By Kerry Schofield
The year was 1958. Joe Brown, 8, lived next to a county dump site in Tampa, Fla. Brown found old junk, fixed it up and sold it. Brown knew he had a higher calling in life — he was destined to be an artist.
“I still have the original Gerber baby food bottle that I melted” Brown said. “It’s sitting on my mom’s little table.”
Hong Kong Willie photomontage
View photographs of the Hong Kong Willie art gallery
Black Bird of Key Largo
“Black Bird of Key Largo”
The allurement of the winds blowing in the palm trees and the moon shining through and the “Black Bird of Key Largo” looking upon.
Hong Kong Willie
**HONG KONG WILLIE artist Kim Brown, chose aged Florida sawmill stock as canvas. Recovered Brass Hanger: Key West lobster trap rigging. Originally connects and suspends rigging of spiny lobster traps in Key West waters. Candy-like appearance due to multiple protective layers. Assigned number in artist register by Fisherman ID tag, corresponding burn-etched # rear of piece. Key recovered by Robert Jordan, acclaimed treasure hunter: also in identification of piece and artist.
Weight: 17+ LB
Tampa Art Gallery,MY FOX TAMPA BAY,Charlie’s World Fox News
TAMPA, Fla. – Have you ever seen the building on the corner of Fletcher and I-75 with a bunch of buoys strung everywhere? This small business that many think is an old bait n’ tackle shop is actually Hong Kong Willie.
Derek Brown, 26, and his family own and operate Hong Kong Willie. The little shop specializes in preservation art. The artists don’t take preservation too lightly either.
“99 percent of everything that has gone into a piece of art has been recycled and reused,” Brown said.
Just as unique as the art is, so is the company’s name. Brown says the name was created by his father, Joe Brown, in the 1950s.
“My father being in an art class, being affected by a teacher, they were melting Gerber baby food bottles,” Brown said. “The teacher interjected that Hong Kong had a great reuse and recycling program even then.”
Brown’s father then took that concept and later added the Americanized name Willie to the end. And that’s how Hong Kong Willie was born as a location that offers recycling in a different and creative way.
Hong Kong Willie artists are what are known as freegans. Freegans are less concerned with materialistic things and more concerned about reducing consumption to lessen the footprint humans leave on this planet.
“I’m sure everyone has their own perception of a freegan, possibly jumping into a dumpster or picking up something on the side of the road,” Brown said. “There [are] people who will have excess. There [are] also things that can be trash to one man, but art or a prize to another man.”
Brown and his family carry this practice through to their art. It’s his family’s way of life, turning trash, which would otherwise fill up landfills, into an art form.
The Brown family gets a lot of their inspiration for their art from the Florida Keys. In fact, this is where the deluge of buoys wrapping around the ‘Buoys Tree’ came from, the fishermen of Key West.
“It is Styrofoam, we understand that it does not degrade, but to blame the fishermen for their livelihood wouldn’t be correct, instead we find a usage for those,” Brown said.
Brown said there’s a usage for everything, even the hooks to hold the painted driftwood, which are also salvaged, to the wall are old bent forks. Everything’s reused here. Purses made out of old coffee bean sacks to “kitschy,” as Brown described it, jewelry made from old baseballs.
“Hong Kong Willie truly believes that a piece, whether it’s a bag or a painted artwork, it’s meant for one person.”
TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
North Tampa- The night light shines like a beacon on the bait shop’s buzzer, beckoning to early morning and nocturnal fishermen.
At A-24 Hour Bait the workday doesn’t end. The rustic store sits off the Fletcher Avenue ramp to Interstate 75 South. A windowless blue mobile home and worm bed are it’s companions on a one-acre slice of land.
The buildings are a sharp contrast to their new neighbors, Hidden River Corporate Park rising out of the woods on the north and growing Tampa Telecom Park on the west.
Owners Joe and Kim Brown work about 20 hours a day, occasionally resting in “the cave”, the mobile home they live in behind the store.
