In September, Stefani Beddingfield found herself in Jacksonville at a weeklong conference for people interested in owning bookstores. She's 46, a stay-at-home South Tampa mother of two daughters and, until a few weeks prior to this, had never envisioned this path. But her beloved independent bookstore, Inkwood Books in Hyde Park, needed a new owner and she felt pulled toward the idea. She didn't want to romanticize it. She knows the struggle of books versus the Internet. She needed information to prove this could be viable. She pictured what the future could be like, she and her girls at the store, a cozy, vibrant place entwined with the community. She liked that vision. The seminar leader went around the room and asked participants why they wanted to own a bookstore. Most of them said it was a lifelong dream. At her turn, she said: "I just want to."
She trusted that feeling and she did it. She takes over ownership of Inkwood at 216 S Armenia Ave. on Monday.
"I've always been a risk-taker," said Beddingfield, formerly Busansky. She is well known in the community for raising nearly half a million dollars to found Freedom Playground at MacFarlane Park on MacDill Avenue, the city's first playground accessible to children with disabilities. Beddingfield's oldest child, Sarah, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Beddingfield, who grew up in Winter Haven, wanted a place where all children could play. It took her six years of fundraising to make it reality. She said her parents, her father a citrus farmer and her mother a teacher, instilled in her that hard work and perseverance will get you what you want.
"When I put my mind to something," Beddingfield said, "I will find a way to get it done."
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Inkwood was founded by Carla Jimenez, 59, and Leslie Reiner, 58, more than 20 years ago. Reiner wanted to open a book shop and saw the property was for sale: a 1923 yellow bungalow with 1,525 square feet, comfy nooks and creaky wood floors. She advertised for a partner and Jimenez, a lawyer, wanted to give it a try. The two women became dear friends.
Last year, Jimenez decided she wanted to retire. She survived a battle with ovarian cancer in 2005 and said the experience changed her perspective.
"It made me think, 'What else do I want to do?' " Jimenez said.
She plans to devote herself to volunteer work, especially with the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. Reiner wanted to keep going, but said it didn't make financial sense for her to buy out Jimenez's half. And finding a new partner felt pointless, after the close bond the two shared.
"Replacing it seems like wishing for the stars," Reiner said.
In the summer, they sent an email to a few of their regular customers, saying they were looking for a new owner.
Beddingfield, warm with an infectious laugh, was on the list.
She didn't get the email, which was sent to an old address. In August, she ran into Jimenez at Buddy Brew Coffee on Kennedy Boulevard. Jimenez said she was looking for a new owner. Beddingfield said she might be interested and followed her into the parking lot. Beddingfield later met with Jimenez and Reiner several times. The idea appealed to her. She was going through a divorce from Ed Busansky, the son of the late Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Phyllis Busansky. She needed a new chapter in life. Beddingfield got Inkwood's financial numbers and felt she could make this work.
"I'm never going to be a millionaire," she said. "But I think Tampa can more than support an independent bookstore."
She would not say how much she paid for the business. She said she got a loan.
"This is not a hobby," she said. "I have to make a living."
After she bought the business, she went into the shop's small office and was shocked. On the wall was a yellowed newspaper article from 1998 about the store. A photo featured a browsing customer. It was Beddingfield.
"Is it fate?" she thought to herself. She decided it was at least a very good sign.
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Jimenez and Reiner still own the property and Beddingfield will pay rent. Reiner will work part-time and Beddingfield plans to keep the store's staff. She picked this venture because she and her daughters — Sarah, 13, and Claire, 9, who both love reading — can do this together.
Beddingfield, who started working at Inkwood in December to get familiar with the store, said she is not competing with Amazon and big box booksellers. Her customers are not generally their customers, much like people who prefer chain restaurants usually aren't frequenting local eateries, she said. Beddingfield said there is also room in the world for independent bookstores and e-book readers to coexist. She said a woman came into the store recently and was sheepish. She loved her Kindle, but wanted a recommendation on a book to buy as a gift. Beddingfield told her it's fine to do both. Inkwood is a place without judgment, she said. She views it like the playground projects: an accessible haven, where everyone feels safe and wanted.
"I want to reach out to the community and make everybody feel a part of it," she said.
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Beddingfield has many ideas for the shop. She would like to enclose the porch and create a place where customers can get coffee and sit. She wants to partner with local restaurants for special dinners and ask chefs to prepare items from new-release cookbooks. She envisions wine and cheese nights, a food truck in the parking lot and many author signing events. She wants to give children advance copies of books and get their recommendations. She has hope Inkwood will continue.
"The story, the written word, it is the fabric of humanity," she said. "And that does not go away. If it does, we are doomed."
Beddingfield never knew what she wanted to do as an adult. After graduating from Auburn University, she spent two and a half years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador working on potable water programs. Then she lived in Boston, working in retail and with exchange students. She came home to Florida and was the spokeswoman for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. Her last job before Sarah was born was at Project Return, a nonprofit that helps adults with mental illnesses. This is how she has lived, not afraid to take chances on new adventures. Her new one still surprises her.
"This feels really right, though," she said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.