handwork in the leather coverings of the weighted shoes.

"You can't take away the old-world craftmanship," said Vasile Faklis, 45.

There are boxes and boxes of shoes — functional yet stylish, because now everybody insists on both. Perched on shelves are black-and-white photos of the Faklis family and the first Vasile Faklis, who started all this.

The elder Vasile entrusted his shoe-making business to his sons, George and Michael Faklis. George Faklis' son, Vasile, added orthopedic services to the shoe sales, repairs and department store wares.

The smell of shoe leather lingers and there is a constant hum from the shoe-repair machines operated by Michael Faklis.

"We took a pride in the family business," Vasile Faklis said, "and the family name. We're taking care of the family name."

• • •

Tarapani's turned 100 last year. This year, it's Faklis' 100th anniversary.

But the families wanted to commemorate the anniversaries together.

"Tarpon has so much history to it," said Sue Thomas, president of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce. "They validate the history. They are the history."

It's not unusual to see John Tarapani's mother, Florida Belle, seated near the old cash register. And if she's there, chances are she's working.

"There are no free lunches," Tarapani joked.

Tarapani and Faklis swear that their families never pushed them into the business. They each explored other opportunities before finding their ways back.

Faklis and Tarapani can remember walking from school every day into downtown, stopping to buy a soda or French fries before doing their homework at the stores.

Townsend Tarapani, now a city commissioner just like his father John and his great-grandfather, is already absorbed into the family business. He can still see the old store layout as clearly as he did as a child. Townsend, 27, can envision the old desk where he worked, the places in the store where kids played and the spots where adults gathered to talk.

As their stores continued to operate decade after decade, the Faklises and Tarapanis developed a profound sense of loyalty — to their families, to their customers, to their city.

"We do have strong roots," Faklis said. "We're passionate about what we do, and we're passionate about our community. That's why generations come back."

Faklis and John Tarapani say it's too soon to tell what the next generations will choose to do with the two stores. But history seems to bind each generation of their families to the next, and the two men are already picturing the next 100 years.

"If the doors are open," Tarapani said, "then you never know who's going to walk in."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or swang@tampabay.com.

If you go

Faklis' Department Store and Shoe Repair and Tarapani's Department Store are celebrating their centennials with 100th anniversary sales and specials. Faklis' is located at 139 E Tarpon Ave., with Tarapani's across the street at 128 E Tarpon Ave.

Faklis, Tarapani families celebrate 100 years in department store business in Tarpon Springs 12/01/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 1, 2012 2:42pm]
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