VINTAGE ST. PETE is a series focused on our city’s illustrious (and occasionally notorious) past. Many of these features have appeared in the Catalyst over the past 2 1/2 years, and new stories (like this one) will be added as time goes on. Some material in this story appeared in the 2018 Catalyst article “The independent book store is alive and well in St. Petersburg.”
Back in the 1960s, when he lived in St. Petersburg, Jack Kerouac was a frequent visitor to Haslam’s Books. The legendary beat-era novelist, so the story goes, would wait until no one was watching and re-arrange the fiction shelves, so that his titles – filed in the “K” section – were always at eye level.
Haslam’s was a St. Pete institution long before the On the Road author walked its tiled checkerboard floors, and it has not only survived, it’s thrived in the intervening years, outliving the shopping mall chain stores and many of the high-volume “super bookseller” outlets. Eighty-seven years young, Haslam’s claims to be the oldest – and the largest – brick-and-mortar book store in Florida.
Covid closed the store down in March, and store owner Ray Hinst says that he and his wife, Suzanne Haslam, haven’t decided when they’ll re-open. “We’re waiting to see what happens as things progress,” he explains. “It’s not a return to business as usual yet.”
The city’s other major independent book stores – Wilson’s Book World (vintage 1971) and Tombolo Books (2019) have resumed regular business hours.
Haslam’s will reappear when it’s good and ready. Time is on its side.
Avid readers John and Mary Haslam – Suzanne’s grandparents – opened their used book and magazine store in 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression. For two pennies per day, folks could “rent” any book in the store (the Haslams had purchased a sprawling collection of leather-bound volumes from a local real estate developer). They also sold hand-made gifts and sundries.
As their inventory and customer base grew, the Haslam family moved the business several times; it’s been at its current location, 30,000 square feet at 2025 Central, since 1964. Stock is divided pretty much evenly between new and used books (and no, they don’t rent them any more; the inventory is up to 300,000 titles strong).
Charles Haslam – Suzanne’s father – hosted The Wonderful World of Books on WEDU for 15 years. His guests on the Sunday-afternoon TV program included Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Bennett Cerf, F. Lee Bailey, Michael Shaara and Yogi Berra. He was president of the American Booksellers Association from 1978 to 1980.
Suzanne and Ray have been running the store since 1973.
A woman once strolled into Haslam’s and informed 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 book store.
“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.
But there’s something about your local indie bookseller, where folks can – Covid rules notwithstanding – browse to their heart’s content, check in and find out about new titles, get recommendations or just stand around and chat with other like-minded individuals.
E-readers don’t come with this kind of customer service:
“There was a fellow looking for a book about 25 years ago,” Hinst says. “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 box of just-acquired used books – and there it was. The very title, The Wild Party. “It was a signed, numbered, limited edition of that play,” Hinst marvels. “I still have it – in case he shows up.”