Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Mangrove Squeeze

... Then the lights were turned off, the media packed up and left, and things got relatively quiet.

But Key West, in certain ways, was changed. With the T-shirt shops instantly defunct, there would be a sudden glut of retail space on Duval Street, and rents would plummet accordingly. Local artisans could once again move in. There would be painters'-coops and handmade sandals and brightly colored wooden fish. Much of what was offered would be pure kitsch -- but authentic, local kitsch -- and a hard core local like Suki could take pleasure and vindication at the change.

Mangrove Squeeze, Laurence Shames, 1999

I talked about this book a while back (April 9). I got it at the Dover Library a few days after that, I finished it (for the second time) yesterday while I waited for Janet getting some diagnostic testing at Wentworth-Douglas hospital here in Dover, our local medical center (she has some swelling in her left leg, cause unknown at this time).

I read Squeeze when I was new in Key West, in the year the book was published, as it happened, and I remembered it particularly for its use of the T-shirt shops as a plot device. Brother Tom had forewarned me about the shops, and it was easy to see that Key West seemed to have an awful lot of them, one looking like the next, carrying pretty much the same merchandise, many of them staffed by young, fast-talking people looking vaguely middle-eastern.

The word on the street was that they were owned and operated by Israeli citizens and immigrants; that most of them operated within a larger enterprise of loosely-connected companies; that they paid obscenely-high rents for the properties they occupied; that they were conduits for laundering money; that one could find the same kinds of shops in other places where tourism abounded; and on , and on.

A couple of years ago, the city put an undercover policewoman into one of the shops, tried to develop a case against the shops, and succeeded only in getting a couple of people arrested for a fake marriage, intended to get a visa and work permit for one of the operators of a shop. I don't recall anyone being punished severely for that, nor on any of the other 'evidence' turned up in the undercover probe.

One sees an occasional dust-up in the papers over a tourist getting scammed and actually lodging a complaint for it, a shop employee getting arrested for kiting a credit card charge, or for the scatalogical nature of the shirts getting prominent front window display. But nothing seems ever to really change. There has to be too much money at stake.

We had a pretty good location for the store we worked in. It was in the path betwen Sloppy Joe's and Margaritaville, so we saw a lot of tourist traffic pass by. Our featured brand name was recognizable and had a reputation for quality, the store was clean and attractive and well laid out. At the end of our run, we were paying just over $5500 a month in rent. The lease was up for renewal and Tom had to decide whether to do that. The out-of-town landlord notified us that the new lease would be at a rate of over $7,000 a month, and Tom decided to pull the plug, since the amount of business we were doing couldn't support the new level of expenses.

The lease was picked up by a business that sold what I can only characterize as "schlock" -- some vaguely tropical clothing, decorated swords and knives, odd cigarette lighters, and hundreds of other items aimed at impulsive cruise ship tourists and day-trippers. They were looking for the Real Key West and being fooled into thinking that they had found it. We heard later on that the new lease was for ten years at $10,000 a month. So sad, I must say.

One can imagine the day that Key West dies (again), and wonder whether it might be a merciful death, presaging a rebirth as a better place.

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