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The independent bookstore is alive and well in St. Petersburg

Bill DeYoung

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Ray Hinst has been an owner of Haslam's books for 45 years. The landmark independent bookstore opened in 1933 (photo: Bill DeYoung

Not so long ago, a woman walked into Haslam’s Book Store and told store owner Ray Hinst she was looking for a King James Bible, just a small one to tuck into her suitcase for an impending trip.

Hinst dutifully took her back to the shelves containing both new and used religious books. “She reached over and she pulled this King James out,” Hinst remembers. “It was a little worn, and so forth. And when she looked down at the cover … her mother’s name was on it.”

The customer’s mother was, at that time, in an assisted living facility in Santa Monica, Calif., and had been there for 20 years. There was no conceivable reason why it should be in a book store 2,600 miles away.

And that, in a nutshell, is why the digital age – online ordering and downloadable books – can’t kill the brick and mortar bookstore.

Haslam’s has been in St. Petersburg since 1933. It survived the rise (and fall) of the mall chain stores, the rise of Barnes and Noble and the other “supermarket” bookstores (several of which have already passed into history) and, Hinst believes, it will coexist into the future alongside digital formats just fine. “Each one is going to serve certain purposes better than the other,” he says. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

Hinst owns Haslam’s with his wife Suzanne, whose grandparents, John and Mary Haslam, founded the store during the Great Depression, to sell used books and magazines at bargain prices. Haslam’s moved into its present location, on Central Avenue and 20th, in 1964. Ray’s been walking the floors – 30,000 square feet of them – for 45 years. The inventory is divided between new and used titles.

“There’s still a comfort to the book,” Hinst believes. “It has provided civilization its methodology and format for passing on knowledge for 500 years. Things have come and gone during that time period, but it has endured. And we don’t think the book’s going to go away.”

A 2014 study by Norway’s Stavanger University bears this out. According to researcher Ann Mangen, “When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right. You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual …

“[The differences for Kindle readers] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading. Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story.”

The data, Mangen concluded, showed that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print book does.”

The appeal of physical books, Hinst believes, is almost primal. “It is a multi-tactile exercise to engage in,” he says. “You hold it, you may smell it, you see it, you feel it, you hear it when you’re turning the pages. You can shift and change your direction and so forth very easily.”

When internet shopping and Kindle books were shiny new toys, it looked like the death knell for paper books. Statistically, 43 percent of America’s independent book stores went out of business between 1995 and 2000, as Amazon offered a massive and ever-expanding inventory of books quickly and cheaply. The arrival of the Kindle e-reader in 2007 seemed to be the final thrust.

Down, but not out. Almost immediately, customer service – and the fine art of browsing – began to make a comeback.

As of this May, the American Booksellers Association reports, the year-to-date sales for independent bookstores, as submitted to its weekly Indie Bestseller Lists, were up more than five percent over 2017. In addition, the group reports a 35 percent increase in the number of independent booksellers from 2009 to 2015.

The ABA was among the first trade associations to embrace and endorse the “buy local” movement; both Haslam’s and Wilson’s Book World – doing business in St. Pete since 1971 – have repeat customers who wouldn’t be caught dead buying books through Amazon.

Both stores, however, report an influx of younger customers.

Michelle Jenquin’s grandmother opened Wilson’s, which sells used, antiquarian and rare books and comics, and passed it on to her son, Jeff Morris, in 1988.

Jenquin took over last year, when Wilson’s moved from its longtime location on 9th Street North to a bigger storefront on 16th Street.

“We like the more obscure, unique books that have character,” Jenquin says. “That’s the niche that I like. Anybody can sell new books. You can open up a store and order from a publisher. But we sell the unique, the rare … the old school sci-fi books that have the great artwork on the front, things like that.”

Like Ray Hinst and the other staffers at Haslam’s, Jenquin believes  customers enjoy the tactile experience of physical books – the touch, the sound, the interaction.

And don’t forget the fine art of browsing.

“Some people come in and they’re looking specifically for these missing volumes in a trilogy of sci-fi and fantasy, or in historical fiction,” she explains. “An older author that you’re not going to find at a Barnes and Noble, or in the Target book selection.

“And when they’re doing that, they’re looking at all the other stuff that we’ve taken in over the years. People spend an hour or more just browsing through everything.”

Some people drop in to Haslam’s every day, Hinst reports, just to see what new stuff has appeared, or to check the new arrivals amongst the used books. And some folks simply like to talk about books.

And then there are those incidents that just could not happen online.

“There was a fellow looking for a book about 25 years ago – he was looking for this Canadian book, a limited edition. It was a play. He says ‘Oh, I know you’re not going to have it.’”

They didn’t, and the man declined Hinst’s offer to take his contact info should the tome ever materialize. “That’s OK, don’t worry about it,” the man said, clearly frustrated. “I’ll never find this thing.”

The very next day, Hinst was in the back room, poring over a boxes of just-acquired used books – and there it was. The very title. “It was a signed, numbered, limited edition of that play,” Hinst marvels. “I still have it – in case he shows up.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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