It’s National Small Business Week, and all week the Catalyst is celebrating some of St. Petersburg’s (many) success stories. The foundation of every great city starts with its small, privately-owned small businesses. They are the very building blocks of St. Pete’s economic success.
Part 2 in a series
With the advent of big box stores and Amazon, many critics thought the days of neighborhood bookstores were numbered.
However, these mom-and-pop literary shops have one thing the conglomerates will never possess – a unique, tailored experience.
After operating as a pop-up store around Tampa Bay for two years and followed by a successful crowdfunding campaign, co-owners Alsace Walentine and Candice Anderson opened Tombolo Books in the Grand Central District of St. Pete on Dec. 14, 2019, to provide the city with that unique literary experience.
As its website states, “Every arts city needs a curated bookstore.”
Before moving to St. Petersburg, Walentine lived in Asheville, North Carolina, and managed an award-winning independent bookstore there that she called “the heart of that city.” When she rediscovered St. Petersburg several years ago, she noticed there were some “incredible” used bookstores in the city, but nothing that reminded her of the store in Asheville with its contemporary authors and a fresh, constantly evolving event schedule.
“I thought that would really work in St. Pete because St. Pete culturally is so similar to Asheville with its ‘go local’ spirit,” said Walentine. “I saw there was an opportunity to open a bookstore here and hopefully have a positive impact on the city.”
Just three months into securing a brick-and-mortar location at 2153 1st Ave. S., that opportunity was in jeopardy due to the pandemic. Walentine said she and Anderson were in love with the space, and the first few months of being open “were incredible,” so they decided to do whatever was necessary to “keep getting books in people’s hands.”
“There was no way I was going to let that dream die,” said Walentine.
She knew she had a good website and thought that people stuck at home would want the escape and entertainment that reading a good book provides. So, she began delivering the books by bicycle.
“There were just so many orders and people needing books delivered that we had to do some by car as well and ship out,” said Walentine. “We just kept plugging along every day of the shutdown, and so we were in a good position when it was time to open back up again.”
Walentine takes great pride in creating a space where people from all backgrounds can come together and bond over literature, making friends with people they otherwise may not have realized they had anything in common with. “That’s the most rewarding part,” she said.
She also gets excited when new books arrive every Tuesday, knowing that inside every box is the culmination of years of hard work by the authors.
“Sometimes just opening that box and finally getting our hands on this book that we’ve heard about for months that the author has been working on for years – you know, that’s incredibly thrilling,” said Walentine.
In addition to a thoughtfully curated selection spanning all genres, Tombolo Books also specializes in works by Florida authors. It is also well-known for its weekly events, and tonight the store will host author Craig Pittman as he launches his newest book, The State You’re In. The event is sold out.
“Seeing people be able to meet their favorite author and have a few minutes directly with them in person, it can really change people’s lives sometimes,” said Walentine.
Walentine said a person can go to Amazon and search for a title, and it is going to steer them towards other, similar titles. She added that Amazon’s customers are just part of an algorithm that a stranger designed, and the personal touch provided by community bookstores such as Tombolo Books is what sets them apart.
“It’s not someone from your town, who knows a couple of things about you because you’ve described your interests,” said Walentine. “It’s getting that expertise from a person who actually cares and is not simply getting a paycheck.”
Tombolo Books’ website is here.
Read Part 1 here.