Arthur “Art” Falls’ nickname was AKA. It stood for Art Knows All.
He knew about business, particularly the unique challenges owners face on Longboat Key. They were lessons he’d gleaned over 28 years as a retailer on the island that began with the Sea Stable in 1978.
“He had a real eye for how to survive, which benefited a lot of business people,” said Gail Loefgren, former executive director of the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce.
He knew politics — which, perhaps, is why when his friend, former Longboat Key Mayor Jeremy Whatmough, told him about a columnist who kept bashing him, he offered these words of advice: “Ignore him.”
He knew fashion, although it was a steep learning curve.
But, when a customer would seek his honest opinion on a piece of swimwear, his motto was: “Don’t buy it if you won’t leave the fitting room.”
And, he knew about community. That’s why, in 2005, when the St. Jude Luncheon committee was loosely organized and in danger of fading away, he urged his fellow members of the Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key to step in and take over the organization to ensure that the tradition would continue.
“He is singularly responsible for the fact that there is what they’re now calling the Gourmet Lawn Party,” said his friend Vince DeLisi, who was president of the Kiwanis Club when Falls presented the idea. “I teased him when it was all done that I was just the Charlie McCarthy dummy on Edgar Bergen’s knee.”
Falls, of Sarasota and formerly of Longboat Key, died July 27. He was 86.
Born Aug. 27, 1926, in Brooklyn, N.Y., he grew up in Queens, N.Y., served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and attended Florida Southern College in Lakeland, where he studied journalism and met his wife, Nancy.
The couple then moved to Nancy’s hometown of Ashland, Ill., a small farming town where Falls stood out as an Irish Catholic New Yorker, according to his son, Robert.
He was a delegate to the 1964 Republican National Convention, during which Barry Goldwater was chosen as the party’s presidential candidate. Falls also ran President Gerald Ford’s 1976 Illinois campaign in which Ford won the state.
Falls also held positions as the director of transportation safety for the state of Illinois and worked to secure financial aid and grants for students at the University of Illinois.
But, by the late 1970s, he was sick of cold weather and disillusioned with Illinois politics. He also sought the independence he knew he’d never find by working for someone else.
So, Falls and his wife surprised their family by purchasing the Sea Stable in 1978 and moved to Longboat Key.
“You had to be daring to open then because there weren’t a lot of people, particular during the summertime,” said longtime Colony Beach & Tennis Resort owner Dr. Murray “Murf” Klauber.
Falls learned how to make a business thrive on the Key.
Edith Barr Dunn, who owned the former Shenkel’s Restaurant, recalled how Falls took her up on her suggestion of a Sunday morning fashion show. There was often a line at Shenkel’s, so people waiting for tables could go to the Sea Stable for the fashion show before their table was ready, or they could shop after eating.
“I think he was the only one in the country who had a Sunday morning fashion show,” Barr Dunn said. “You had to make your own business because you couldn’t depend just on the people who live on the Key.”
In business, Art and Nancy Falls were a true partnership, according to son Robert Falls.
She handled the fashion side, while he took charge of advertising and promotions, including the two-for-one swimsuit sale that drew a line at the Sea Stable each year.
At their peak, the Fallses owned seven businesses: the Sea Stable, Brightwater Boutique and Susan Stribling’s New Traditions on the Key, as well as Anna Maria Island, Orlando and Amelia Island stores.
The Orlando and Amelia Island stores helped to counter the summer slump that the local stores experienced.
From the early years, Falls was involved in Key organizations, including the Kiwanis Club, chamber and a number of charities.
“He was one of those staunch people who would go out and work their butts off for St. Judes, taking tickets, putting up tents, picking up trash,” Klauber said.
The Kiwanis Club honored Falls for his contributions to the Key in 2000 with its “Citizen of the Year” award. He started out his acceptance speech in seriousness, saying he wasn’t sure he deserved the award.
“However,” Falls said, “I do think I am the only man who for 23 years has asked Longboat women to take their clothes off and get comfortable.”
After his wife died in 2002, Falls learned more about fashion because he had to do the buying for the stores. The business remained a family endeavor, with the Fallses’ son, Joe, owning part of the business, and daughter, Betsy, coming aboard in 2005 to manage the Sea Stable.
In the 2000s, Falls began preparing for retirement by closing other stores and diverting the merchandise to his Longboat Key stores. The decade would bring new challenges for Key merchants.
He expressed concerns about the impending closure of the Holiday Inn in a 2003 “My View” in the Longboat Observer. He estimated that 10% of Holiday Inn visitors shopped at the Sea Stable and that the loss of the rooms would result in 3,520 fewer shopping visits and a revenue loss of $91,676 per year.
A decade after the hotel’s closure, Key merchants still lament the impact that it had on their businesses.
Falls still had more to give to the community. By 2005, he was concerned that the St. Jude committee needed long-term leadership and that the Kiwanis Club should take on the event.
He believed in St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and its connection to the Kiwanis mission of helping children. But he also saw its connection to the community as the first major event of season and a sort of homecoming for the Key’s snowbirds.
He created a highly detailed plan to ensure its continuity that the board accepted.
“When he brought it to the Kiwanis Club, it was a magnificent piece of completed staff work,” said Kiwanis member Weldon Frost. “Every I dotted and T crossed.”
The luncheon later became the Gourmet Lawn Party, which is a major fundraiser for Kiwanis scholarships. Last year, Falls’ granddaughter, Sarah Falls, received one of those scholarships.
“I said, ‘Art, this is genetic,’” Frost said. “This has to be the most complete application we’ve ever gotten.”
Falls retired in 2007, after closing his last three stores, all on the Key, within a span of a few months. He kept his eye for style even though he’d left retail behind. His daughter, Betsy, told the Longboat Observer in 2009 that her dad still noticed the labels on people’s clothing.
Looking back on his father’s life, Robert Falls said that his father’s path to retail was an unlikely one.
“I never imagined my father doing this,” he said. “The joke was always that, was there anyone we could think of who was less inclined to have this retail career than Arthur. But he really just loved the people.”
Falls is survived by sons Robert, of Chicago, and Joseph, of Bradenton; daughters Betsy, of Longboat Key, and Nancy Susan, of Orlando; sisters Joan Falls, of Sarasota, and Edwin Falls, of Cape Cod, Mass.; and nine grandchildren.
A private family service will take place this week. Another service will be held in November.
Contact Robin Hartill at email@example.com.
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