Like so many small businesses, Tombolo Books is taking a hit during these times of isolation, social distancing, fear and uncertainty.
But Alsace Walentine, co-owner of the popular independent bookstore, is offsetting her losses by bringing back home delivery to downtown St. Pete – in a safe and sterile way.
It’s called “no-touch delivery.” Once an order is placed, over the phone or online, it’s packaged using the strict CDC sanitizing guidelines.
Walentine herself makes the delivery via bicycle. She’s distributed more than 80 sanitary, sealed packages of books over the last six days.
“I love getting on my bike,” she says. “If I couldn’t do this, I’d still be getting on my bike.”
Deliveries outside the bike area are made via standard mail or courier service.
A precedent had already been set for Tombolo. Before its brick and mortar store even existed, Walentine operated it as a pop-up bookseller, in various, temporary locations downtown.
“In 2018, when the last pop-up ended, I thought ‘How am I going to get books to them, if they don’t have a place to come pick up?”
Tombolo had already developed a substantial customer base by then. She felt obliged to keep their reading habits supplied. “Back in the day, I didn’t use my bike, because I didn’t have a bike yet,” Walentine explains. “I would just drive around and meet people at coffee shops or whatever, to get them their books.”
The physical store on 1st Avenue South finally opened last December, and the delivery service was discontinued.
Fast forward to March 17, when Walentine, her wife and business partner Candice Anderson and their staff were forced to close the sales floor because of the encroaching pandemic. For a week, they offered curbside purchases, but the mayor’s “safer at home” order put an end to that, too.
Walentine enjoys chatting with customers, and potential customers, over the phone. She considers it a basic component of personalized bookselling.
“It is an altruistic thing to work with a person to help them find the right book that’s going to help them in their lives at this moment,” she explains. “For people, it’s different from just clicking and ordering a product from a store. It’s a personal relationship.
“Helping guide them through the process of ‘What is the best book available that meets the needs that they have right now?’ Whether it’s ‘I really need distraction,’ ‘I really need some good writing to get me away from the anxiety,’ or if it’s ‘I really need a way to entertain my children because I’m stuck at home with them.’ Whatever it is.”
Even if restrictions tighten, she says, “We ship directly from the store, and we also ship from our distributor’s warehouse in Tennessee, so it’s really fast. If we don’t have it in the store, you can still get it super fast. Like a couple of days.”
Maybe it’s all the fresh air she’s been getting on her bicycle jaunts – Walentine remains optimistic about Tombolo’s future in the time of coronavirus.
“Small businesses are able to be nimble, because we don’t have a lot of overhead,” she says. “We’re going to get through this.
“We’re really fortunate that we have a good relationship with our landlord. We’re really fortunate that we have the website totally in place, and we can get anything in print.”
In a similar effort, the Florida Museum of Natural History has opened its book store of Florida-centric titles – “a literary journey through Florida’s past” – to online orders. A message from museum director Rui Farias indicates the titles will be frequently re-stocked, with new books added as time goes on.
Peruse the museum’s available selections here.