Thank you for your interest in our Florida Red Wiggler Worm Farm site. Any questions please do not hesitate in calling us. We want to help if we can. Thank you. joe
of Hong Kong Willie
Look for us at Interstate 75 and Fletcher, exit 266 Tampa Florida Call us at 813 770 4794
We Sell by size of Red worm,which are large. On the average is 450 Red Wigglers to a pound.
The reason why we don’t ship by thousands or use this term is
because it can be confusing. To explain, a thousand grains of sand is
one thing, or a pound of sand is a something else.When ordering Red worms by the thousand expect worm size to be smaller than a needle. Selling large Red Wiggler which are like a chicken ready to lay eggs and stress less. Any question call 813 770 4794 $49.99 per pound .
Call Tampa 813 770 4794
In Tampa Hongkongwillie Red Worm Farm
sells a Native Red Worm to Florida. This Red Worm is is part of a solution
for eliminating part of your waste going to landfills around Tampa. Vermicomposting
is the process of using worms and micro-organisms to turn kitchen waste
into a black, earthy-smelling, nutrient-rich humus. This possess is a
inexpensive way to compost and in return organic matter into rich
soil. People in Tampa interested in composting have visited Hongkongwillie Florida Red worm Farm for over 30 years.
Hong Kong Willie Red worm Farm in Tampa started in 1965,from Hongkongwillie living on a landfill as a child in Tampa on Gunn Hwy.
This making a large impact on his life. Composting with Red worms can
reduce a large amount of our waste that go to Landfills. .
Studies have shown that invasive worms (Eisenia foetida, or”European
Night crawlers) have voracious appetites and reproductive rates
(Eisenia foetida, or”European Night crawlers) have also been known to upset
the delicate balance of
the hardwood forests by consuming the leaf litter too quickly. cause
natural impact on the environment.
Any question call 813 770 4794
Eisenia foetida, or”European Night crawlers“are non native worms,This is why we
with any non-native species, it is important not to allow them to reach the wild. Their voracious appetites and reproductive rates (especially among the red wigglers) have been known to upset the delicate balance of the hardwood forests by consuming the leaf litter too quickly. This event leaves too little leaf letter to slowly incubate the hard shelled nuts and leads to excessive erosion as well as negatively affecting the pH of the soil. So, do your best to keep them confined!
Eisenia fetida, known under various common names, including redworms, brandling worms, tiger worms and red wiggler worms, are a species of earthworm adapted to decaying organic material. They thrive in rotting vegetation, compost, and manure; they are epigeal. They are rarely found in soil, instead like Lumbricus rubellus they prefer conditions where other worms cannot survive. They are used for vermicomposting. They are native to Europe, but have been introduced (both intentionally and unintentionally) to every other continent except Antarctica, occasionally threatening native species.
Here is a Little of History
on Hong Kong Willie
MY FOX TAMPA BAY
The Story Behind the Eye-Catching Art at I-75 Exit 266 Tampa Florida
transforming a Gerber baby bottle into a piece of art.“The Gerber bottle had no intrinsic value at all,” he said. “But when
(the instructor) got through with me that day, she made me see how
something so (valueless) can be valuable.”By the time class was over, Brown learned many other lessons, too,
such as the importance of volunteerism, recycling, reuse and giving back
to the community. He recalled being impressed by the teacher’s
volunteer work in Hiroshima, Japan, helping atomic bomb survivors.”One of the last words she ever spoke to me about that was, ‘When I
left, I left out of Hong Kong,’ ” he said. After turning that over in
his young brain for awhile, he decided to use it in a nickname, adding
the name “Willie” a year later.You’ve probably seen Hong Kong Willie’s eye-catching
home/gallery/studio at Fletcher Avenue and Interstate 75. But what is
the story of the man behind all those buoys and discarded objects turned
into art?Brown practiced his creative skills through his younger years. But as
an adult, he managed to amass a small fortune working in the materials
management industry. By the the ’80s, he left the business world and
decided to concentrate on his art. He spent some years in the Florida
Keys honing his craft and building his reputation as a folk artist. He
also bought some land in Tampa near Morris Bridge Road and Fletcher
Avenue where he and his family still call home.Brown purchased the land just after the entrances and exits to I-75
were built. He said he was once offered more than $1 million for the
land by a restaurant. He turned it down, he said, preferring instead to
make part of the property into a studio and gallery for the creations he
and his family put together.
And all of it is made of what most people would consider “trash.”
Pieces of driftwood, burlap bags, doll heads, rope — anything that comes
Brown’s way becomes part of his vocabulary of expression, and, in turn,
becomes something else, which makes a tour of his property somewhat of a
visual adventure. What at first seems like a random menagerie of glass,
driftwood and pottery suddenly comes together in one’s brain to form
something completely different. One moment nothing, the next a powerful
statement about 9/11.
One Man’s Trash …
Trash? There is no such thing, Brown seems to say through his art.
