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Economy / Business

Death, Dysfunction and Business

Quincy J. Walters

It sounds like something bad is about to happen as I step into Dysfunctional Grace. As I walk into the store during it's grand opening, I'm surrounded by ominous music, skulls, artistically modified taxidermy, religious relics, vintage medical equipment, a coffin and a table of food.

Robert Wilkes, of Tampa, is a curious spectator. He's walking around with a piece of chicken on a stick. 

"Nothing's better than eating dead animals, surrounded by dead animals," he said. "It's good to be human." 

Wilkes said he was intrigued by the furry things on the walls - like the giraffe head or the deer head with a clock in it. He considers the products around him as art. 

"If you can make art out of things that were once living, it's natural art. That's the way I look at it," he said. "Nothing's going to bite you here. It's art. Art has never really hurt - moreso helped. It's an experience. Just come in and enjoy it. It's a sight to see." 

The store is owned by Liz Furlong. The store's motto: The only store in Ybor where death and dysfunction dance in a graceful ballet. 

Furlong says her favorite pieces in the store are the nearly 100 year-old painted portraits of babies. But they're more than just paintings. 

"They would take a picture of the baby and put its hair and its blanket [on the painting] and they memorialized it, so they could remember it forever," she said. "I think we need to bring that back. It's a beautiful way to remember the person." 

A close second favorite is the coffin. 

"I think it'd be a super rad dining table - put a piece of glass over it," she said. 

About four years ago, Furlong was laid off from her corporate job. That's when she decided to open Dysfunctional Grace on the 600 block--a block with art studios, galleries and independent stores-- in St. Petersburg. Having her store was like a realized dream. 

"I was always the weird girl in school that people made fun of, because I played with bugs and bones," she said. "It came natural." 

Recently, the rents were raised on the 600 block. The artists moved out and high-end boutiques moved in. The block no longer appealed to the artistic and eclectic crowd it once did. Business went down, Furlong says. 

The rent's about the same in Ybor, but the new location--with bricks cracked with nearly one hundred years of history - offers a better backdrop for her merchandise and appeals to her clientele.    

K.C. Bird also made the migration across the bay. She owns a custom leather shop called Carnage Leathers, which she says sells "all leather bad-assery." Bird's store now shares the space with Dysfunctional Grace.

"So, like, leather and dead things go together," I ask.

"Oh absolutely," she says. "Leather is just dead skin. So, absolutely. It works together fabulously."

Furlong says some people walk in, see the skulls, get freaked out, then leave.  But Wes Miller, executive director of  The Ybor Chamber of Commerce - who's seen the area's evolution since the 1970s -  is excited about Dysfunctional Grace's presence. 

"I think it's great to have. That's part of the uniqueness and what differentiates Ybor City, is the types of not only people, but the businesses well." 

Furlong's experience illustrates this sentiment. 

"We brought a lot of people from St. Pete. They're visiting us. They're like 'we haven't been to Ybor in years. I thought Ybor was horrible, because a couple years ago, you wouldn't be caught dead here past dark,'" she says. "They're now visiting us saying 'there are some really rad businesses around here. Let's grab lunch. Let's catch a movie." 

Now, you can snag a souvenir at Furlong's shop - where death and dysfunction dance in a graceful ballet. 

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