The couple’s shop is well stocked with shiners and worms.
“What we try to do here is carry the best of baits,” Joe Brown said.
He’s got night crawlers from Canada, salamanders from North Dakota and wigglers from his own worm bed behind the store. A refrigerated tank is home to cured shiners and minnows sedated by the cold.
“Wild shiners in a non-refrigerated tank would be going crazy,” Brown said as he peered into a tank of fish separated by size. “They’d be jumping around trying to commit suicide. With the cold water they’re pretty sedate, but you let the water (temperature) rise, a shiner would be like a race horse.”
Larger shiners are selling for $24 a dozen a dozen today because the fish are dispersed and spawning, so they’re are difficult to catch. Normally, large shiners cost around a $1.50 each, Brown said.
Good bait, proximity to the Hillsborough River and convenient hours lure in fishermen.
“It’s all the time,” Brown said. Catfish lovers are out early to snag popular fishing spots, and during snook season there’s a real run for shiners, he said.
It’s not uncommon for someone to ring the bell at 3 a.m.
“I stick my head out of the door real fast and tell them I’ll be there. It takes a lot for someone to ring a bell that time of the day,” Brown said.
The Browns opened their shop about two years ago with a top notch but small stock of bait and tackle. Born anglers, they knew it was hard to get bait late at night or early in the morning, so they decided to stay open 24 hours.
Now they think their hard work is paying off. The shop has gradually grown to include all kinds of lures and bobbers, rods and reels. Hillsborough River fishermen know they’re there. And others find out every day, Brown said.
“I’ve seen this place a bunch of times, off the interstate, but this is the first time I’ve been here,” customer Michael Walker said one afternoon. “We got a pretty good (fishing) hole near here, so this will suit us just fine.”
Walker said he’s been to a few saltwater bait shops that were open till midnight.
“But I don’t know any that stay open past midnight,” he said.
Although sometimes blurry-eyed when he waits on customers, Brown is never too tired to swap fish stories and other tips.
Normally when he’s fishing with a shiner, Brown hooks the bait behind the rear dorsal fin with a Khale hook. A bass usually grabs a smaller fish head first, so the gills and fins smooth back as the larger fish swallows its victim, Brown said.
But during spawning season, like now, he uses a straight hook and punctures the crease at the bottom of the shiner’s mouth, hooking upward through a hole in the snout.
“Now bass are eating and striking so hard they take him and swallow him,” Brown said.
The shop has given Brown more than a chance to make a living and tell stories. A former designer of conveyor systems, he gave up two houses, boats and other luxuries to move to the woods 10 years ago.
“I had what you’re supposed to want,” Brown said. “I just wasn’t happy.”
But he loved the river, and he lived for years on the Hidden River property north of his shop. Today he said he thinks the land surrounding his home will become Tampa’s version of Central Park.
“I had the foresight to have bait and tackle because there’s 25,000 acres of Southwest Florida Water Management district property adjoining the river that will always be public,” Brown said.
Lettuce Lake Park, Trout Creek, Wilderness Park, Hillsborough River State Park and other natural settings also are permanent parts of the landscape, he said.
As the area grows, the Browns hope their business will follow suit. They feel lucky that they’re in the middle of a developing area minutes from the pristine quiet of the undeveloped Hillsborough River.
Soon Joe Brown plans to have canoes for rent.
“We’re going to grow slow, we don’t believe in carrying debt,” he said. “It takes a lot to start a business.” We’ve had to sacrifice, but we wouldn’t trade it.”
HILLSBOROUGH RIVER ROLLIN’ ALONG
Tribune Outdoors Editor
The Hillsborough River has seen some tough times, It’s been dammed and drained and polluted and sea-walled almost to the point of death.
But it keeps on hanging in there. Old man river just keeps on rollin’.
The upper river, above the Fowler Avenue bridge, shows fits and starts of the sort of thing that brought the lower river to its knees years back. But all things considered, its still got a whole lot to offer a city-world wearied soul.