In his shop, he has fashioned many smaller items out of driftwood,
burlap bags and other materials into signs, purses, totes, bird feeder
hangars and yard sculptures.
He sells a lot to the regular influx of University of South Florida
parents and students every year who are are at first intrigued by the
“buoy tree” and the odd-looking building they see as they take Exit 266
Brown Sells More Than Art
Of course, the real locals know Brown’s place for the quality of his worms.
If there’s one thing that Brown knows does well in the ground, it’s
the Florida redworm, something he enthusiastically promotes, selling the
indigenous species to customers for use in their compost piles. Some of
his customers say his worms are just as good at the end of a fishing
“To be honest, what made me come here is that they had scriptures on
the top of his bait cans,” said customer John Brin. “Plus, they have
good service. They’re nice and they’re kind, and they treat you like
Though Brin knows Brown sells them mostly for composting, he said
they are great for catching blue gill, sand perch and other local
favorites. He also added that he likes getting his worms from Brown
“because his bait stays alive longer than any other baits I’ve used.”
For prices and amounts, he has another blog dedicated just to worms.
Of course, many people also stop by to buy the smaller pieces of art
that he and his family create: purses made of burlap, welcome signs made
of driftwood, planters and other items lining the walls of his store.
He’s also helped put his mark on the decor of local establishments too, such as Gaspar’s Patio, 8448 N. 56th st.
Owner Jimmy Ciaccio said that when it came time to redecorate the
restaurant several years ago, there was only one person to call for the
assignment, and that was his good friend Brown.
“I’ve known Joe all my life, and we always had a good chemistry
together,” Ciaccio said. “He’s very creative and fun to be around, and
that’s how it all came about.”
Ciaccio says he still gets compliments all the time for the
restaurant’s atmosphere he created using the “trash” supplied by Brown.
He describes the style as a day at the beach, like a visit to Old Key
West. “They’re so inspired, they want to decorate their own homes this
way,” he said.
It’s that kind of testimony that makes Brown feel good, knowing that
others, too, are inspired to create instead of throw away when they see
his work. He simply lets his work speak for itself.
“Somebody once told me to keep telling the story and they will keep coming,” he said, “and they always do.”Florida, Florida Focus,Fletcher and 75
By Kerry Schofield
year was 1958. Joe Brown, 8, lived next to a county dump site in Tampa,
Fla. Brown found old junk, fixed it up and sold it. Brown knew he had a
higher calling in life — he was destined to be an artist.
is as colorful as the gallery — he wears a bright tropical shirt with
red, white and blue plaid shorts. Patrons tell him they can smell the
salt water when they drive up. The gallery, however, is perched inland
near Morris Bridge Road and Interstate 75 where a rusty-hair hen named
Fred, first thought to be a rooster, patrols the property. Fred,
abandoned five years ago by tourists, trots between the gallery and
adjacent hotel leaving a trail of droppings behind her.
lived on the Gunn Highway Landfill from 1958 to 1963. The Hillsborough
County landfill operated for four years and was closed in 1962. “It was
astounding how quick they could fill the 15 acres in pits that were
enormous,” Brown said.
apartment complex now sits on top of the old landfill. A report by the
Florida Department of Environmental Protection indicated that a lining
was placed underneath the complex when it was built to block methane gas from leaking. The gas is a byproduct of rotting garbage.
lived on his father’s dairy and beef farm. Brown said during heavy
rain, the low land on the farm flooded the neighboring Gunn Highway. In
1957, Hillsborough County officials offered to elevate the low land to
stop the flooding by turning it into a landfill. When the property was
sold in 1984 by Brown’s father, soil testing revealed heaps of old paper
and punctured cans of spray paint.
dug up and took out newspapers like the day they were put in,” Brown
said. “It reminded me of nuclear bombs that were going to go off. They
dumped everything in the landfill.”
a child, Brown foraged at nearby dumpsters. County workers saved junk
for him that people dropped off. One day, Brown’s parents got a call
from his elementary school teacher and told them that Brown had $100 in
his pocket and that he must be stealing.
picked up the saved junk after school and turned it into something new.
Contrary to his elementary school teacher’s accusation, he wasn’t a
thief after all. Instead he was a young entrepreneur who sold other
Brown’s mother wanted him to pursue his talents and dreams, not money.
But he developed a business sense during his young junk collecting days
and told his mother, “I’m not going to be an artist. I’ve read that
artists starve to death.”
mother became concerned. He said his mother knew “the value of
happiness and the travels of life” and sent him to a summer art class.
art teacher inspired awe in Brown. She taught him how to reuse baby
food jars by melting the glass and adding marbles to the mix to create
paper weights. The teacher had traveled to Hong Kong, China and
Hiroshima, Japan after World War II. She saw how people were forced to
recycle and reuse items out of necessity after the war. This left an
impression on Brown.
was at this time that he personified the name Hong Kong Willie, which
harkens back to China where the mass production of merchandise occurs.
