Vincent Calvo, Fourth in a Series – Interviews with Downtown Landlords

You say you  would like some colorful history about Mount Dora?  Welcome to a conversation with the Mount Dora Citizen and Vincent Calvo, downtown Mount Dora landlord and business owner.

Whether you remember him from Cafe Dora, The Art and Antique Union, or Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – you will remember him.  He is the past landlord of more than one downtown Mount Dora tenant and the current landlord of Akhtar Hussain, at the Village Coffee Pot.

To many locals, the shop name doesn’t matter, anyway – when you go to whatever shop it is, it’s just known as “going to Vincent’s.”  The personality behind the store is so big, so colorful, that just the mention of his first name causes many a Mount Doran to break into a recounting of their very own “Vincent Conversation.”  Interviewing Calvo is not a linear experience.  He is a whirlwind of anecdotes and city history.  Love him or hate him, you will remember those conversations with him.

Properties

Vincent Calvo and his partner, Jim Anderson, first purchased property in Mount Dora in April of 1987.  As he will tell it, Vincent says he and Jim bought their first building the very day they came to town.

The building was on Donnelly Street, between Third and Fourth Avenue at the location that was last occupied by The Painter’s Daughter (now unoccupied and owned by David Hurley).  HIs next purchase was his current location — mid-block on Donnelly Street between 4th and 5th Avenues.  His current tenant  in one portion of his building, is Akhtar Hussain, who owns and operates the Village Coffee Pot.

Why Mount Dora?

He says he and Anderson were looking for a lifestyle change.  “Long Island was as far as I had ever gotten away from living with 8 million other people,” he explained as he spoke of his life in New York City.  “I lived there my whole life, until we came here.  We had a friend who had been to Mount Dora years before and she just loved it.  We really just came down intending to rent a place for a couple of months.”

“There was really nothing going on here at the time, but it just looked like it had so much potential.  I’d been to Eustis, I’d been to Leesburg – Tavares didn’t even enter into the figuring, but this town really had something.  There were only 5 stores here and everything else was boarded up…but it had something, it really did.  It still does, of course, only more so.”

“As we were driving through town we saw the for sale sign on the building.  Richard Hanks had a really attractive price on it.  We bought it and opened our cafe there, Cafe Dora.  We thought that’s what we wanted to do.”  Calvo explained that he and Anderson operated the cafe on one side of the building with a gifts and antiques shop on the other side.  “We were just going to do desserts, at first.  Somehow we got coerced into doing lunches, though, and we were open from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.”

Thinking back, he remembers a very different Mount Dora than the one we know today. “When we got here, there really was nothing.  Richard Hanks had an antique store on the corner (the corner of 4th Avenue and Donnelly Street, now for lease).  But he would never let anyone in.  He was almost never there.  When he was there, he would sit in there and glare out at people.  If he didn’t like their looks, he wouldn’t let them in.  So, of course, people walked down past it to my store to inquire about his merchandise.  I would walk them right back up to the corner with me.  Richard would look them over to decide if he felt it was worth opening his door for them…as if by looking he would know if they had enough money to buy his things.  No really, I’m not kidding, that’s how Mount Dora was when we first got here.”

“There was a deli, it closed.  There was a barber shop, it closed.  There was Moon’s Hardware or Appliances and Rehbaum’s Hardware.  There was the Greyhound Bus Station.  There was a dry cleaner where the (Modernism) museum is now.  This was a great little town, but there really was nobody here.”

He remembers friend and former employee Renee Milota with humor, “Renee had her sandwich shop.  Well, first she had a men’s shop.  Then she went into that sandwich shop at the old Village Coffee Pot location across the street. She did breakfast and lunch.  She closed at 2:00 sharp.  Come 2:00 Clorox was the cologne of the day, and once she got it out, it meant she was closing and you better be gone soon. She had strong arms from scrubbing that kitchen and pressing those hamburgers on that grill.”

“But Renee, Renee worked hard.  She took this town to her heart.  It wouldn’t be the way it is now if it wasn’t for Renee.  She was with the Chamber, she was with anything and everything that made the town. She worked so hard and usually got stuck doing things by herself.  She was with the merchants’ association, she was with the IceHouse, the Center for the Arts, she was everywhere.  People would volunteer, of course, like they do now — and not show up.  But there was Renee, always there, always working,” says Calvo.

Asked why he doesn’t still run his cafe, he says, “Oh I knew that wasn’t going to work my second day in business.  We used to grind our coffee for every cup, we proofed our croissants every night and baked them every morning.  We had fresh flowers on the tables.  We had winter table cloths and summer table cloths.  But there was nobody here to enjoy it.  There were a few people.  Some gracious southern belles who don’t live here anymore or have died, since.”

“You know,” he explains, “this is how I knew we weren’t going to make it in the restaurant business here.  You see, we actually made the chicken salad from chickens we roasted ourselves. But then, I had a woman come in for lunch and tell me she didn’t want dark meat in her chicken salad.  Seriously.  I mean, does not a chicken have both light and dark meat?  I was called over to the table and this woman told me she only wanted white meat in her chicken salad.  I said, ‘When I can figure how to raise chickens that only come with white meat, that’s how I’ll make the chicken salad.  Until then, this is how it comes.’”

