Havana is Smokin' Again

K.K. Snyder

HAVANA-There's a good reason the merchants here call this historic little town a few miles north of Tallahassee "North Florida's Arts and Antiques Capital." With more than 30 shops offering antiques, art, custom-made and antique furniture, books, jewelry, collectibles, clothing, gifts and even pets, Havana is a haven for shoppers and art lovers who are tired of malls and big chain stores.

In between the shops, you'll find quaint eateries and coffee shops, where fares range from quiche and hoagies to fine Italian dining and barbecue. Twenty years ago, this place was practically a ghost town. That's when Keith Henderson strolled into town.

Having suffered devastating economic hardship when the cigar industry moved to Central America several decades ago, Havana - named for Havana, Cuba, because of the cigar tobacco produced there, practically dried up.

After enjoying the rewards of the shade tobacco industry in Havana in the '40s-'60s, people moved away to find jobs when the industry shriveled. Those who stayed shopped in nearby cities, such as Tallahassee, just 15 minutes away.

But in 1983, Tallahassee antique shop owners Henderson and Lee Hotchkiss were looking to relocate. The pair were interested in a small corner of a building on the main street in Havana.

"We'd always loved this building," Henderson said of the two-story, red-brick warehouse that formerly housed a hardware store and drug store. Now it's occupied by H&H Antiques, Mirror Image Antiques and Little River General Store.

"We were negotiating, and they said, 'For twice as much money, we'll sell you the whole block,'" Henderson recalled.

So they took a leap of faith and - before the deal even closed - they'd sold two of the store spaces and leased another. Soon, Havana was back on its feet and headed toward becoming the antique and art mecca it is today.

"What we had seen on our buying trips to Ohio and Pennsylvania was that a lot of shops in one little town created a big draw," said Henderson, referred to by many of his fellow merchants as a visionary. "People will go way out of their way to go to a half a dozen or a dozen antique shops, where they won't go out of their way to go to one. Over the years, it's just continued to grow."

One reason for the success - and the camaraderie of Havana merchants - is that rather than trying to work against one another, they work together. They even have a joint advertising group, which Henderson said allows them to do things none of them could do individually, such as place billboards on Interstate highway 10. "We've created at good draw," he added.

One of the highlights in Havana for the past several years is the Havana MusicFest held each April. Each year, the crowd gets bigger...and so do the sales. The three-day event includes a wide range of activities and musical performers. Most stores and cafes stay open late that weekend accommodate the crowd. Other favorite Havana events are the Bead and Jewelry Fest and the Pumpkin Fest, both held in October.

Joan Sisario, co-owner of Traditions Antiques and Gifts with her daughter Michele Sisario and granddaughter Elizabeth Sisario Barker, was one of the first to open with Henderson.

"It was a ghost town, really. Nothing like it is today," she said. "It's grown in different directions. There's always things changing. It's now more than just the antiques. You can find just about anything here."

Also a family-owned business, Wanderings, opened in Havana eight years ago. The 6,000-square-foot store is billed as an ethnic arts gallery, offering jewelry, furniture, pottery and masks - all hand-crafted by artisans around the world and personally chosen by the owners on buying excursions.

"It's emerged into a town of its own," said Terri Paul, who gave up being a "backpacking hippie, wondering around the world" to go into business with her father, Tony Lombardo, when he retired from the corporate world after 20 years."

"There were only 10 or 12 shops when we came," she added. Now, her father estimates there are 30-40 shops in Havana. Both Traditions and Wanderings are located in the Havana Depot.

Jim and Betty Kellum operate 20,000 square feet of shopping space in Kellum's Antique Center. They were also among the first to arrive, having opened shop in 1987.

"People in other small towns have called me and said they'd like to get their little town to do this, but there is no formula. A lot of very entrepreneurial people came in and invested a lot of money," said Mrs. Kellum, who added that there was no city planning, design, merchant recruitment or advertising by the local government. "It's just a thing that happened."

The Florida Arts Trail, designated by the state Legislature in 1997, runs through Havana and includes the renovated historic building The Cannery and its more than 100 booths, Florida Art Center & Gallery, Wanderings and Nicholson Farmhouse & Shops, which is about three miles west of town. Also in Havana are First Street Gallery and The Planters Exchange.

While in Havana, you can't miss the Main Street Market, located along the main drag. Housed here you'll find 12 unique shops, including the Leather Gallery and Gifts, Carole's Doll Shoppe and the delicious offerings of the Market Café, including homemade soups and specialty desserts.

Amble across the street and you'll find delicious espresso and other treats at Dolly's Espresso Café, and the fine art jewelry of Isises, featuring a unique line of Russian watches. Just up the sidewalk is Bella's Italian Restaurant, where diners can enjoy lunch inside the charming dining room or dinner under the stars on the terrace for a more romantic setting.

Fins, Feathers and Foliage and Walls by Design are now located in the historic McLauchlin House. If it's a favorite book you're in search of or just a good read, Beare's Books 'N Things & Historical Bookshelf is always changing its vast inventory, which includes a large collection of Civil War and military books. Available in the near future will be a genealogy area, where patrons can trace family history.

Across the main street are Confetti's, Happy Hippo, My Secret Garden and Amish Country Oak Furniture. The Berry Patch and Barbara Grant Collectibles round out the list.