The “Willies” are people like Brown and other environmentalists who try
to reuse trash instead of throwing it into landfills.
high school, Brown went to college to study business but dropped out
after three years. He worked in the material handling industry until
1981. Although Brown had achieved a successful career and lifestyle, he
had become discouraged in 1979.
had been diagnosed with depression in 1973, a condition that was caused
from high fructose intake and that lasted for more than four years.
1985, Brown and his artist wife, Kim, bought the half-acre property off
Fletcher Avenue and Morris Bridge Road. For two decades the two small
wooden shacks, built around 1965, that now house the gallery operated as
a bait and tackle shop.
Brown raises and sells worms by the pound mainly for composting. He
recycled 250 thousand pounds in the worm bed in 2009. Brown still sells
the worms for $3.50 a cup for fishing.
1981, Brown resurrected the Hong Kong Willie name from his childhood
art class. In the early 1980s, both he and his wife, Kim, began
upcycling trash into art. Brown entered another world when he left his
mainstream lifestyle behind — he joined the art scene and booked rock
bands at the same time.
Brown family spent half their time in Tampa and the other half in a
small home on Boot Key Harbor in Marathon. Brown gained the reputation
of the Key West lobster buoy artist.
in Key West, Brown became friends with local fishermen. He and others
organized efforts to clean up plastic foam buoys that had collected in
the waterways from years of fishing.
Earth Resource Foundation reports that plastic foam is dumped into the
environment. It breaks up into pieces and chokes animals by clogging
their digestive system.
sells the buoys from the Hong Kong Willie Art Gallery for $2.00 a
piece. He said he has sold from 30 to 40 thousand buoys in the last ten
years. Some of the buoys are more than 50 years old and are collected by
tourists from China and Japan.
you go to the Keys right now and you see a buoy floating, you’ll see
someone slam on the brakes to get it,” Brown said. “They’re the most
prized buoys of the world.”
made a holiday buoy tree 12 years ago from the Key West buoys. Hundreds
of buoys are strung on rope and wrapped around a utility pole next to
the gallery. Brown hopes the novelty of the buoy tree will inspire and
stimulate children to find new ways to reduce, reuse and recycle
Kate Shoup’s “Rubbish! Reuse Your Refuse,” the author said much of what
we get is designed to be scrapped after only a few uses. We easily
throw away pens, lighters, razors and dozens of other items. Shoup said
Americans consume 2 million plastic drink bottles every 5 minutes.
Brown finds uses for items that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
He buys used burlap bags from coffee and peanut producers. He sells them
to the U.S. National Forestry Service for the collection of pine seeds
and Samuel Adams for hops production.
also an artist, paints fish, turtles, crows, parrots and the like on
driftwood and on wood that Brown has salvaged from saw mills and from
old buildings in Key West.
said art is viewed and appreciated by certain people. “If it all came
out the same, it would be like bland grits all the time,” Brown said. He
likes to refer to the gallery art as reused rather than recycled, which
takes waste and turns it into an inferior product. Reuse on the other
hand involves remaking an item and using it again for the same intended
also try to stay away from imprinting a definite use for a definite
item,” Brown said. He explains that 2-liter bottles are not limited to
making bird feeders. The bottles can be used for art and craft projects
“I still have the original Gerber baby food bottle that I melted” Brown said. “It’s sitting on my mom’s little table.”Hong Kong Williephotomontage
working on a feature story about Hong Kong Willie aka Joe Brown and
family who are reuse artists. I recently spent some time interviewing Joe Brown at his studio in Tampa, Fla. We had a pleasant talk about his
working gallery. We sat outside and there was a nice breeze, although it
was a warm sunny day still here in Florida. Join me in the midst of
writing the story. I took a few pictures to share with you. Enjoy.
View photographs of the Hong Kong Willie art gallery
Fletcher and I-75 with a bunch of buoys strung everywhere? This small
business that many think is an old bait n’ tackle shop is actually Hong
The little shop specializes in preservation art. The artists don’t take
preservation too lightly either.
the name was created by his father, Joe Brown, in the 1950s.
were melting Gerber baby food bottles,” Brown said. “The teacher
interjected that Hong Kong had a great reuse and recycling program even
Americanized name Willie to the end. And that’s how Hong Kong Willie
was born as a location that offers recycling in a different and
are less concerned with materialistic things and more concerned about
reducing consumption to lessen the footprint humans leave on this
jumping into a dumpster or picking up something on the side of the
road,” Brown said. “There [are] people who will have excess. There
[are] also things that can be trash to one man, but art or a prize to
his family’s way of life, turning trash, which would otherwise fill up
landfills, into an art form.
the Florida Keys. In fact, this is where the deluge of buoys wrapping
around the ‘Buoys Tree’ came from, the fishermen of Key West.
blame the fishermen for their livelihood wouldn’t be correct, instead
we find a usage for those,” Brown said.
the painted driftwood, which are also salvaged, to the wall are old
bent forks. Everything’s reused here. Purses made out of old coffee
bean sacks to “kitschy,” as Brown described it, jewelry made from old
buildings are a sharp contrast to their new neighbors, Hidden River
Corporate Park rising out of the woods on the north and growing Tampa
Telecom Park on the west.