I went up there a week or so ago with Joe Brown and his fishing guide pal Ted Sawyer, both Hillsborough River fans since they wore knee pants.
Joe asked ask me to ride along to take a look at some of the trashing problems that are starting to peak out here and there along the shore lines, and we saw more of it than you’d hope to.
But what we saw mostly was rich-looking black water and tall, thick cypress dams, lots of birds and fish and turtles. And solitude.
It’s not pristine wilderness. But considering it’s within shooting distance of the downtown towers of a major American metropolis, the upper Hillsborough ain’t bad. Not bad at all.
The river snakes through the backyards of a number of homes and an apartment complex or two until it slips under the Fletcher Avenue bridge. From there on up, city turns country in a hurry. There’s a landing at Tampa Palms, but you can’t see any buildings, and for much of the rest of it, the river swamp spreads out all around the flow, a lot like it must have when Tampa was a two-bit fishing village 10 miles away.
There are lots of interesting creeks to explore, including several that Joe said were excellent bassing spots.
HILLSBOROUGH RIVER ENDURES DESPITE TRASH
Lettuce Lake, the only open spot in the river, gave us a look at the county park tower where folks so inclined can view the swamp without getting their feet wet. And a little further up, we found the buzzards.
They come in hundreds, maybe in thousands, Joe said, every winter. They show up in November, they stay until March. They festoon the trees in dozens, fight and hold discussions along the banks, bath in the river.
Yep. Buzzards bath.
Apparently they get a bit too strong even for themselves after a time. We watched a dozen of them flutter like sparrows in a bird bath as they washed up along a sandy shoreline near Nature’s Classroom.
The birds roost in the trees along the river at night, fly out over the surrounding pasture land by day looking for assorted horribles to fill their stomachs.
Sometimes they go visit the downtown towers, where they whirl for hours on the thermals of heated air rising up the glass cliffs.
We found the trash piles, too. Heaps of plastic cups, beer cans, paper plates, the fallout from the civilization that bustles around the edges of this little piece of wilderness.
Joe said he can’t understand why folks would take the trouble to come out here, to get away from the pollution and the ugliness of some parts of the city, and then turn the shorelines into a dump wit their leftovers.
I couldn’t either.
FISHING THE RIVER
Joe Brown runs 24-Hour Bait, on Morris Bridge Road just off Fletcher Avenue. It’s the nearest bait shop to the river, and the only one that operates around the clock. (Well, sort of around the clock. If you show up at 3 a.m., you have to press the buzzer and wait a couple of minutes until Joe rolls out of the sack and comes on down to the shop to serve you.)
The folks who buy bait there return with stories of their successes, and this along with his own long angling experience has allowed Brown to put together a pretty good picture of what works, when, on the river.
Wild shiners, Joe says, are the choice offering for the river’s large mouth.
“We sell ’seasoned’ shiners that have been in chilled, chemically treated water for a week or two. This gives them a slightly silvery color, makes their scales a lot tougher and makes them stay alive on the hook longer than domestic shiners or even fresh-caught wild ones,” he says.
Brown says the way to fish the shiners is to use a Kahle-style hook with a big bend, made of light wire so the bait stays lively. The hook should be inserted under the skin back of the dorsal fin. The bait is then either free-lined, with no weight or cork, or with a cork only, around beds of floating grass and along the deeper cypress shores.
Joe says that simply putting a couple of the baits out behind the boat and letting it drift with the current will also turn up plenty of fish.
He says the side creeks are good spots to fish plastic worms, rigged Texas style with a slip sinker. Colors favored by river experts are tequila shad, red shad and crawfish.
Joe says that the waters above the “pop-off canal” dam, which shuttles water to the Palm River in time of flood, are good for top-water plugs early and late in the day.
Brown is also a catfish angler, and notes that there are plenty of spots where big channel catfish gather in the river.
