Destination Clearwater: Barber Temple Orange
Before T-shirts, people bought oranges.
It’s empty now. The bright purple and teal colors, a screaming advertisement for deserted dreams.
For years the building remained, alternately, a desolate cavern of failure and a garish beacon for out-of-towners, filled with thin, made-in-China, cotton T-shirts, all at the bargain price of "3-for-$10."
It wasn’t always like that. Before we drew people in with cheap souvenirs, something else pulled them inside the shop. I stop at the darkened windows and peer inside, and the dust and grime clear away, as do the other businesses on the corner. The few remaining T-shirts hanging in the window give way to neatly stocked rows of jellies, taffies and alligator-shaped chocolate.
It’s 1948, and Bascom Barber’s just finished building Barber Temple Orange for his sons Louis and Harold. I squint and a counter comes into focus. A young girl with blonde hair hands a lady from Ohio a tiny paper cup of liquid Florida sunshine: orange juice. Everyone who walks in the door gets one, and the juice, Mr. Louis Barber tells them when they ask, comes from the family groves off Belcher Road.
Bins of Temple oranges and Duncan grapefruit adorn the shop. These seductive, juicy oranges and gigantic yellow grapefruit predate the idea of “locavorism” by about 50 years. The Barber family calls their citrus “Golden Gator” and these fruit tempt tourists and locals alike more than any apple. At the register, an older man with black nylon socks, plastic brown sandals, and blue madras shorts pays for his orange marmalade, quart of grapefruit juice and a chocolate alligator.
“First time I’ve stopped the car since Jacksonville,” he laughs as he hands over cash. “You know what? Let’s send a crate of those oranges back home. Let my neighbor Roy see what he’s missing.”
He comes here every year when he arrives in Clearwater, and Barber Temple Orange is his ritual. He’s not alone: I notice people shaking hands with the Barber family, telling them how they couldn’t wait another day for a glass of their juice. There’s a lot of citrus packing going on, too: everybody wants to send home a glass of sunshine, often just to brag how great they’ve got it down here while their neighbors shovel slush and de-ice their cars.
You can buy a baby gator here, too. Oh, they’re called “caimans” but just looking at them everyone knows they’re baby gators. Anyone can buy one and take it home for a pet.
After school lets out every day, the Barber girls come to the shop and squeeze the oranges for the snowbirds. In the back, employees – mostly Barber kids and grownups – wash the fruit, grade the fruit, and pack it in the packing house. The younger kids love to grade the fruit, and everyone works together to make sure that tons of Duncans and Temples get shipped north every year.
Fast forward to 1971. Louis just died, suddenly. His wife, Shirley, takes over managing the store. More and more people come into Clearwater to visit, and that means more people want oranges, yes, but that also means the city wants a wider road. That road chips at the property, bit by bit, until the palm trees that fringed the parking lot and greeted customers give up the fight.
Welcome to 1990. It's all but impossible to get to the parking lot. The family still ships plenty of fruit, but citrus canker and freezes don’t help that end of the business much. The Barber family locks the doors on the building. A T-shirt shop moves in, bragging about low prices.
Now it's 2004. Mrs. Barber still shipped oranges for 14 years, but now it's time to for Barber Temple Orange to shut its doors forever.
In February 2012, Mrs. Shirley Barber died. She lasted far longer than the tacky T-shirt shops that followed.
The Barber groves once stood at intersection of Belcher and Druid Roads, where the Barber family grew their Golden Gators citrus. The Barber family sold the groves but named the area Grovewood. Drive around and you’ll find a Barber Drive and a Bascom Way.
Around the corner, at Crest Lake Park, Barber Temple alligators – descendants of some of the ones sold in the shops – still threaten small poodles with their wary saurian eyes.
The bright citrus shop interior fades and the dust and grime closes back in. I step back and see an empty building, Barber Temple Orange gone but not forgotten.
I drive home, take out my small juicer, and make a glass of pulpy fresh orange juice.