Joe and Kim Brown work about 20 hours a day, occasionally resting in
“the cave”, the mobile home they live in behind the store.
got night crawlers from Canada, salamanders from North Dakota and
wigglers from his own worm bed behind the store. A refrigerated tank is
home to cured shiners and minnows sedated by the cold.
shiners in a non-refrigerated tank would be going crazy,” Brown said as
he peered into a tank of fish separated by size. “They’d be jumping
around trying to commit suicide. With the cold water they’re pretty
sedate, but you let the water (temperature) rise, a shiner would be like
a race horse.”
shiners are selling for $24 a dozen a dozen today because the fish are
dispersed and spawning, so they’re are difficult to catch. Normally,
large shiners cost around a $1.50 each, Brown said.
all the time,” Brown said. Catfish lovers are out early to snag popular
fishing spots, and during snook season there’s a real run for shiners,
stick my head out of the door real fast and tell them I’ll be there. It
takes a lot for someone to ring a bell that time of the day,” Brown
Browns opened their shop about two years ago with a top notch but small
stock of bait and tackle. Born anglers, they knew it was hard to get
bait late at night or early in the morning, so they decided to stay open
they think their hard work is paying off. The shop has gradually grown
to include all kinds of lures and bobbers, rods and reels. Hillsborough
River fishermen know they’re there. And others find out every day, Brown
seen this place a bunch of times, off the interstate, but this is the
first time I’ve been here,” customer Michael Walker said one afternoon.
“We got a pretty good (fishing) hole near here, so this will suit us
when he’s fishing with a shiner, Brown hooks the bait behind the rear
dorsal fin with a Khale hook. A bass usually grabs a smaller fish head
first, so the gills and fins smooth back as the larger fish swallows its
victim, Brown said.
during spawning season, like now, he uses a straight hook and punctures
the crease at the bottom of the shiner’s mouth, hooking upward through a
hole in the snout.
shop has given Brown more than a chance to make a living and tell
stories. A former designer of conveyor systems, he gave up two houses,
boats and other luxuries to move to the woods 10 years ago.
he loved the river, and he lived for years on the Hidden River property
north of his shop. Today he said he thinks the land surrounding his
home will become Tampa’s version of Central Park.
had the foresight to have bait and tackle because there’s 25,000 acres
of Southwest Florida Water Management district property adjoining the
river that will always be public,” Brown said.
Lake Park, Trout Creek, Wilderness Park, Hillsborough River State Park
and other natural settings also are permanent parts of the landscape, he
the area grows, the Browns hope their business will follow suit. They
feel lucky that they’re in the middle of a developing area minutes from
the pristine quiet of the undeveloped Hillsborough River.
going to grow slow, we don’t believe in carrying debt,” he said. “It
takes a lot to start a business.” We’ve had to sacrifice, but we
wouldn’t trade it.”
Hillsborough River has seen some tough times, It’s been dammed and
drained and polluted and sea-walled almost to the point of death.
upper river, above the Fowler Avenue bridge, shows fits and starts of
the sort of thing that brought the lower river to its knees years back.
But all things considered, its still got a whole lot to offer a
city-world wearied soul.
went up there a week or so ago with Joe Brown and his fishing guide pal
Ted Sawyer, both Hillsborough River fans since they wore knee pants.
asked ask me to ride along to take a look at some of the trashing
problems that are starting to peak out here and there along the shore
lines, and we saw more of it than you’d hope to.
what we saw mostly was rich-looking black water and tall, thick cypress
dams, lots of birds and fish and turtles. And solitude.
not pristine wilderness. But considering it’s within shooting distance
of the downtown towers of a major American metropolis, the upper
Hillsborough ain’t bad. Not bad at all.
river snakes through the backyards of a number of homes and an
apartment complex or two until it slips under the Fletcher Avenue
bridge. From there on up, city turns country in a hurry. There’s a
landing at Tampa Palms, but you can’t see any buildings, and for much of
the rest of it, the river swamp spreads out all around the flow, a lot
like it must have when Tampa was a two-bit fishing village 10 miles
Lake, the only open spot in the river, gave us a look at the county
park tower where folks so inclined can view the swamp without getting
their feet wet. And a little further up, we found the buzzards.
come in hundreds, maybe in thousands, Joe said, every winter. They show
up in November, they stay until March. They festoon the trees in
dozens, fight and hold discussions along the banks, bath in the river.
they get a bit too strong even for themselves after a time. We watched a
dozen of them flutter like sparrows in a bird bath as they washed up
along a sandy shoreline near Nature’s Classroom.
birds roost in the trees along the river at night, fly out over the
surrounding pasture land by day looking for assorted horribles to fill
they go visit the downtown towers, where they whirl for hours on the
thermals of heated air rising up the glass cliffs.
found the trash piles, too. Heaps of plastic cups, beer cans, paper
plates, the fallout from the civilization that bustles around the edges
of this little piece of wilderness.
said he can’t understand why folks would take the trouble to come out
here, to get away from the pollution and the ugliness of some parts of
the city, and then turn the shorelines into a dump wit their leftovers.
