ST. PETERSBURG – On a 90-degree morning at the corner of 22nd Avenue and 34th Street North, Cee Hilliard and Bill St. Ours sat idly inside a sweltering tent stocked with fireworks, counting the days and hours before the inevitable rush of shoppers.
Just six days before Independence Day, there were no shoppers. Zero. Brightly colored boxes labeled Golden Shower, Laser Dragon and TNT King Kong were piled high on folding tables, with no takers.
But Hilliard and St. Ours, both veteran hawkers, were not the least bit worried. Come July 1, these middle-aged workers said, shoppers will fill the tent, with lines out the door.
The two should know. The independent operators are affilated with Universe Fireworks Co. of Riverview, and have staffed fireworks tents in St. Petersburg and Tampa for seven years.
The tents – bearing giant FIREWORKS signs – are up for a total of 21 days, from mid-June through July Fourth.
Workers at Universe and Galaxy, another Florida fireworks retailer, get paid strictly on commission. These independent operators continually staff the site, sleeping on the premises.
The retail companies provide the products, selling area, permits, even portable toilets. The makeshift retail shops are located at prime locations, on busy street corners and parking lots in the Tampa Bay area.
But it is up to these seasonal workers to move the products to get paid. Their earnings are a percentage of overall sales.
In the Tampa Bay area and most of Florida, the full-range of fireworks – firecrackers, bottle rockets and aerials – can be sold retail.
But in St. Petersburg, city law limits sales to the milder sparkler items, which include fountains, ground spinners and novelty items. Sparkler or firecracker, it doesn't matter to consumers. Sales sizzle.
Hilliard and St. Ours talked with Patch about their unusual occupation.
Patch: Since sales are so slow until July 1, why do the tents go up in mid-June?
Hilliard: Advertising. We get our name out. People know we're here. So when July 1 rolls around, they show up. We have some shoppers who've been coming back year after year.
Patch: Why do you have to stay on site? Are you here all the time?
St. Ours: For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we stay on premise. It's like this is our shop. We sleep here so people won't steal. They try to cut the fence and crawl under. If someone steals product, we have to pay for it.
Hilliard: It's always an adventure. This job is not for everyone. You need to be patient. The first year I almost had a stroke because no one showed up the first two weeks. Then it went crazy around here. The money was good.
Patch: What is your busiest day, the Fourth?
St. Ours: On July 1, people's attitudes change. Suddenly, they want fireworks. We get a lot of repeat customers. On the Fourth, we're busy from sunup to sundown. Everything you see here gets sold. These baskets of fireworks will be empty.
Patch: Do you have another job after this gig ends?
Hilliard: I work the flea markets and sell goods, anything and everything. And I sell at online auctions.
St. Ours: I work wherever I can – odd jobs, lawn work. I'll be back selling fireworks for New Year's.
Patch: What's your most popular product at the St. Pete location for the Fourth of July?
Hilliard: Full Force TNT for $119. It's a whole night of fireworks in a box.
Patch: Do you use the fireworks?
St. Ours: Can't afford to.
Hilliard: We're out here to make money, not burn it.