“Every major bend has a deep hole along the outside bank,” he notes. “Most of these holes have big catfish in the bottom.”
In fact, some of the holes marked nearly 30 feet deep on Ted Sawyers LCD depth finder, and suspended dots showed there were plenty of cats waiting in the depths.
Brown said that cut shiners were the best bait for cats. He said the fish usually feed right on the bottom, so the bait should be weighted with plenty of lead to make it hit and stay put.
He said speckled perch or crappie have been biting well in the river for several months, and should stay active through March.
Some of the best spots, he noted, are the hole just below the Fletcher Avenue Bridge, and the island near the upstream end of Lettuce Lake. He said Missouri minnows about two inches long are the best bait in either location.
The river offers good fishing year around, but water levels drop in late winter and early spring.
This means possible problems for boatmen new to the river, according to Brown, because there are many unmarked rocks and stumps, particularly near the Fowler ramp.
Guide Ted Sawyer suggests using only shallow-draft aluminum boats during the low water period, and proceeding slowly until you learn the water.
Joe has one request, however you fish the river: take a trash bag with you
‘FISH JOCKEYS’ HAVE RADIO LISTENERS HOOKED
Tribune Outdoors Editor
They call themselves the Mutt and Jeff of Saturday morning fishing shows.
On the air they are argumentative, querulous and cantankerous by their own admission, but Jim Lee and Joe Brown of WFNS, 910 AM’s “GETAWAYS” radio program get along just fine when they hop into a boat and head out for some redfish and snook action, as they did a few weeks ago with captain Tod Romine of Bradenton.
Lee is an insurance man at his “real” job, while Brown runs Tampa’s only 24-hour bait shop. Both say the Saturday morning radio gig is more for fun than profit, but the 25 weeks since they started they’ve managed to collect enough sponsors to break even and enough listeners to put them in the ratings book.
“It ruins your Friday’s nights because you have to get up at 3:30 on Saturday morning to be on the air by 6,” Lee said. “And we usually like to get together at least once during the week to go over the next show and plan the sound effects.”
The program not only covers hunting and fishing, but also family adventures like locating shark’s teeth on the beaches near Venice and going on-site at Gatorland at feeding time.
” We enjoy a lot of foolishness on the air,” Brown said. ” We want to provide information, but more than that we want to entertain. It’s humbling to know you’re just a push of the button away from disappearing from your listeners.”
For a part of the trip on Sarasota Bay, the fish were somewhat humbling, too, with the temperature around 95 degrees and baits scarce, Tod Romine had to delve into his bag of tricks to turn the fish on. But after a few dry holes, he managed.
” The big problem with fishing this summer has been the bait scarcity in this area due to the red tide,” Romine. ” There’s lots of little stuff on the inside that are good for chum, but the larger sardines we want as bait are very hard to find.”
Fortunately, Romine had a “sardine mine” in a 15-foot deep hole in the grass flats where he managed to collect several dozen 4-inch baits with five or six throws of the 10 foot net. He then visited a spot near the mouth of the Manatee River where one toss of of a small-mesh net captured all the chum-sized sardines he could lift aboard.
” I like small sardines for chum because they turn the fish on but don’t fill them up,” Romine said. ” Once you get them popping on top, put out a bigger bait and you’re hooked up in a hurry.”
Lee caught the first fish, a snook of about 23 inches. He pulled it aboard and was still posing for photos when Brown nailed one of about the same size.
” That fish is just like mine, only an inch shorter,” Lee told him.
” Yeah , but it’s an ounce heavier,” Brown said.
” Mine has a higher IQ,” Lee said.
” He wouldn’t have hit if I hadn’t put it in there just right.
” Mine is better looking,” Brown said.
” Yours has a crooked nose.”
And so it went. We managed 15 snook total, all but a couple smaller than the legal 24-inch minimum, and a dozen redfish, six of them in the legal spot, six over the 27-inch maximum. In between was a mix of lady fish, jacks and undersized trout — a busy day considering the sweltering heat.