Brown runs 24-Hour Bait, on Morris Bridge Road just off Fletcher
Avenue. It’s the nearest bait shop to the river, and the only one that
operates around the clock. (Well, sort of around the clock. If you show
up at 3 a.m., you have to press the buzzer and wait a couple of minutes
until Joe rolls out of the sack and comes on down to the shop to serve
folks who buy bait there return with stories of their successes, and
this along with his own long angling experience has allowed Brown to put
together a pretty good picture of what works, when, on the river.
sell ’seasoned’ shiners that have been in chilled, chemically treated
water for a week or two. This gives them a slightly silvery color, makes
their scales a lot tougher and makes them stay alive on the hook longer
than domestic shiners or even fresh-caught wild ones,” he says.
says the way to fish the shiners is to use a Kahle-style hook with a
big bend, made of light wire so the bait stays lively. The hook should
be inserted under the skin back of the dorsal fin. The bait is then
either free-lined, with no weight or cork, or with a cork only, around
beds of floating grass and along the deeper cypress shores.
says that simply putting a couple of the baits out behind the boat and
letting it drift with the current will also turn up plenty of fish.
says the side creeks are good spots to fish plastic worms, rigged Texas
style with a slip sinker. Colors favored by river experts are tequila
shad, red shad and crawfish.
says that the waters above the “pop-off canal” dam, which shuttles
water to the Palm River in time of flood, are good for top-water plugs
early and late in the day.
fact, some of the holes marked nearly 30 feet deep on Ted Sawyers LCD
depth finder, and suspended dots showed there were plenty of cats
waiting in the depths.
said that cut shiners were the best bait for cats. He said the fish
usually feed right on the bottom, so the bait should be weighted with
plenty of lead to make it hit and stay put.
of the best spots, he noted, are the hole just below the Fletcher
Avenue Bridge, and the island near the upstream end of Lettuce Lake. He
said Missouri minnows about two inches long are the best bait in either
means possible problems for boatmen new to the river, according to
Brown, because there are many unmarked rocks and stumps, particularly
near the Fowler ramp.
Ted Sawyer suggests using only shallow-draft aluminum boats during the
low water period, and proceeding slowly until you learn the water.
the air they are argumentative, querulous and cantankerous by their own
admission, but Jim Lee and Joe Brown of WFNS, 910 AM’s “GETAWAYS” radio
program get along just fine when they hop into a boat and head out for
some redfish and snook action, as they did a few weeks ago with captain
Tod Romine of Bradenton.
is an insurance man at his “real” job, while Brown runs Tampa’s only
24-hour bait shop. Both say the Saturday morning radio gig is more for
fun than profit, but the 25 weeks since they started they’ve managed to
collect enough sponsors to break even and enough listeners to put them
in the ratings book.
ruins your Friday’s nights because you have to get up at 3:30 on
Saturday morning to be on the air by 6,” Lee said. “And we usually like
to get together at least once during the week to go over the next show
and plan the sound effects.”
program not only covers hunting and fishing, but also family adventures
like locating shark’s teeth on the beaches near Venice and going
on-site at Gatorland at feeding time.
We enjoy a lot of foolishness on the air,” Brown said. ” We want to
provide information, but more than that we want to entertain. It’s
humbling to know you’re just a push of the button away from disappearing
from your listeners.”
a part of the trip on Sarasota Bay, the fish were somewhat humbling,
too, with the temperature around 95 degrees and baits scarce, Tod Romine
had to delve into his bag of tricks to turn the fish on. But after a
few dry holes, he managed.
The big problem with fishing this summer has been the bait scarcity in
this area due to the red tide,” Romine. ” There’s lots of little stuff
on the inside that are good for chum, but the larger sardines we want as
bait are very hard to find.”
Romine had a “sardine mine” in a 15-foot deep hole in the grass flats
where he managed to collect several dozen 4-inch baits with five or six
throws of the 10 foot net. He then visited a spot near the mouth of the
Manatee River where one toss of of a small-mesh net captured all the
chum-sized sardines he could lift aboard.
