Goodness knows there are plenty of “weird’ Florida stories out there, the sort with headlines like “Man bludgeoned with plastic flamingo.” The state is famous for such things.
Those aren’t the stories Joshua Ginsberg collected for his book Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure.
The author who calls himself “a seeker of wonder” is a relatively new arrival to the bay area. He wrote Secret Tampa Bay, and its brand-new companion book, after moving here and learning – sometimes by happenstance, other times on purpose – all about the historical nooks and crannies of the place.
Writing with breezy, entertaining strokes, laced with humor, Ginsberg filled his book with tales about Jose Gaspar, for example, the Plant City Strawberry Festival, St. Pete’s SHINE Mural Festival, the legend of Jack Kerouac in St. Pete, the Columbia Restaurant, the Ybor cigar industry … all things that would intrigue (and/or fascinate) a new resident.
Which he was, in 2016. Ginsberg and his wife, Jen, chose Tampa as their destination city after more than a decade in Chicago. The bloom had come off the Windy City rose.
“When I first moved there, the city was really magical,” he says. “There’s this sense of mystery and wonder, and every time you go down the street there’s something new and exciting around every corner.
“But after about 10 years, I’d kind of gone blind to the magic of the place I lived. I think that happens to us. No matter where you live, it just becomes the backdrop against which you live your day-to-day life.”
The unexpected death of a longtime close friend hit him hard. “It made me kind of re-evaluate where I was and what I was doing,” he says. Suddenly he had a desire to re-kindle that childhood sense of wonder at new things.
As the couple prepared to relocate to Florida, Ginsberg spent the final six months putting together lists of things you can only do in Chicago, from the touristy to the purely historical, as a sort of farewell tribute.
“Having created those adventure lists as a way to say goodbye to one city, we quickly realized it was a really great way to get to know a new place,” he explains.
Once in Tampa, “I started blogging and without even realizing it, I was compiling a great deal of writing about these quirky, offbeat, hidden nooks and little-known places in and around town.”
His ready reading material included Atlas Obscura and Roadside America. He couldn’t get enough.
Next he devoured a book called Secret Philadelphia: A Guide to the Weird and Wonderful and Obscure, and when he realized it was part of a series, Joshua Ginsberg had a lightbulb moment. He called the publisher and suggested a volume on Tampa.
To his surprise and delight, they read his writing samples and gave him the green light.
“There was a great book called 100 Things to Do in Tampa Bay before You Die, and Arcadia Press has a lot of series about different neighborhoods,” he says. “But it surprised me that there was still so much that hadn’t been covered.”
Secret Tampa Bay was published in September 2020. “I’m pretty sure I went about doing things precisely the way everybody’s told not to, but throughout my life I have been nothing if not somewhat contrarian.
“I starting thinking gee, maybe I could have timed this better. Because trying to write a local travel guide during a pandemic creates some very unique challenges.”
Out this week is Tampa Bay Scavenger, a companion book consisting of 150 riddles, written in rhyme, that will take readers from one side of the bay to the other, and back again.
“After Secret Tampa Bay,” Ginsberg explains, “I signed a contract to put out a book next year called Oldest Tampa Bay. But in between I was trying to come up with clever ways to market Secret Tampa Bay. And so I put together maybe a couple dozen riddles, based on the content, to use as a scavenger hunt which ultimately never came to fruition.
“But the publisher got ahold of them and said ‘Hey, these are great.’ They said ‘Do you think you could write enough to fill a book?’”
They gave him six months. “With the scavenger hunt, I’ve crossed another threshold, and hopefully now I am helping create, and curate, and provide unique and wonderous experiences.”
Ginsberg has created a website, tampabayscavenger.com, at which readers can upload examples of their riddle-solving prowess. And there are prizes at the end, should you wish to play competitively and solve the ultimate Da Vinci Code-style puzzle (Ginsberg has created a “leaderboard” on the site).
“Apparently,” Ginsberg chuckles, “at age 45 I have achieved the dream I had as a 13-year-old, of being a real-life dungeon master. It certainly helps that there is absolutely no competition for that title.”
Joshua Ginsberg will sign copies of his books at Vintage Marché, 2200 2nd Ave. S., until 6 p.m. today, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.