Romine fishes a mix of yellow holes on high or rising water, deep cuts and island points on the drop.
For more on fishing the Sarasota Bay area, Romine can be reached at (941) 747-3866. For more on Jim and Joe, their shows runs from 6 to 9 a.m. Saturdays.
Jim Tunstall TAMPA TRIBUNE
A break with the mainstream led a couple to their own little corner of happiness from another day in time.
” I believe every individual has a purpose. When you start going on your journey to discover yours, you learn some things along the way.”
Joe Brown loves to express himself.
If you want to see how, take a spin by his place on the southwest corner of Interstate 75 and Fletcher Avenue. His yard is coiffed with a sassy blend of crab-trap buoys, bottle art, fishy wind socks and a dog and two cats that co-exist on a mainly peaceful basis.
Then there’s the man. Brown, a page out of the 1960’s better side, owns A-24 Hour Bait and Tackle.
On one hand, he’s private enough not to want his photograph taken, on the other, he’s gregarious enough to talk the ears off anyone interested in fishing. Fact is, this 51-year-old Tampa native is primed to gab about next best to anything on the minds of his visitors, including the way things used to be.
Like in 1983 when he and his wife, Kim, planted roots on this corner and the new Interstate was their only new neighbor.
Before that, Brown had been part of the establishment, but he chucked his mainstream career and spent 3 years on a 700-hundred acre spread across Fletcher, searching for himself.
I was seriously unhappy,” he says.
“I left (the job) Nov. 13, 1981. That Date, the moment I left the office, it blazed in my brain, I was 31 and dealing with severe depression.”
One day he heard a voice.
“People will tell you you’ve got serious problems when you hear voices,” he says behind a grin. “But this wasn’t that kind of experience. It just said, ‘Joe, what if it gets better?’”
Well, slowly it did.
He and Kim took an option on the corner that been home to a worm farm for 25 years.
” The worm business was at it’s ebb,” Brown says.
” I bought it to sell. I had no idea I was going to continue it.”
Over the years, neighbors started putting down roots to the west, including apartment complexes and more than a half dozen hotels, such as Extended Stay America and Residence Inn.
The bait and tackle business stayed reasonably strong until the economy went south last year, Brown says, adding that he still carries a full line of rods, reels, cane poles, lures, crickets, shiners, and shrimp.
” But we did a lot a wholesale and we lost 90 percent of that business Sep. 11,” he says.” ” That’s dead. It’s not coming back.”
Fortunately the Browns have branched out.
Last year, they opened a gift shop that sells gator heads, sea shells, stuffed critters, t-shirts, and other trinkets.
Brown also started dabbling in bottle art — melting everything from vodka to Sprite bottles, reshaping them then letting them cool and harden.
Through the last 20 years, he seems to have learned to be a survivor.
He’s also learned his reason for being on this corner.
“I believe every individual has a purpose,” he says, turning serious for a moment.
“When you start going on your journey to discover yours, you learn some things along the way. I like working with the public and making them happy. And if you’re doing what you want to do, it’s a beautiful thing.”
BUOY OH BUOY
BITS OF THE BEACH
TIMES STAFF WRITER
A BAY AREA BUSINESS COUPLE SALVAGES DEBRIS FROM THE KEYS THAT CAN BUOY ANY ATMOSPHERE.
TAMPA– Every month or so, Kim and Joe Brown pile into the family flatbed truck, he one that’s decorated with multi-colored stencils of fern fronds, and drive down to Key West.
There, they inevitably find what they’re looking for: a few thousand discarded plastic foam crab and lobster buoys, maybe a battered surf board or a life preserver. After a week or so, they strap the whole load down, turn the truck around and head home to Fletcher Avenue at Interstate-75, where they have lived for nearly 25 years.
If you’ve driven by there recently, and you’d know if you’d had, then you have a pretty good idea, of what the Brown’s do with the buoys once they get them off the truck.