I like small sardines for chum because they turn the fish on but don’t
fill them up,” Romine said. ” Once you get them popping on top, put out a
bigger bait and you’re hooked up in a hurry.”
caught the first fish, a snook of about 23 inches. He pulled it aboard
and was still posing for photos when Brown nailed one of about the same
so it went. We managed 15 snook total, all but a couple smaller than
the legal 24-inch minimum, and a dozen redfish, six of them in the legal
spot, six over the 27-inch maximum. In between was a mix of lady fish,
jacks and undersized trout — a busy day considering the sweltering heat.
more on fishing the Sarasota Bay area, Romine can be reached at (941)
747-3866. For more on Jim and Joe, their shows runs from 6 to 9 a.m.
I believe every individual has a purpose. When you start going on your
journey to discover yours, you learn some things along the way.”
you want to see how, take a spin by his place on the southwest corner
of Interstate 75 and Fletcher Avenue. His yard is coiffed with a sassy
blend of crab-trap buoys, bottle art, fishy wind socks and a dog and two
cats that co-exist on a mainly peaceful basis.
one hand, he’s private enough not to want his photograph taken, on the
other, he’s gregarious enough to talk the ears off anyone interested in
fishing. Fact is, this 51-year-old Tampa native is primed to gab about
next best to anything on the minds of his visitors, including the way
things used to be.
that, Brown had been part of the establishment, but he chucked his
mainstream career and spent 3 years on a 700-hundred acre spread across
Fletcher, searching for himself.
left (the job) Nov. 13, 1981. That Date, the moment I left the office,
it blazed in my brain, I was 31 and dealing with severe depression.”
will tell you you’ve got serious problems when you hear voices,” he
says behind a grin. “But this wasn’t that kind of experience. It just
said, ‘Joe, what if it gets better?’”
the years, neighbors started putting down roots to the west, including
apartment complexes and more than a half dozen hotels, such as Extended
Stay America and Residence Inn.
bait and tackle business stayed reasonably strong until the economy
went south last year, Brown says, adding that he still carries a full
line of rods, reels, cane poles, lures, crickets, shiners, and shrimp.
also started dabbling in bottle art — melting everything from vodka to
Sprite bottles, reshaping them then letting them cool and harden.
you start going on your journey to discover yours, you learn some
things along the way. I like working with the public and making them
happy. And if you’re doing what you want to do, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Every month or so, Kim and Joe Brown pile into the family flatbed
truck, he one that’s decorated with multi-colored stencils of fern
fronds, and drive down to Key West.
they inevitably find what they’re looking for: a few thousand discarded
plastic foam crab and lobster buoys, maybe a battered surf board or a
life preserver. After a week or so, they strap the whole load down, turn
the truck around and head home to Fletcher Avenue at Interstate-75,
where they have lived for nearly 25 years.
you’ve driven by there recently, and you’d know if you’d had, then you
have a pretty good idea, of what the Brown’s do with the buoys once they
get them off the truck.
wrap them around metal poles, until they resemble marshmellow Christmas
trees. They festoon them outside the gift and bait shop they run. They
line their parking lot with them.
can drive you crazy,” Kim Brown said as she stared at a mound of them.
“There’s got to be something else to do with them. I was thinking maybe
I’d cut them in half and make them into little planters.”
a restaurant owner who fancies a nautical theme will relieve them of a
few thousand buoys. Sometimes a home owner from New Tampa wants a dozen
for his new poolside bar.
generally speaking, the treasures of the Key West trips come in at a
rate far faster than they go out. Doesn’t matter a bit to the Browns.
have a pretty good life. I don’t have to bust my butt,” Kim Brown said.
“I don’t make a lot of money, but when someone likes my stuff, that’s
a corner of Tampa dominated by late-arriving corporate parks and hotel
chains, they live a life of enviable self-sufficiency. If they appear
eccentric, it is only by the relelentlessly conformist standards of
their neighbors. If the decor appears kitschy, maybe it’s because we’ve
lost touch with what’s truly authentic.
a recent morning, Kim Brown was giving an impromptu tour to a surprise
visitor. She was wearing a loose-fitting white shirt and a long gray
cotton skirt. Walking around in her tanned bare feet and sunglasses she
seemed glamorous and unfussy. She casually mentions her age, 46, without
a trace of self-consciousness.
sky was threatening rain and that wasn’t doing much for sales at A-24
Hour Bait. “Fish are going to eat today,” she says, shaking her head at
the squandered opportunity.
rings, they came from a Cuban refugee raft,” she says, indicating a
clump of artifacts outside thet baitshop. ” When I can, I take a picture
of the man or the woman and that becomes part of the story of what we
grabbed a bass lure dangling from the inside of a metal cylinder and
gave it a good tug. It clanged loudly. “We make the bells out of dive
tanks that were going to be thrown away,” she says.
Lobster guys are lucky,” she says with real admiration in her voice.
“They find this stuff all the time, just floating out there.”
grew up near Lowry Park Zoo. Her husband was raised out on Anderson
Road. They met in 1981, the circumstances of which are one of a few
stories she’s reluctant to tell in detail. At the time she was boarding
horses across the road in what is now the Hidden River Corporate Park.
