Shell World is located at MM 97.6 in Key Largo. DAVID GROSS/Keys Weekly

This year marks Shell World’s 50th year in business. If you have never been to this amazing store, it’s a must-shop stop. Keys Weekly recently connected with Jim Waterman, the founder and owner, and his right-hand buyer and store manager, Danielle Hill, for a trip down memory lane and a look at business now.


How did you get started? I lived in the Keys almost all my life, and my parents had a two-pump gas station where I started Jimmy’s American Gift and Gas. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of job opportunities in the Keys in the ’70s, so I took over my parent’s place and created the Shell and Gift Shop. I had my commercial pilot’s license, but jobs were scarce in the field. 

I thought I would sell a few coconuts and shells, and that is all I would need. The first thing I ever sold was a ceramic chicken. So shortly after that, I took my parents’ car and a trailer and went to Shell Factory (they used to sell wholesale) and loaded up for less than $1,000.

I had an opportunity to purchase the large piece of land the store sits on now in 1979.  I consider myself lucky; a property like it would be impossible to find now.

What was it like when you started and how has it evolved? I ran the small store by myself 15 hours a day, seven days a week. We usually closed for September and October; now business is pretty much year-round. The four-lane of U.S. 1 changed the traffic in Key Largo. 

What challenges did you run into and how have you persevered? Initially, the challenge was doing everything myself with one or two part-time employees as the business grew at our small original location. However, I persevered because I had to build the business and make it a success. I did not have anywhere else to go or a backup plan. 

What were your biggest wins? I would say acquiring the large parcel of property, building the first portion of the structure you see today in 1984, and the addition (clothing/gift areas) in 1988. I’m grateful I had the foresight and confidence to take that chance/gamble that, “If you build it, they will come.”

What lights you up? I love seeing happy, satisfied customers and working with a wonderful staff.

If you could have done anything else, what would it have been? I would have been a commercial pilot and used my license. 


How did you start working with Shell World? A close friend I went to high school with worked at Shell World during her summer break, and I went in to visit her. When I returned from college, I started working at Shell World, and within the year, I became the manager. I left in the mid ’90s, moved away, and pursued a career in social work. I then returned full-time to Shell World in 2005. 

What changes have you seen? When I was first at Shell World, we were the one “game” in town. There were not a lot of other choices for tourist-type shopping. Now there are multiple choices for visitors to shop. One thing that we offer is an extensive and unique selection. We are lucky to have a large store, allowing us to sell and display many choices that easily fit anyone’s budget. 

What are some challenges you have run into, and how have you persevered? Staffing. It has been a journey to build our incredible staff, making it a challenge to hire new staff members. We want to make sure they fit our team’s “Shell World family” culture. Most of our staff have been with us for more than 10 years and several closer to 20, so we are grateful to them for helping us build such a solid foundation. It has been more challenging during the pandemic; we lost some staff that decided to retire instead of returning due to the risk of being in a customer-facing role. 

What are some best-sellers, and also your typical client base? It is hard to pinpoint one best-seller, but we sell a vast selection of T-shirts. We pride ourselves on having quality merchandise with fantastic prices. In addition, we offer many choices in color, design and garment styles. 

Tourists have been our main base, but we have garnered a local following due to our diverse merchandise offerings. Since Shell World has been around so long, we have become a destination for visitors and see multiple generations visit us. They often share how they have been visiting us for years and now enjoy bringing their kids and grandkids.

What do you love most about working at Shell World? I would have to say doing the buying and planning out how to merchandise the product. I also enjoy seeing the trends and sharing them with our customers. 

What’s your favorite section of the store to buy and merchandise? I love it all; it would be our gifts section, if I had to choose, because there is such a wide selection of beautiful things to merchandise together. 

Shell World is open seven days a week, 9 am to 8 pm. You can also follow on Facebook @shellworldflkeys and Instagram @shellworldfloridakeys.

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Melinda Van Fleet is a sales strategy and success coach/consultant, bestselling author of "Confidence Mastery for Couples and Life & Love Lessons," and speaker. Melinda is the host of two weekly podcasts, "The Good Karma Success Coach" and "Crush It In Sales." You can connect with her more at