Park Avenue is, in every way, the heart of Winter Park. At Simmons Jewelers, co-owner Robin Simmons (above left) employs Bling and Chiwa to raise the spirits of customers. At the nearby Ancient Olive, owners Jeffrey Schrader and and Bryan Behling (above right) helped a Farmers’ Market vendor weather the pandemic. Photography by Rafael Tongol

Ask me to name my favorite Park Avenue establishment and ordinarily I’d nominate the Morse Museum, for the stained glass, or the Briar Patch, for the California Benedict. These days I’d have to go with Simmons Jewelers, for the girls on the runway.

By girls I mean Bling, a fluffy Pomeranian, and Chiwa, a fashion-forward Chihuahua. By runway I mean the display cases at the avenue’s oldest shop, where at any given moment you might find Bling and Chiwa promenading, their polished nails ticking delicately against the glass.

“The tourists especially ask to see them,” says co-owner Robin Simmons. “They’re working girls. They love the attention.”

I’m no stage-door Johnny, and my taste in dogs historically runs to huskies, pit bulls and mutts. But over the past year and a half, I’ve been worried enough about the avenue to find the sight of scale-model pets strolling above Rolex watches and expensive jewelry reassuring. Nothing like a couple of mascots to boost your morale.

Walk the length of Winter Park’s signature commercial boulevard these days and you’ll pass 11 vacant storefronts. Pandemic casualties range from a fun, true-to-its-name toy store called “Lighten Up!” to the progressive-cuisine emporium Luma on Park. 

But the majority of the 140 merchants in the downtown district used a combination of ingenuity, inventiveness, savings accounts, PPP loans and a lucky break or two to survive. 

“I became the book fairy,” says Lauren Zimmerman, owner of Writer’s Block Bookstore. For the benefit of bibliophiles hesitant to visit the shop, she began delivering books as well as puzzles —  the latter a hot item among cabin-fever victims. Meanwhile Zimmerman and her staff were beefing up the shop’s website for expanded e-commerce.

Some boutique owners opened after hours so customers could shop solo. Lisa West, owner of Charyli (the name is an amalgam of her four children’s first names), got into the delivery business, too, and did a healthy swimsuit trade thanks to homebound customers using the opportunity to work on their tans. 

Like several other merchants up and down the avenue, Kevin and Jami Ray, co-owners of Peterbrooke Chocolatier, took pride in getting through the pandemic without having to lay off staff — a feat they managed with an assist from the National Basketball Association. 

The shop got a boost when the NBA needed help stocking welcome baskets for players and staffers after creating the “NBA Bubble” at Walt Disney World — a self-imposed quarantine zone to gather and protect its athletes and try to salvage a single-site 2019-20 season.

Another stroke of luck, perhaps the most important one: A year before the pandemic, a group of small-business owners had formed the Park Avenue District as a think tank and lobbying group. 

“Little did we know how much we were going to need each other,” says Sarah Grafton, a savvy and engaging financial adviser whose idea it was. “We had some members who were really in a tough spot.”

The presence of the group enhanced a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that was epitomized, despite dour headlines and pervasive angst, by a moment that took place out of sight, in an airy alcove just off the avenue called The Hidden Garden.

It happened just outside The Ancient Olive, a gourmet outpost filled with hard-to-find olive oils and vinegars. Its owners, Jeffrey Schrader and Bryan Behling, were talking to one of the merchants at the Farmers’ Market, located a block away, which was closed for two months in the early phase of the pandemic.

“They were saying they’d just have to take everything back to the farm and plow it under,” says Schrader. “So, we arranged to have them set up their tables outside our store.”

Hearing the tale that day, a customer who wishes to remain anonymous bought all the produce —  to the tune of $5,000 — and donated it to a retirement home. 

Park Avenue is a place where that kind of magic can happen. When you say it’s in the heart of Winter Park, there’s no need to point out the double meaning. It’s our avenue, meant to be celebrated, especially now.

On one of my recent visits, as I headed toward the avenue from the direction of the train station, I saw a little girl who must have been about 9 years old. She was jumping up and down and clapping her hands for the joy of having spotted SunRail cars approaching.

I said to myself: That’s the spirit.


Michael McLeod, mmcleod@rollins.edu, is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College.