Mayor Bob Buckhorn recently gave his State of the City speech in the historic S.H. Kress store.
The mayor paid homage to the 84-year-old building’s place in Tampa’s history and predicted a renovated Kress would one day help lead downtown to a glorious future.
Buckhorn’s comments resonated with me, a Tampa homeboy who spent a considerable amount of time in the Kress store as a youngster.
My dad, Orlando Salinero, was the manager at Kress in the early 1960s. To a preteen boy, the oldest of five siblings, it was a source of pride to see my dad leave the house every morning in a suit with shoes polished like mirrors, knowing he was a big shot at the grand, three-story building downtown.
Actually, as my mom reminds me, the job wasn’t all that glamorous.
Though he was manager, Dad sometimes had to drive downtown at night after a heavy rain because the store’s basement flooded. He and the store janitor wielded the mops because, as Dad puts it, the mostly female sales associates were “too good to go in there and do any mopping.”
On another occasion, Dad had to stay in the store all night because the doors wouldn’t lock and he was afraid robbers would clean out his merchandise.
“If you were a manager, that made you a few more bucks than everybody else made,” he said recently, “but they expected a lot more of you.”
Dad worked six days a week, leaving the house before I went to school, and coming home just before supper. On Sundays, he would go to the store to do some light paperwork and he brought my brother Tony and I along.
Tony would ride scooters and bikes while I played 45 rpm records by the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean on a small turntable in the store’s third-floor stockroom.
When President John F. Kennedy came to town Nov. 18, 1963, we got to watch the presidential motorcade from the store’s third-floor windows. Later, Dad took me to hear Kennedy speak at the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory on Howard Avenue.
I don’t remember anything about the speech except that Kennedy made a joke about his daughter, Caroline.
The funniest story I ever heard about Dad’s stint at the Tampa Kress store was the time a wino stole a cage full of parakeets and ran down Franklin Street. Dad, who was in his early 30s, gave chase.
“He just picked it up and went with it,” Dad said. “I think he just put it down and I got it back.”
At 84, Dad’s memories of those times are dim and growing dimmer by the day. For some reason, however, one memory stands out to him, maybe because of the irony.
When he was 12 or 13, Dad got caught trying to steal sparklers in the same Kress store that he would later manage. Whoever collared him took Dad upstairs to an office and left him there. After a few minutes, he managed to slip out a back door and get away, but he said the incident was a powerful lesson.
“It’s learning that you don’t get anything that’s not yours,” he said. “It’s a lesson I remembered for the rest of my life.”
Tampa was Dad’s last stop in a career with Kress that took us all over Florida and as far away as Summit, N.J. When I was 13, Dad jumped to J.C. Penney as a department manager at the Northgate Store on North Florida Avenue.
It was a smart move: The five-and-dime stores, such as Kress, Woolworth’s and Grants, were dying along with the downtowns where they once flourished. Retail was moving to the shopping centers.
I remember being proud when Dad asked me to proofread his letter of resignation from Kress. And I was glad he was going to be making more money in a company with a sound future, a good thing with seven mouths to feed.
He went on to manage one of Penney’s largest stores in New Orleans, quite an accomplishment for a grandson of Cuban immigrants who worked his way up with only a high school education.
When I moved back to Tampa in 2004, I was glad to see the old Kress building standing, though sad it had slipped into disrepair.
I’m sure a lot of longtime Tampanians join me in hoping Buckhorn is right, that someday the old girl will regain her former beauty and dignity.