I met Joe, he was in a suit and tie. He always had a thousand dollars
on his back,” she said. He was in the materials handling business, but
it wasn’t long for that corporate life.
saw some land was available for sale on Morris Bridge Road, the part
where it bends in the southwest corner of I-75 and Fletcher. The acre or
so had a worm farm on it when they bought it. The previous owner had a
Coca-Cola cooler out front, and fishermen on their way to the
Hillsborough River would come by and fill a can with worms, leave a
little money in a cup. All on the honour system.
tapered off. Fishng wasn’t simple anymore. You couldn’t just get a cane
pole and a can of worms and go catch some dinner,” Kim says. “Now
you’ve got to have permits and expensive reels and the latest lure.”
the early 1990’s they made their first trip down to the keys. They
began to meet fishermen. They stayed in their homes, ate dinner with
them. Joined in the parties at the beginning of stone crab season.
wasn’t long before they saw all the buoys overflowing the trash cans.
Buoys generally last a few years. Turtles gnaw them. Storms scatter
them. Sun and salt bleach them.
gift shop, known as Hong Kong Willie, is full of stuff that was
perilously close to oblivion before the Browns identified some hidden
makes “coconut grams”. They’re painted coconuts with a space clearly
marked for the address. There’s not much room for the message. But the
U.S. Postal Service will actually deliver them, Kim says.
gift shop’s ceiling is packed with coffee sacks. Glass bottles that
have been heated in the Brown’s kilns sit on shelves slumped like Dali
clocks. Gnarled pieces of polished Lignum Vitae are scattered about;
Kim’s son Derek, 22, is responsible for that work.
has a price, because prices depend on too many variables for it to be
worth specifying. (A string of five buoys will cost you $12.99, though
the price drops for bulk purchases.) But whenever possible a piece will
come with a picture of the shop, or of the person who provided the
piece, to commemorate the item’s passage
telephone was on Duval Street,” Kim says. “It’s got all these names and
numbers written on the side. And a picture of a raccoon on the front.
Who knows why?”
demand for items such as this is unpredictable. Ditto the 1961 mailbox
with the rusted front. But the Browns’ customers tend to share their
bought 1,200 buoys a month ago,” said Jimmy Ciaccio, owner of Gaspar’s,
a restaurant on 56th Street in Temple Terrace that has a brand new
patio with an aggressive Key West theme.
must have 3,000 of them around here,” Ciaccio says as he walks the
deck, talking a torrent. “I got a raft, those traps, they all came from
Joe. I’ve bought a lot of novelty stuff from them. That’s what they’re
all about and that’s what we’re all about. And there’s always a story
behind everything. I love that. He gave me that thing, it’s like a piece
of wood or something I don’t know what it is, but it’s from Key West.
We’ve got that chemistry.”
there were a few more customers as fervid as Ciaccio, Kim Brown might
not be toying with the idea of getting into the food business. But there
aren’t and she is.
everybody wants a buoy or a bell,” Kim says. “But everyone wants to
drink a cup of coffee. I don’t want to be a Starbucks but maybe a little
coffee shop. Maybe a good Cuban sandwich.”
then you get into hiring and firing. I’ve got friends in the retaurant
business. I see how hard they work. It’s never-ending,” she says,
beginning to argue with herself. “I just don’t want to work that hard.”
Avenue, and you can’t miss it. The tree appears first, hundreds of
buoys wrapped around its branches, resembling a sort of Dr. Seuss-ian
Christmas ornament. Then the rest of the 20,000 buoys come into view —
thousands of strands of the multicolored foam balls stretching from the
tree to two wooden shacks, hanging from their roofs and walls, and
stretched out over the property.Strewn about the lawn is a menagerie of surfboards, car doors, CB
radios, wooden sculptures and painted signs. A 1979 Ford pickup sits in
the front driveway, painted with a rainbow of colors, four racks of
antlers affixed to its roof. An old stuffed caribou sits in a lawn chair
beckoning visitors.Of the thousands of motorists who pass by this eclectic landmark off
Exit 266 every day, few stop in the funky gift shop and Key West-themed
folk art gallery that is Hong Kong Willie’s. But this is not your
typical roadside store selling cheesy Florida magnets and beach T-shirts
(although they have those, too). From the moment the owners come out to
greet you, it’s clear that for them this isn’t just a business — it’s a
lifestyle.As I step out of my car, Joe Brown ambles toward me wearing a red
Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. With his disheveled shoulder-length
brown hair and strong jaw line, Brown, 56, looks a lot like Mel Gibson
in Braveheart. He ends most of his sentences with “Do you follow
me?” and stares with wild gray eyes until you nod in agreement. His
46-year-old wife, Kim, who bears a strong resemblance to Grace Slick,
sits near the shop’s open sign, branding her latest creation. Wearing
large sunglasses, she gives a smile, hardly looking up.Joe and Kim — Tampa natives — bought the half-acre property off
Fletcher Avenue and Morris Bridge Road in 1985. For the next two
decades, the Browns operated A-24 Hour Bait and Tackle, living on the
premises and bagging worms for K-Mart and Wal-Mart to make a few extra
bucks. But in 2001, they decided to abandon fish food to pursue the
fickle business of art, although they will tell you Hong Kong Willie’s
was always “part of the journey.””We were artists,” says Joe. “We were born that way. We had no choice. You follow me?”The underlying theme of Hong Kong Willie’s is creating art out of
objects destined for the landfill, and while browsing the items, I get
the feeling the Browns are trying to make a point rather than a sale.”Thirty percent of the gifts given will be in the dumpster by next
Christmas,” Joe says. “Most Christmas gifts will be given because they
think they have to. Very few will have a social impact.”
