KEY WEST — Like a lot of island communities, Key West must import meat, vegetables and a lot of other goods that its residents need. It does, however, export a few local products: tacky T-shirts, lurid tattoos and great literature.
Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Snows of Kilimanjaro while living here. Tennessee Williams penned Summer and Smoke and Night of the Iguana in Key West. Robert Frost, Thornton Wilder, Ralph Ellison, Annie Dillard and Thomas McGuane, among others, also put in serious writing time in Florida's southernmost city.
But the number of stores in Key West selling these authors' books has dwindled to just one. The sole survivor, Key West Island Books, has managed to keep its doors open for 35 years despite sometimes not having a living owner. The secret to its longevity is simple.
"It's a darn good bookstore," said Boston University professor William McKeen, the author of a book on Key West's literary legacy called Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West.
In a town that offers 400 places to buy alcohol in its 7.4-square-mile area, how did Key West wind up with just one bookstore? It happened slowly, like a sand castle gradually washed away by the tide.
Once there were plenty of places to buy books in Key West. There was a gay bookstore, Flaming Maggie's (so named because it stood at the corner of Fleming and Margaret streets). There was even a store devoted to mysteries, run by noted thriller maven Dilys Winn, recalled Tom Corcoran, a onetime Key West resident who writes mysteries set there.
But they all closed because of rising rents and disappearing customers, he said. By 2011 all that was left were Key West Island, a Borders Express and two other independents, Voltaire Books and Bargain Books. Borders Express closed that summer as part of the chain's collapse.
Voltaire had an enviable cachet. It supplied books for the annual Key West Literary Seminar, held every January, which features talks by capital-W Writers such as Jonathan Lethem, Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates. But it wasn't enough.
"We haven't had the community support we had hoped for," Voltaire co-owner Peter Rogers told the Key West Citizen when he closed his doors in July 2011. Six months later, in January, the other remaining independent, Bargain Books, closed because of its owner's declining health.
A potential competitor to Key West Island Books, Miami's famed Books & Books, "has looked at opening a branch in Key West," said owner Mitchell Kaplan, but "we're not close to anything right now."
To McKeen, Key West's transformation from an island of creative misfits to a tourism mecca is partly to blame for the declining number of bookstores: "People who go down there on vacation take their Kindles or a dog-eared paperback they don't mind getting suntan oil on."
But poet Arlo Haskell, who is associate director of the Key West Literary Seminar, said what has happened here reflects what has happened across the country: "You don't have to go down the street to buy books anymore when you can just order them on your phone."
To walk into Key West Island Books is to see what most bookstores used to be like. There are no comfy chairs tempting patrons to sit a spell. There's no coffee shop with free Wi-Fi. There are a few racks of used DVDs, but mostly there are books of every shape, size and subject matter — and clerks who know all about them.
"That's the secret to that store," Corcoran said. "There are people there who care about books."
"We've got very capable employees who are literature nuts," agreed the store's owner, Scott Shaffer, who bought it in 2010. One clerk, Chip Phillips, said, "I've worked here for a year but I've been a customer for 20."
Amid a hodge-podge of shelving is a section of books by and about Hemingway, and near it are works by Thomas McGuane and the rest of Key West's luminaries. There are also heavy leather-bound collectors' editions shelved near the register, and large sections on pirates and Cuban history.
There's now a small section of the latest bestsellers from Gillian Flynn and Dennis Lehane. Stretching back to the rear is a wide range of secondhand books, from well-thumbed copies of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged to a cross-dressing paper doll cut-out book called Drag Dolls.
The mashup of offerings reflects the store's past. The first owner was an aficionado of antique books and reserved the back room for his fellow collectors, Corcoran said. The second had worked with remaindered books — the ones sent back to the publisher — and he stocked the store with so many that cardboard boxes of them jammed every aisle, Shaffer said.
When that owner died, though, the store was left in the lurch. The store's longtime manager ran it for the attorneys overseeing the estate, who hunted for a year for a buyer. Finally the landlord stepped in to take charge, along with son-in-law Shaffer.
"We didn't want to see the business go away," said Shaffer, an Ohio transplant. "We agreed to step in and keep it as part of the community that it's served for 35 years."
Shaffer's background is in real estate, not book sales. He says he thought of the store "as a property that needed to be rehabbed." He set to work getting rid of the cardboard boxes of remainders and then began updating the inventory — a move required by the loss of his competition.
"This store's niche was secondhand books," Shaffer said. "But now we have people coming in who want the bestsellers."
To deal with the lack of easy parking, he has considering creating an Internet-based bestseller delivery service for condominium residents — sort of like a localized Amazon.
He's not done with the changes yet — and he's not convinced he'll be the only game in town for long, either. "I think you're going to see more local, independent bookstores pop up," he predicted. Not because Key West has been home to a lot of authors, he said, but because "we've got some good readers here."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]