VINTAGE ST. PETE is a series focused on the illustrious (and sometimes notorious) past of our city. Many of these characteristics appeared in the Catalyst over the past 2 1/2 years, and new stories (like this one) will be added over time. Some elements of this story appeared in the 2018 Catalyst article “Independent bookstore is alive and well in St. Petersburg.”
In the 1960s, when living in St. Petersburg, Jack Kerouac was a frequent visitor to Haslam’s Books. The legendary Beat Era novelist, according to the story, would wait until no one was looking and rearrange the fictional shelves so that his titles – filed under the “K” section – were always at eye level.
Haslam’s was a St. Pete institution long before the On the road The author walked through its checkerboard tiled floors, and he not only survived, but thrived in the years that followed, surviving the mall chain stores and many “super bookstore” outlets. Eighty-seven-year-old Haslam’s claims to be the oldest – and largest – physical bookstore in Florida.
Covid closed the store in March, and store owner Ray Hinst says he and his wife, Suzanne Haslam, have not decided when they will reopen. “We are waiting to see what happens as things move forward,” he explains. “It’s not back to business as usual yet.”
The city’s other large independent bookstores – Wilson’s Book World (vintage 1971) and Tombolo Books (2019) have resumed their normal opening hours.
Haslam will reappear when he is good and ready. Time is on its side.
Avid readers John and Mary Haslam – Suzanne’s grandparents – opened their second-hand book and magazine store in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. For two cents a day, people could “rent” any book in the store (the Haslams had purchased a sprawling collection of leather-bound books 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 has been in its current location, 30,000 square feet at 2025 Central, since 1964. The inventory is split roughly evenly between new and used books (and no, they no longer rent them; the inventory can go up to 300,000. titles).
Charles Haslam – Suzanne’s father – hosted The wonderful world of books on WEDU for 15 years. Her guests on the Sunday afternoon TV show 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 run the store since 1973.
A woman once entered Haslam’s house and informed Ray Hinst that she was looking for a King James Bible, just a small one to slip into her suitcase for an upcoming trip.
Hinst dutifully brought it back to the shelves containing both new and used religious books. “She reached out and pulled out this King James,” Hinst recalls. “It was a bit worn, and so on. And when she looked at the cover… her mother’s name was on it.
The client’s mother was, at the time, in an assisted living facility in Santa Monica, California, and had been there for 20 years. There was no conceivable reason for it to be in a bookstore 2,600 miles away.
And that’s, in a nutshell, why the digital age – online ordering and downloadable books – can’t kill the physical bookstore.
“The book is always heartwarming,” Hinst believes. “It has provided civilization with its methodology and format for transmitting knowledge for 500 years. Things have come and gone during this time, but it has lasted. And we don’t think the book is going to go away.
A 2014 study from the Norwegian University of Stavanger confirms it. According to researcher Ann Mangen, “When you read on paper, you can feel with your fingers a stack of pages growing on the left and narrowing on the right. You have a 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 the paper as you progress through a story, is a kind of sensory discharge, supporting the visual sense of the progress when you read. Maybe it helps the reader in some way, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of how the text unfolds and progresses, and therefore the story.
The data, Mangen concluded, showed that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for the mental reconstruction of a story as a printed book.”
The appeal of physical books, Hinst believes, is almost paramount. “It’s a multi-touch exercise to engage in,” he says. “You hold it, you can feel it, you see it, you feel it, you hear it as you turn the pages. You can very easily change direction and so on.
When internet shopping and Kindle books were shiny new toys, it was like the death knell for paper books. Statistically, 43% of independent American bookstores closed their doors between 1995 and 2000, because Amazon offered a massive and ever-expanding stock of books, quickly and cheaply. The arrival of the Kindle e-reader in 2007 seemed to be the last momentum.
But there is something about your local independent bookseller, where people can – regardless of the rules of Covid – browse their hearts’ content, check and discover new titles, get recommendations or just stay and chat with. other like-minded people.
E-readers don’t come with this type of customer service:
“About 25 years ago there was a man looking for a book,” 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 details if the book ever materialized. “It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” the man said, clearly frustrated. “I’ll never find this thing.”
The next day, Hinst was in the back room, hunched over a box of newly purchased used books – and it was there. The title itself, The wild party. “It was a limited, signed and numbered edition of this piece,” Hinst marvels. “I still have it – in case it shows up.”