Hart’s Landing, a bait and tackle shop tucked below and to the south of the John Ringling Causeway as you’re headed toward St. Armands, is one of my favorite spots in Sarasota. Despite the constant whir of cars, trucks, motorcyclists, bicyclists and walkers crossing the bridge just above it, Hart’s somehow manages to feel magically immune to the cacophony.
Selling bait and other essentials since 1934, Hart’s was handed down through generations of the Hart family. Dennis Hart, the most recent family member to run the shop, died in 2010. His passing was mourned by many in this community, and though I’m told the shop has since been sold out of the family, it’s still very much the place you go when you want to remember Sarasota’s roots -- as a one-time, sleepy fishing village.
I’m not a fisherman, but I love to go out on Hart’s dock and watch the pelicans resting atop the water -- barely bobbing, just floating, and I get a childlike kick out of getting up close and personal with the egrets and other waterfowl, even the seagulls, who hang out there. In the trees that shade the shop, I’ve spotted brilliant green parrots with black heads; noisy, but gorgeous.
Recently, in between serving the steady flow of customers coming through the shop for supplies, bait and the occasional sandwich or soft drink, Aron Johnson who’s been working at Hart’s for just about a year, was nice enough to tell me about -- and even show off -- the antics of some of the avian “regulars.”
“Scruffy, c’mon!” is all Johnson has to say, and Scruffy, a Royal Tern who’s been living at Hart’s for years, goes airborne from his post on a nearby pole and swoops in to pick off the live shrimp dangling from the fingertips of Johnson’s outstretched arm.
“There’s a Night Heron, beautiful -- named Bogey,” who frequents the dock, Johnson told me. Another regular is “Catcher,” a Snowy Egret who never seems to stray far from the bait box.
Of course, most people don’t come to Hart’s for the bird stories -- they come for the bait and charter boats. And most of them, Johnson says, are regulars -- just like the birds. Regulars who come to buy what they need to catch their own dinner; folks who still appreciate the quiet simplicity of casting a line into the water, hoping to snag a live one.
When Dennis Hart passed away, the Herald-Tribune obituary mentioned that he’d once had a bumper sticker made that read, “Honesty and integrity are the only things we leave behind when we die. Work on it today.”
I’d like to have met the man who thought like that. But Hart seems to have left one more thing behind: A much-needed legacy of a simpler time -- and a place where the heart of Sarasota lives on.
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