TAMPA — For Joseph Stokes, Gasparilla season always has meant early mornings, heavy lifting and sorting through thousands of pounds of plastic beads.
It's the busiest time of the year for the owner of Features Costumes and the Bead Barn. Thirty-pound boxes of beads usually are stacked to the ceiling and semi-trucks hauling even more boxes are unloaded every few days.
But after this year's pirate invasion, Stokes is hanging up his bead belt.
The 18-year-old costume shop and longtime supplier of custom-made bling for the krewes of Gasparilla this summer is “retiring” from the bead business. The shed behind the store that previously held shelves and racks of multicolored beads will be transformed into a “pirate's cove” of treasure chests, home decor and other pirate-themed collectibles.
“It's bittersweet,” Stokes said. “We're just trying to find another niche that South Tampa needs.”
Stokes didn't want the rising costs to manufacture and ship the beads from China to drive up the Bead Barn's prices, and the Internet has been luring away customers for a while, he said.
“We just decided to go down a different avenue,” Stokes said. “It just got to the point where the beads coming from China got so expensive that we could not provide the service we started with.”
Stokes opened Features Costumes, off MacDill Avenue behind Datz restaurant, with his business partner in 1987. At the time, South Tampa didn't have a costume store, he said. A few years later, the pair realized there was another market yet to be tapped in the area: Gasparilla beads. Back then, krewe members could find beads only in Mardi Gras colors, Stokes said.
In 1996, he and his partner, Duane Wendel, converted space behind the store into the Bead Barn, and business took off. By 2010, the shop had more than 600 varieties of beads for sale.
Stokes estimated the Bead Barn sold between 15 and 20 tons of plastic beads every year. The shop designed custom beads for companies, sports teams, holidays, breast cancer awareness, and the dozens of krewes that participate in Gasparilla festivities.
Features Costumes used to send three trucks full of beads to restock the supplies of parading pirates as they marauded along Bayshore Boulevard into downtown Tampa. The store sold bead belts, to which the pirates attached shower hooks which held the beads at their waists as they marched along Bayshore, tossing the colorful trinkets to the crowd.
One year the owner of the company that sold shower hooks to the Bead Barn called and joked that he sold more of them to the costume store than he did to The Home Depot, Stokes said.
“You couldn't even move in there,” he said about the store during Gasparilla season. “It was a lot of fun. A whole lot of work.”
But the Bead Barn was really Wendel's pet project, and he died suddenly in 2009, Stokes said. After almost 20 years, Stokes said he is tired of heaving around heavy boxes of beads.
He will begin ordering merchandise for the new pirate collection in March and hopes to have that area open for business by the summer, he said. Until then, the store is selling “packs” of beads for $20 to help clear out the inventory. Each bag contains six to 12 dozen strands of beads, and no two bundles are alike, Stokes said.
“And they're selling like hotcakes,” he said. “We can't pack them fast enough.”
The Bead Barn has been part of Gasparilla for years, said Don Barnes, executive officer of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, which has ordered many custom beads from the shop for previous parades. He said Ye Mystic Krewe bought beads from the store and took them to the group's other charitable events throughout the year.
“We could not do what we do without their support,” Barnes said.
The krewe is exploring other options to acquire beads for future parades, but it will continue to get its costumes at Features, he said.
“While we're sad to see them get out the bead business, we're very glad they're staying with the costumes,” Barnes said.
Sometimes it's easier to find beads for a better price online, said Anne Bartlett, president of the Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley, one of the area's biggest krewes. But the krewes use beads at events throughout the year, she said, and local bead stores like the Bead Barn are more convenient.
“It's nice to have that local connection,” she said.
Stokes is optimistic about the change. He has made many good friends through the years as people have come to his shop for their bead needs, he said, and he hopes to make many more.
“We've got some nice history and memories that go along with this business,” he said.