They wrap them around metal poles, until they resemble marshmellow Christmas trees. They festoon them outside the gift and bait shop they run. They line their parking lot with them.
“It can drive you crazy,” Kim Brown said as she stared at a mound of them. “There’s got to be something else to do with them. I was thinking maybe I’d cut them in half and make them into little planters.”
Occasionaly, a restaurant owner who fancies a nautical theme will relieve them of a few thousand buoys. Sometimes a home owner from New Tampa wants a dozen for his new poolside bar.
But generally speaking, the treasures of the Key West trips come in at a rate far faster than they go out. Doesn’t matter a bit to the Browns.
“I have a pretty good life. I don’t have to bust my butt,” Kim Brown said. “I don’t make a lot of money, but when someone likes my stuff, that’s cool.”
In a corner of Tampa dominated by late-arriving corporate parks and hotel chains, they live a life of enviable self-sufficiency. If they appear eccentric, it is only by the relelentlessly conformist standards of their neighbors. If the decor appears kitschy, maybe it’s because we’ve lost touch with what’s truly authentic.
On a recent morning, Kim Brown was giving an impromptu tour to a surprise visitor. She was wearing a loose-fitting white shirt and a long gray cotton skirt. Walking around in her tanned bare feet and sunglasses she seemed glamorous and unfussy. She casually mentions her age, 46, without a trace of self-consciousness.
The sky was threatening rain and that wasn’t doing much for sales at A-24 Hour Bait. “Fish are going to eat today,” she says, shaking her head at the squandered opportunity.
But it gave her time to tell some stories.
“Those rings, they came from a Cuban refugee raft,” she says, indicating a clump of artifacts outside thet baitshop. ” When I can, I take a picture of the man or the woman and that becomes part of the story of what we sell.”
She grabbed a bass lure dangling from the inside of a metal cylinder and gave it a good tug. It clanged loudly. “We make the bells out of dive tanks that were going to be thrown away,” she says.
“I’ve got a real nice anchor. It’s over 100 years old. That came from a Cuban who got it caught in his lobster traps.”
“The Lobster guys are lucky,” she says with real admiration in her voice. “They find this stuff all the time, just floating out there.”
Kim grew up near Lowry Park Zoo. Her husband was raised out on Anderson Road. They met in 1981, the circumstances of which are one of a few stories she’s reluctant to tell in detail. At the time she was boarding horses across the road in what is now the Hidden River Corporate Park.
“When I met Joe, he was in a suit and tie. He always had a thousand dollars on his back,” she said. He was in the materials handling business, but it wasn’t long for that corporate life.
They saw some land was available for sale on Morris Bridge Road, the part where it bends in the southwest corner of I-75 and Fletcher. The acre or so had a worm farm on it when they bought it. The previous owner had a Coca-Cola cooler out front, and fishermen on their way to the Hillsborough River would come by and fill a can with worms, leave a little money in a cup. All on the honour system.
“That tapered off. Fishng wasn’t simple anymore. You couldn’t just get a cane pole and a can of worms and go catch some dinner,” Kim says. “Now you’ve got to have permits and expensive reels and the latest lure.”
“That’s why we kind of went back to our art.”
In the early 1990’s they made their first trip down to the keys. They began to meet fishermen. They stayed in their homes, ate dinner with them. Joined in the parties at the beginning of stone crab season.
It wasn’t long before they saw all the buoys overflowing the trash cans. Buoys generally last a few years. Turtles gnaw them. Storms scatter them. Sun and salt bleach them.
“Hey, we can do something with those,” Kim remembers saying. “We make something out of nothing.”
The gift shop, known as Hong Kong Willie, is full of stuff that was perilously close to oblivion before the Browns identified some hidden potential.
Kim makes “coconut grams”. They’re painted coconuts with a space clearly marked for the address. There’s not much room for the message. But the U.S. Postal Service will actually deliver them, Kim says.
