I love International Plaza, where the global marketplace has made it possible to wash down your bruschetta and pad Thai with a glass of French wine after shopping for Italian shoes. But, aside from foreign-influenced menus and some imported merchandise, which you can get in pretty much any large American city, there doesn't appear to be anything very international about International Plaza. It could be anywhere in this country — Dallas, San Diego, Canton. If you want a truly multicultural experience, go to Busch Flea Market, the other international mall of Tampa.
The big, barnlike building once housed a giant, sparkling Lowe's home improvement store, which closed a couple of years ago, leaving an ugly scar on the suburban landscape. But like a burned spot in the forest, where life begins to crop up among the ashes and thrive again, this once moribund corner is beginning to stir with activity once more.
It now shelters a nomadic assortment of vendors from a surprising number of places, including Pakistan, Germany, Korea, China, Japan, Haiti and Puerto Rico. Some of them have been together through three location changes, from Floriland Mall at Florida Avenue and Busch Boulevard, to Peddlers Mall (otherwise known as the old Burlington Coat Factory) at Nebraska and Fowler avenues, to the current spot on Busch and 50th Street.
Fadwah and Subhi Hasan sell rugs from Saudi Arabia, along with bedding and curtains. The Palestinian couple and their two children lived in St. Croix for nine years before moving to Tampa two years ago. It was nice in St. Croix, she says, because the towns were small and everyone knew each other. She felt safe there, she says, but there are more opportunities and better education for her children here.
On the other side of the mall, Maria Alvarez arranges her display of dolls dressed in lavishly ornate costumes. She also sells novelties for weddings, baby showers and other milestone celebrations. "This is my hobby," she says. "All my very good friends are here." She started out at the Great American Flea Market in West Tampa at Columbus Avenue and 15th Street before moving to Floriland, then Peddlers and now here. Originally from Costa Rica, she has been in Tampa for 13 years. "Over there, we have no flea market," she says. "I love this country."
Next to Maria's booth, Dorothy Parker and her husband Tony Betties sell women's shoes and a few other odds and ends. They don't have a full booth, just a table in the aisle for their wares. But Dorothy and Tony work hard, and they plan to grow. She works 10-hour night shifts at Number One Message Center during the week. He works at the Florida Aquarium. "Then we're here all weekend," she says. "We want to start our own business someday and quit our jobs." They've been working the flea market for almost two years, and to Dorothy, buying the merchandise is the best part of the job, next to being her own boss. "What woman doesn't like buying clothes?" she says. "I get first pick of everything."
At the back of the mall, Maria and Jose Fragoso serve homemade Mexican food. For $4.50, you can have a huge bowl of hearty beef stew with carrots, green beans, cabbage, potatoes, garbanzo beans, squash and corn, flavored with fresh cilantro and served with tortillas or rice. If you've got room, you can finish off with some of Maria's homemade pineapple upside down cake, flan, or maybe a papaya milkshake. The Fragosos don't speak much English, but you can point to whatever you want, and Maria will nod and tell you to go sit down at a table while she prepares your meal. When it's ready, she or Jose will serve you.
Across the mall, the proprietor of a booth called Cultural Access is an astrologer and poet who plays flute and sells essential oils and natural soaps, shampoos and incense, among other things. He identifies himself as Wesley Allen, though he later says this is a pen name and declines to give his real one. An English language version of the Koran is among his wares, but he does not wish to reveal whether or not he is Muslim, nor is he crazy about the idea of having his picture taken, though he finally grudgingly acquiesces.
Across the aisle, Hazel Carter, an Ohio native who runs Hazel's Sugar Shack, is happy to pose for photos with her daughter, Jasmine McCormick, and granddaughter Tiae McCormick. Hazel's husband Lee makes the pickles she sells along with other edibles, including honey, bee pollen and beeswax, which she gets from a beekeeper in Winter Haven. "It takes me all week to do the cooking and get ready," she says. You can get a sausage, biscuit and gravy breakfast for $1.25, beef stew for $3.75 and spaghetti for $3.25.
At Busch Flea Market, you'll find cheap bungee cords and tube socks instead of fine cashmere and leather goods. But you can get lunch for less than the cost of a flavored coffee drink at Starbucks, and a flat top or fade cut for $7 at Good Looking Hair Salon. And just try finding a coco frio, a whole, cold coconut with a straw for sucking out the juice, at that other international mall.
Busch Flea Market is open 9 a.m.-6p.m. Fri.-Sun.
Senior Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 122.