Florida Keys Business
Sunday, February 9, 2014
Wrinkle-free retail
Tropical Linens moves to Eaton Street

Such are the customer conversations that take place daily inside Tropical Linens and Retail, the dollar-plus store that relocated in October from Frances Street off Truman Avenue to 930 Eaton St., next to Old Town Bakery.

Don't let the name fool you. You won't find any pricey sheets or fancy fabric napkins on the display shelves. Owner Helen Fill has filled her new retail space with every essential item a visitor forgets to pack, every greeting card a local forgets to buy, and every bauble of costume jewelry a girl (or drag queen) can fit inside a jewelry box.

The most expensive item in the store, as of Thursday, was a $12 wig, said Fill,

The costume jewelry lines two walls, with each piece priced at $1.45.

The only linens in the building belong to other people, and they certainly aren't for sale.

Fill started her business 11 years ago as a drop-off ironing and pressing laundry service with a small retail space selling spray starch, hangers, spot remover and garment bags.

"In 2003, I was pressing 800 pieces a week," Fill said, adding that wedding and bridesmaid dresses represented most of her business. "But after Hurricane Wilma hit, people stopped coming for awhile, and the ironing business trickled down to about 100 pieces a week, so in August 2006 I started filling up the retail space with dollar store-type items."

And people liked it -- until the popular used bookstore across Truman Avenue went out of business and took much of Fill's walk-by traffic with it.

"But now here on Eaton Street, we get so much foot traffic; people will get off the ferry and come in for whatever they forgot to pack," said Nate McDonald, Fill's son, who was manning the shop one day last week.

In addition to the tourists, "the locals followed us over here," said McDonald's girlfriend, Celeste Shapiro.

"When that cold front came through a few weeks ago, we put out stocking hats and gloves for $3, and the locals bought almost all of them within the first day or so," McDonald said. "Their hands get cold quick on a scooter."

And the island's female impersonators are some of Fill's best customers, often coming in for jewelry, wigs, hair extensions, hair spray, make up and other items that can be cost prohibitive in the department stores.

"And for the tourists, other than toiletries that they forgot, the cards are huge," McDonald and Fill both said.

Greeting cards are 50 cents apiece, while Key West postcards are a quarter each -- and there's a stamp machine on the premises.

"People love that they don't have to wait in line at the post office," McDonald said. "And there's a mailbox just around the corner. They buy cards here all day long."

Valentine cards and decorations currently fill the store, which decks itself out for each holiday.

"People know I go all out with holiday decorations," Fill said. "It's just been so amazing. This is my 11th year and I've met so many great people. Now it's just a matter of letting them know where I am."

mmiles@keysnews.com

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