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State Vacuum and ‘Bernie Apestein’ may be waving goodbye to longtime location

For nearly 40 years, while wearing an eclectic mix of fashion, a mechanical gorilla has stood outside State Vacuum of Tampa, waving hello to Kennedy Boulevard motorists.

His name is Bernie Apestein.

"That gorilla has been a mainstay" said David Epstein, 62, second-generation owner of the vacuum sales and repair shop. "It’s how a lot of people know us."

But the wave may now be a goodbye, a sign of an impending move.

A "for lease" and "business relocating" banner has sprung up outside the Tampa landmark.

On July 26, Epstein sold the 10,000-square-foot building that has been the 72-year-old store’s home for the past half century.

The Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website lists Amm Real Estate Holdings as the new owner. Corporate records show its registered agent is Tampa dentist Timothy Muscaro.

The selling price: $2.5 million.

Epstein has a year to relocate and is considering his options.

"It is just time to get to a more modern space," he said.

Muscaro plans to rehab the building and split it up among two or three tenants. He said he’s in discussions with a bank and "some medical groups."

"Hopefully, one will be occupied by David and State Vacuum," Muscaro said.

Epstein hasn’t ruled out becoming one of the tenants, and making a comeback in smaller digs. But he also said he has "zeroed in" on a few other options.

Since a sign was hung from State Vacuum announcing a relocation, longtime customers have broken into tears, Epstein said.

"We will remain in South Tampa," he said. "People don’t realize we have not always been here. This is our fourth location on Kennedy."

The original was opened by his father, the late Bernie Epstein, in 1946. Back then, Kennedy was called Lafayette Street. The store later moved near the intersection of Grand Central Avenue; next, a few blocks north; and finally to its current home.

The gorilla arrived in 1979.

As legend goes, Epstein’s dad was at a trade show in Las Vegas when a salesman persuaded him that a waving robotic primate would be a brilliant marketing tool.

"We never let dad go to a trade show again," Epstein said.

Nothing has better promoted their store, he said, not even the commercial once broadcast during Buccaneer home games at the old Tampa Stadium.

"Heeeere comes the vacuum," Epstein said in his best ring announcer voice, quoting those animated commercials showing a vacuum attacking the visiting team’s mascot. "My dad was a marketing genius."

As the waving gorilla’s fame grew, the store purchased a second robot.

Eventually, they held a naming contest and Bernie Apestein was the winner.

In 2009, one gorilla made national news when it was kidnapped by female University of Tampa students during the week Super Bowl XLIII was played at Raymond James Stadium.

"There it was, on ESPN," Epstein said.

The gorillas used to be replaced, periodically, by new models. But Hurricane Katrina destroyed a New Orleans factory that built the robots and Epstein has yet to locate a new seller.

So, one has been retired and used for spare parts.

The surviving primate will remain with the store, no matter where the new locale is.

That’s a promise made by Epstein’s 28-year-old son, Joe Epstein, who is in line to become the third-generation owner of State Vacuum.

"I would never get rid of it," the son said. "It’s a Tampa landmark."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

   
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