Maxine and Fabian Chambers looked a little reluctant today when a strange person holding a 'Free Hugs' sign at the Saturday Morning Market stretched out his arms to give them a big embrace.
"Well, he was like, 'Don't you want to hug the mayor?' And I was like, 'I don't know you. Do you have some ID to show me you're the mayor?'" said Maxine Chambers, who was vacationing here from West Palm Beach.
The couple just had gotten sample glasses of wine when St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster spotted them walking by and hugged them as part of a citywide "Hug Fest" intended to spread love for the dozens of local businesses represented at the market and across town.
"It's very welcoming," Chambers said, adding she never had hugged her own city's mayor.
Foster led dozens of volunteer huggers during the second annual event at which they hold cardboard signs reading "Free Hugs" and wear black T-shirts printed with a "Keep St. Petersburg Local" logo. The year-old organization promotes local artists and businesses.
Owners of businesses along Beach Drive, Central Avenue and elsewhere in the city stationed huggers at street corners for the festival, which precedes National Hugging Day on Monday.
"This is one of the little love letters that happen throughout the city every day that just get people to recognize the importance of local businesses," Foster said at the kickoff of today's event.
Foster estimated he had given about 100 hugs a half-hour after the event began.
"Once you get people to understand you're not crazy, you just want a little human interaction, people are receptive. I haven't been smacked in the face yet," the mayor said.
Getting people to personalize their spending habits is the main purpose of the fun, said Olga Boff, founder of Keep St. Petersburg Local. It's easy to skip the human interaction when you go to a big-box store for your shopping.
"When you go into an independent business, you sit, you chat; one of them is giving out Hershey's kisses today, another one has a shop dog giving out hugs and that's what connects you to that business in a way that you want to see it prosper," Boff said.