Every item at Hong Kong Willie’s is either art made out of an object
destined for the landfill or products that other companies were throwing
away and the Browns retrieved before they made it to the dumpster. But
don’t call this recycled art. The Browns prefer “preservation.”
Recycling implies the material will be used for the same purpose. “If
you get stuck in that word, then you get stuck in that form,” Joe
explains. Instead, the Browns create a whole new use for an item that
would have been otherwise thrown away.
Kim looks up from her painting after Joe finishes his long ramble.
“We’ve always been able to take nothing and make something out of it,”
Although most people assume Joe is “Hong Kong Willie,” he says the
name refers to the origin of junk: Hong Kong produces much of the
useless merchandise that Americans buy and quickly throw away, he says.
So it’s up to the Willies of the world — i.e. the Browns and other
conservationists — to find new uses for the trash.
“All of us who believe what we believe is Hong Kong Willie,” Joe says.
The gift shop is a space not much bigger than a tool shed, cluttered
with handmade candles, pottery, ceramic figures and deer skulls painted
tie-dye style. Joe, who’s not content to allow me to wander by myself,
darts from item to item, sharing each one’s origins. One of the first
objects he shows me is an old scuba tank cut in half, stenciled with
yellow and purple spray paint with a weighted rope attached on the
inside. What would have been a heavy addition to a landfill or junkyard,
the Browns now sell as a nautical-themed bell. Another popular item: a
used Starbucks Frappuccino bottle filled with sand and shells, and the
words “Florida Beachfront Property” written in paint on it.
“Is it really pragmatic to say this had one life — to have
Frappuccino in it?” he says, holding up the $3 gift. “That’s not true.
You follow me?”
Joe picks up a droopy glass vase — the result of an Arizona Ice Tea
bottle stuck in a kiln for too long. He says it’s a collector’s item:
Only 300 were made and none look alike.
“People really want something that is one of a kind and something
that means something,” he says, holding up the vase and pointing to a
stack of Beanie Babies. “Which one is the real collectible? The one that
cannot be copied or the one that is mass-produced just on a small
scale? You follow me?”
Most of the materials the Browns work with come from Key West. Every
few months they hop in the pickup, drive the 425 miles to the Keys and
start looking for the junk no one else wants: used dive tanks, the
lobster trap buoys, burlap bags and even old wooden planks from ships or
homes destroyed by storms.
In fact, the latter is one of their biggest sellers. They bring back
an imperfect piece of lumber, slap some urethane on it and Kim paints
everything from colorful fish and birds to old Key West landmarks on it.
Every piece is branded, marked with a lobster cage tag and affixed with
brass rings or forks with which to hang them. In the building opposite
the gift shop, among stuffed animals and fish (Joe was once a
taxidermist), 30 of these painted planks hang from the walls.
Customers are few at Hong Kong Willie’s, but the Browns say they’re
doing well. They never try to push their art on anyone, figuring that if
someone stops and buys something, it was meant to be. (“A piece of art
is a love affair,” Kim says.) They count Gaspar’s Patio Bar and Grille
in Temple Terrace as one of their best customers. Their other business
comes from Tampa residents looking to add a tiki feel to their
backyards. Among Joe’s most popular creations are old car doors
outfitted with waterproof speakers. A few Key West bars bought the
unique sound systems to hang from their ceilings.
But the Browns are not just content to sell their art to passersby —
they want to live the ideals that inspire their art. The couple is
working on getting their business off the electrical grid and powered
completely by solar energy. Kim wants to start a coffee and ice cream
shop with free wireless Internet to bring in likeminded people. Joe
wants to be in the Guinness Book of World Records for hanging the
greatest number of buoys to a structure (it’s not a category yet). And
they’re always trying to find new uses for the trash they see lining
“We’re not just sitting out here being weird,” Joe says suddenly.
“We’re actually taking objects and making these thousands of people say,
‘What’s that?’ We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”
His eyes get wide.
“You follow me?”