On His Businesses

Eventually, Calvo and Anderson moved down the street to the current location.  “It had been a dress shop, but it was empty when we got it.  I gutted it, totally gutted it.” There was a candle shop where the Village Coffee Pot is now.  Calvo says he remembers that the woman had recently won money in the lottery.  “She was gone within three hours.  She had the shop cleared out and she was gone.  I never dealt with her and she didn’t want to deal with me.”

“I knew I was going to sell women’s clothing on the other side, where I am now, but I had plans for this side, too,” Calvo says.  “Originally, I was going to put in a candy shop where this place (The Village Coffee Pot) is.  It was going to be called Auntie Em’s – like in the Wizard of Oz.  But then the store Sinfully Sweet moved in across the street.  I knew there wasn’t room for two candy stores that close to each other in this little town, so I changed my plans.  It was her primary business, but I knew I could do something else.”

Instead Calvo opened a women’s shoe store and lingerie shop in the space where the Village Coffee Pot now sits.  The shoe store, though, much like the Cafe Dora, was not meant to last – though Calvo has fond memories of the setup.   “There was a french door through to the other store. It was beautiful; it had a lapis-colored ceiling,” he remembers.

“A woman came in and said she wanted a pair of shoes.  I looked at her feet and knew the size she was telling me was way off.  You know, women could be very vain about their shoe size, so to make them feel better, I had a line,” he smiles.  “I would just say, ‘Please disregard the usual sizes, these are made in Latin America, so they run smaller.’  This particular woman said, ‘What are you saying?’  And then she called me an idiot. So, I said, ‘I can’t help you, apparently.  I have other people to attend to.’  And she said, ’Is this the way you treat customers?’  I said, ‘No a customer is someone who buys something.  You are not a customer.  And as I look at your feet, I believe you should be at a blacksmith’s not a shoe store.’”

According to Calvo, that incident confirmed that his temperament and women’s feet were not compatible. He closed the shoe store immediately thereafter.  He says he put a large “Out of Business” sign on the door and donated the shoes to a local charity rather than go through the process of selling them.  “People saw the sign and asked when I was having a going out of business sale –  I said, ‘never.’  I got every pair of shoes, took them over to the Humane Society in Eustis and gave them every pair of shoes, and they gave me a donation slip.”

Vincent, standing in his storeBut his move to open the clothing store from the Cafe Dora was a success story. “The first day I had that store, I said this is it, I did the right thing.  I made in one day, that first weekend, what I made in my gift shop in a whole month.  It was the location, it was the merchandise, it was just the right thing at the right time.”

“The year I opened up here, it was ’88 or ’89, was the year they had a wonderful jazz festival.  There was a group of 5,000 people out in the street, they had Ramsey Lewis. It was a fabulous event.  They allowed drinks on the street and there was not one incident because they were hip people; they were there for jazz, to enjoy the music, not really to drink.”

Being a Landlord

And while the clothing store was a success, his first effort at being a Mount Dora landlord was a dismal failure.  “We sold the business, but the people couldn’t pay,” he explains.  “The check bounced.”  In the end there was a lawsuit, charges of assault – and anger management classes for Calvo.  “It was terrible,” he says.  “They (the tenants) were selling my things and they hadn’t paid for them.  We got into an argument on the street.  The woman fell over her big white shoes…”  Calvo acknowledges that the anger management classes probably didn’t take, though he also acknowledges, with a chuckle, “Oh, honey, I’ve mellowed out over the years, those urges come much less frequently,” he says, as he raises an eyebrow.

After several years Calvo decided to rent the downstairs of his current location to a clothier called Turtle Bay.  Calvo moved his operation upstairs, while Turtle Bay operated below, right on Donnelly. Calvo says they were a wonderful tenant while they lasted.  They stayed for four years, but he said the owner had personal and financial issues and had to close the business.

Asked why he chose to move upstairs to the harder-to-find location, he says,  “Business was slowing down a little bit.  Once I counted over 260 people that came through my store and I had only sold one pair of earrings, that’s it.  I said, ‘I  can’t do this.’ That’s when I moved upstairs for a while. People would come to my shop and say that they loved the town, they wanted it to stay just ‘this way’.  I would say, ‘what way?’  And, they would say, ‘quiet, like this – with nobody here, stay a little quiet small town.’  I would say, ‘Why on earth would you tell a merchant you hoped the town stayed small with nobody here?  How would we survive if it stayed quiet and we have no customers?  Please don’t wish that on us.’”

“The amount of characters who have passed through over the years has been amazing, though,” he says. “Ed Roy, who everybody still talks about, he was absolutely crazy, that’s why I loved him.  He had a great vision of what the town could be…but he was nuts.  (Ed Roy, one-time Mount Dora landlord and developer, was one of the City’s most infamous characters – and criminals, having fled the country to avoid charges of tax fraud and obstruction of justice, back in the 1980’s.)  There was definitely something wrong with him. There were characters here, and that’s why I hung on.  These crazy people do things. They make life interesting in a small town.”

The Future

Asked what he sees for himself in the future, Calvo says, “This is it.”  He doesn’t know if retirement, when it comes, will lead to him selling his building or staying on as a landlord.  “If I could be guaranteed to get another tenant like Akhtar, I’d never sell it.  There would be no reason to.  I don’t need the money to live on.  The building is paid for, it’s manageable.  Jim is as calm as I am crazy, he will stick with me in whatever decision we make.  He knows how hard I have worked on this and he would protect me with all he is.”

Melissa DeMarco, Editor (editor@mountdoracitizen.com)