The gift shop’s ceiling is packed with coffee sacks. Glass bottles that have been heated in the Brown’s kilns sit on shelves slumped like Dali clocks. Gnarled pieces of polished Lignum Vitae are scattered about; Kim’s son Derek, 22, is responsible for that work.
Nothing has a price, because prices depend on too many variables for it to be worth specifying. (A string of five buoys will cost you $12.99, though the price drops for bulk purchases.) But whenever possible a piece will come with a picture of the shop, or of the person who provided the piece, to commemorate the item’s passage
“This telephone was on Duval Street,” Kim says. “It’s got all these names and numbers written on the side. And a picture of a raccoon on the front. Who knows why?”
The demand for items such as this is unpredictable. Ditto the 1961 mailbox with the rusted front. But the Browns’ customers tend to share their enthusiasm.
“I bought 1,200 buoys a month ago,” said Jimmy Ciaccio, owner of Gaspar’s, a restaurant on 56th Street in Temple Terrace that has a brand new patio with an aggressive Key West theme.
“I must have 3,000 of them around here,” Ciaccio says as he walks the deck, talking a torrent. “I got a raft, those traps, they all came from Joe. I’ve bought a lot of novelty stuff from them. That’s what they’re all about and that’s what we’re all about. And there’s always a story behind everything. I love that. He gave me that thing, it’s like a piece of wood or something I don’t know what it is, but it’s from Key West. We’ve got that chemistry.”
If there were a few more customers as fervid as Ciaccio, Kim Brown might not be toying with the idea of getting into the food business. But there aren’t and she is.
“Not everybody wants a buoy or a bell,” Kim says. “But everyone wants to drink a cup of coffee. I don’t want to be a Starbucks but maybe a little coffee shop. Maybe a good Cuban sandwich.”
“But then you get into hiring and firing. I’ve got friends in the retaurant business. I see how hard they work. It’s never-ending,” she says, beginning to argue with herself. “I just don’t want to work that hard.”
She circles back to a calm contentment with life as it is currently defined.
“We’re happy. We don’t want to sell. We’re not rich, but we pay our bills.
Strewn about the lawn is a menagerie of surfboards, car doors, CB radios, wooden sculptures and painted signs. A 1979 Ford pickup sits in the front driveway, painted with a rainbow of colors, four racks of antlers affixed to its roof. An old stuffed caribou sits in a lawn chair beckoning visitors.
Of the thousands of motorists who pass by this eclectic landmark off Exit 266 every day, few stop in the funky gift shop and Key West-themed folk art gallery that is Hong Kong Willie’s. But this is not your typical roadside store selling cheesy Florida magnets and beach T-shirts (although they have those, too). From the moment the owners come out to greet you, it’s clear that for them this isn’t just a business — it’s a lifestyle.
As I step out of my car, Joe Brown ambles toward me wearing a red Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. With his disheveled shoulder-length brown hair and strong jaw line, Brown, 56, looks a lot like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. He ends most of his sentences with “Do you follow me?” and stares with wild gray eyes until you nod in agreement. His 46-year-old wife, Kim, who bears a strong resemblance to Grace Slick, sits near the shop’s open sign, branding her latest creation. Wearing large sunglasses, she gives a smile, hardly looking up.
Joe and Kim — Tampa natives — bought the half-acre property off Fletcher Avenue and Morris Bridge Road in 1985. For the next two decades, the Browns operated A-24 Hour Bait and Tackle, living on the premises and bagging worms for K-Mart and Wal-Mart to make a few extra bucks. But in 2001, they decided to abandon fish food to pursue the fickle business of art, although they will tell you Hong Kong Willie’s was always “part of the journey.”
“We were artists,” says Joe. “We were born that way. We had no choice. You follow me?”
The underlying theme of Hong Kong Willie’s is creating art out of objects destined for the landfill, and while browsing the items, I get the feeling the Browns are trying to make a point rather than a sale.
