After 16 inspiring years working at Malaprop’s Bookstore, which the New York Times called “the heart and soul of Asheville, N.C., when Asheville was a sleepy little hippie town,” Alsace Walentine left the Blue Ridge Mountains for sunny St. Petersburg in 2015. Objective: An independent bookstore of her own.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Walentine’s wife, Candice Anderson, is a vegetable seed representative with Bejo Seeds, and the move to Florida was necessary for her job.
However, the seed for Tombolo Books was planted before the couple arrived in St. Pete.
This Saturday, Tombolo – in marine science, it means a spit of sand connecting an island to the mainland – will open its doors at 2153 1st Avenue S., in the Grand Central District.
“What I learned at Malaprops was what to do on the sales floor, and why I care about customer service,” says Walentine, who’ll manage the intimate (1,550-square-foot) space. “I learned that this isn’t retail – this is a noble profession.”
There’ll be numerous, obvious differences between Tombolo (TOM-buh-lo) and the big chain stores – most notably, Walentine says, the inventory will be specifically curated for her customers.
“The curation at those stores – from my understanding – is very top-down,” she explains. “It is not grassroots-up. The independent booksellers are the ones having conversations with people, saying ‘I think so-and-so would really like this book that I see in the catalog for next season.’
“That’s not happening at the chain stores. It’s just generic – they’re selling products. We’re selling the experience of us thinking about you, and getting something in specifically for you.”
With a wide cross-section of authors, subject and titles, Walentine insist Tombolo is not a “niche” store, but will appeal to, and welcome, everyone. There are sections for children, and for young adult readers.
Tombolo will also be home to periodic author events and book signings; such things were her specialty at Malaprop’s, where she was both staff manager and director of the busy events program.
“St. Pete is so similar, culturally, to Asheville,” she explains. “The tourism and the arts and the natural beauty. I knew from the start, ‘this town will support that vision.’”
Walentine has a theory about the ongoing decline of the national bookstore chains, and the inevitable rebirth of the independents. “In my mind, it’s because the independent bookstores worked with the Go Local movements in small towns like this throughout the country, after Amazon decimated a bunch of stores,” she says. “That grassroots movement was a slow build, but it was educational.
“If you spend your money local, with your neighbors, they keep it in the community. You keep each other accountable. Your community gets more vibrant, because it’s wealthier and more connected, and more intentional about what we’re doing with our money. It’s like voting with your dollars – so you can spend it here, or you can give it to Mr. Bezos, if you would like.”
A good indie bookstore, she adds, is warm and welcoming. “You feel the difference as soon as you walk in. It’s not something that you have to theoretically explain to people; it’s a thing they feel, viscerally.”
Once in St. Pete, Walentine enrolled in the Entrepreneurial Academy at the Greenhouse, the city’s business assistance and education center, to fine-tune her business acumen.
In 2017, jonesing to get Tombolo off the ground, she bought a cross-section of interesting-looking books from a distributor and set up a table at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading.
“We completely sold out by the end of the day,” she recalls with obvious pride. “And I thought ‘Oh, OK … the demand is way higher than I thought. Then we did Et Cultura, and it was the same response, in a very different market.”
For nearly two years, Tombolo was a “pop-up” bookstore; Walentine turned up at events all over the city with a hand-curated collection of titles. She made tons of friends, and potential brick-and-mortar customers.
Residents, she thinks, were starved for the personal touch. “It was clear that we had picked out really interesting books,” Walentine says. “And when you put interesting books side-by-side, it’s a really fun browsing experience, for all ages.”
All the while, Anderson has been supported them both. “I haven’t taken a penny – I haven’t paid myself, yet,” Walentine laughs. “So it’s been a labor of love.”
In November, they signed a lease on the old Salon B location, adjacent to Black Crow Coffee and Squeeze Juice Works, announcing a crowd-funding campaign to help them with the $12,000 they needed to get the store open before the holiday rush.
The community gave them nearly $10,000 in the first seven days.
They still don’t have quite enough to put nice signs up at the entrances (one on 1st, the other on Central); the funding campaign is still in progress (here).
As of Saturday at 10 a.m., however, Tombolo Books will be open for business.
Alsace Walentine can’t help thinking back to those 16 years she spent at Malaprop’s; that’s how she created the Tombolo community template.
“There were little kids that I watched totally grow up,” she remembers. “And teenagers I saw get married and have their own kids. We had weddings in the store. There was a memorial service for an elderly man.
“It is really the heart of the town. And I can’t be in a town without that kind of heart.”