Sheri Wilken runs The Mad Hatter General Store in downtown Tarpon Springs.
TARPON SPRINGS – The Mad Hatter General Store looks like it should smell musty, but it doesn’t. Cobwebs should hang from the rafters, but they don’t. A music box in the corner should echo eerie, tinny chords, but only the overhead speakers play music. It feels like a different era, and maybe, just maybe, it actually is.
Owner Sheri Wilken started with a rented jewelry case at an antique mall while she ran Dunedin Carefree RV Resort and The Blue Moon Inn, her family business. She collected pieces from the ’20s, ’30s, ’50s and everything in between. Vintage pieces that now invoke a “wow” when customers walk into her store.
In September 2011, after her family sold the company, she opened a small shop on Alt. U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor. Five months later, she moved next to Currents Restaurant in Tarpon Springs. A year later, when she didn’t get enough foot traffic, she moved her store to its current location.
“When I go to Tarpon, there were a lot of empty store fronts. I didn’t know which way it was going to go,” Wilken said. “I opened the store during the bad slump of the economy, but I was either going to sit at home or go out and do something.”
So she went out and did something. She started the Mad Hatter General Store, a blast to the past filled with bloomers and hats and bags. Almost everything is new, but it looks vintage, which is exactly what Wilken is looking for.
“I think (customers) need a place where it felt good to be inside,” she said. “This area is the art and antique district, and even though my merchandise is new, it still fits.”
Wilken fills her shelves with specially chosen items from vendors, pieces she hand selects after sifting through everything available.
“I know I drive my reps crazy,” she said, “but so much is too bright, too new, just not right.”
The real vintage wear, which hides in the back room until a customer asks for something specifically, is the product of years of travel. A treasure hunt, she calls it, at flea markets and estate sales. Some pieces come from people’s closets. And some come from Tarpon.
“I really try to help local artists get started and find confidence,” Wilken said. “I want them to get going with their products.”
Recently, the Florida Retail Federation, a statewide trade association, named the Mad Hatter General Store one of Florida’s Outstanding Retail Leaders for its contribution to the community and to the retail industry. The store also was named Small Business of the Year last year by the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce.
“Tarpon has such a small town feel; not every place has a historical district,” Wilken said. “We need to capitalize on that.”
In the few years she’s been in Tarpon Springs, Wilken has worked hard to get local businesses online, helping them create websites, Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts. As Marketing Chairperson of the Tarpon Springs Merchants Association, she’s worked to link the sponge docks and downtown, as well as create a strong “shop local” initiative.
The Mad Hatter’s slogan is “You never know what you will find,” a message that Wilken says relates to herself and her customers. But when you’ll find yourself is as much a question as what you’ll find there.
The Mad Hatter General Store is located at 161 E. Tarpon Ave. The store is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. During special city events, Wilken stays open later. For more information, call 943-0800 or go online to www.madhattergeneralstore.com, which links to the online store as well as Wilken’s blog. You can also find the store on Facebook at www.facebook.com/madhattergeneralstore.