Haslam Bookstore • St Pete Catalyst

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Ray Hinst has owned the Haslam books for 47 years. The historic independent bookstore opened in 1933. Photo: Bill DeYoung

VINTAGE ST. PETE is a series centered on our city’s illustrious (and sometimes notorious) past. 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 “The independent bookstore is alive and well in St. Petersburg.”

In the 1960s, while living in St. Petersburg, Jack Kerouac frequently visited Haslam’s Books. The legendary beat-era novelist, according to the story, waited for no one to look and rearranged the fiction shelves, so his titles – filed in “K” section – were always at eye level.

Haslam’s was a St. Pete institution long before the On the road the author roamed its checkerboard tiled floors, and he not only survived, but thrived in the years that followed, surviving the mall chain stores and numerous “super bookseller” outlets in high volume. Eighty-seven years young, Haslam’s claims to be Florida’s oldest and largest brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Covid closed the store in March and store owner Ray Hinst said he and his wife, Suzanne Haslam, had not decided when they would reopen. “We are 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 bookstores – Wilson’s Book World (1971 vintage) and Tombolo Books (2019) have resumed normal opening hours.

Haslam will reappear when he is good and ready. Time is on his 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 from the store (the Haslams had purchased an extensive collection of leather-bound volumes from a local property developer). They also sold handmade gifts and sundries.

As their inventory and customer base grew, the Haslam family moved the business several times; it’s been in its current location, 30,000 square feet at 2025 Central, since 1964. Inventory is split about evenly between new and used books (and no, they don’t rent them anymore; inventory can hold up to ‘to 300,000 titles).

Charles Haslam – Suzanne’s father – hosted The wonderful world of books on WEDU for 15 years. His Sunday afternoon TV show guests 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.

Once a woman walked into Haslam’s 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 led her back to the shelves containing both new and used religious books. “She reached out and she pulled out this King James,” Hinst recalled. “It was a little worn, etc. And when she looked down 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 him to be in a bookstore 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 bookstore.

“There’s always comfort in the book,” Hinst believes. “It has provided civilization with its methodology and format for transmitting knowledge for 500 years. Things came and went during this period, but it lasted. And we don’t think the book will go away.

A 2014 study by the Norwegian University of Stavanger confirms it. According to researcher Ann Mangen, “When you read on paper, you can feel with your fingers a pile of pages growing on the left and shrinking 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. Perhaps this helps the reader in some way, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of the flow and progression of the text, and therefore of 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, according to Hinst, is almost paramount. “It’s a multi-touch exercise to indulge in,” he says. “You hold it, you can smell it, you see it, you smell it, you hear it when you turn the pages. You can move and change direction and so on very easily.

When internet shopping and Kindle books were shiny new toys, it felt like the death knell for paper books. Statistically, 43% of independent American bookstores closed between 1995 and 2000 because Amazon offered a massive and ever-expanding inventory of books quickly and cheaply. The arrival of the Kindle reader in 2007 seemed to be the last blow.

But there’s something about your local independent bookseller, where people can – Covid rules notwithstanding – browse to their heart’s content, check in and discover new titles, get recommendations or just stick around and chat with other like-minded people.

eReaders do not come with this type of customer service:

“About 25 years ago there was a guy 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 won’t get it.’

They didn’t, and the man declined Hinst’s offer to take his coordinates if the tome ever materialized. “It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” the man said, clearly frustrated. “I will never find this thing.”

The next day, Hinst was in the back room, examining a box of used books he had just acquired – and there it was. The title itself, The Wild Party. “It was a limited, numbered, signed edition of this piece,” marvels Hinst. “I still have it – in case he shows up.”

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