“Thirty percent of the gifts given will be in the dumpster by next Christmas,” Joe says. “Most Christmas gifts will be given because they think they have to. Very few will have a social impact.”
Every item at Hong Kong Willie’s is either art made out of an object destined for the landfill or products that other companies were throwing away and the Browns retrieved before they made it to the dumpster. But don’t call this recycled art. The Browns prefer “preservation.”
Recycling implies the material will be used for the same purpose. “If you get stuck in that word, then you get stuck in that form,” Joe explains. Instead, the Browns create a whole new use for an item that would have been otherwise thrown away.
Kim looks up from her painting after Joe finishes his long ramble. “We’ve always been able to take nothing and make something out of it,” she says.
Although most people assume Joe is “Hong Kong Willie,” he says the name refers to the origin of junk: Hong Kong produces much of the useless merchandise that Americans buy and quickly throw away, he says. So it’s up to the Willies of the world — i.e. the Browns and other conservationists — to find new uses for the trash.
“All of us who believe what we believe is Hong Kong Willie,” Joe says.
The gift shop is a space not much bigger than a tool shed, cluttered with handmade candles, pottery, ceramic figures and deer skulls painted tie-dye style. Joe, who’s not content to allow me to wander by myself, darts from item to item, sharing each one’s origins. One of the first objects he shows me is an old scuba tank cut in half, stenciled with yellow and purple spray paint with a weighted rope attached on the inside. What would have been a heavy addition to a landfill or junkyard, the Browns now sell as a nautical-themed bell. Another popular item: a used Starbucks Frappuccino bottle filled with sand and shells, and the words “Florida Beachfront Property” written in paint on it.
“Is it really pragmatic to say this had one life — to have Frappuccino in it?” he says, holding up the $3 gift. “That’s not true. You follow me?”
Joe picks up a droopy glass vase — the result of an Arizona Ice Tea bottle stuck in a kiln for too long. He says it’s a collector’s item: Only 300 were made and none look alike.
“People really want something that is one of a kind and something that means something,” he says, holding up the vase and pointing to a stack of Beanie Babies. “Which one is the real collectible? The one that cannot be copied or the one that is mass-produced just on a small scale? You follow me?”
Most of the materials the Browns work with come from Key West. Every few months they hop in the pickup, drive the 425 miles to the Keys and start looking for the junk no one else wants: used dive tanks, the lobster trap buoys, burlap bags and even old wooden planks from ships or homes destroyed by storms.
In fact, the latter is one of their biggest sellers. They bring back an imperfect piece of lumber, slap some urethane on it and Kim paints everything from colorful fish and birds to old Key West landmarks on it. Every piece is branded, marked with a lobster cage tag and affixed with brass rings or forks with which to hang them. In the building opposite the gift shop, among stuffed animals and fish (Joe was once a taxidermist), 30 of these painted planks hang from the walls.
Customers are few at Hong Kong Willie’s, but the Browns say they’re doing well. They never try to push their art on anyone, figuring that if someone stops and buys something, it was meant to be. (“A piece of art is a love affair,” Kim says.) They count Gaspar’s Patio Bar and Grille in Temple Terrace as one of their best customers. Their other business comes from Tampa residents looking to add a tiki feel to their backyards. Among Joe’s most popular creations are old car doors outfitted with waterproof speakers. A few Key West bars bought the unique sound systems to hang from their ceilings.
But the Browns are not just content to sell their art to passersby — they want to live the ideals that inspire their art. The couple is working on getting their business off the electrical grid and powered completely by solar energy. Kim wants to start a coffee and ice cream shop with free wireless Internet to bring in likeminded people. Joe wants to be in the Guinness Book of World Records for hanging the greatest number of buoys to a structure (it’s not a category yet). And they’re always trying to find new uses for the trash they see lining area roads.
“We’re not just sitting out here being weird,” Joe says suddenly. “We’re actually taking objects and making these thousands of people say, ‘What’s that?’ We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”
His eyes get wide.
“You follow me?”