For used bookseller Melanie Cade, higher gas prices actually mean more people strolling through her doors.
Many aren't paying customers, though. They've come to make a few bucks by selling old books to Cade, who owns Mojo Books and Music on E Fowler Avenue.
But she's not complaining.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword, with more and more money going out," she said. "On the other hand, it makes a way better selection. It's always a good thing to get inventory coming in."
Used booksellers and buyers, like Cade, tell similar stories throughout Hillsborough County. More people are filtering into their quaint shops, even as megastores like Borders close their doors and e-readers like the Kindle and Nook proliferate.
In hard times, it seems, used books become a source of petty cash and a cheaper way to get good reads.
Still, many used bookstores are struggling to recover from losses they suffered at the beginning of the recession.
"We are managing to stay afloat by lowering our prices and buying more judiciously from people who bring us books to buy," said Victoria Tannaro, who owns Brandon's The Book Corner with her husband Michael.
They've been in the business for 22 years but saw a large drop in sales after the Sept. 11 attacks, she said. And, like Cade, these days, they're busy fielding an onslaught of customers looking to sell.
"They're bringing in books that we can't help with, so we try and find other places they can sell them or even help them with how to sell them at a garage sale. It has got to be incredibly frustrating," Tannaro said. "My husband and I cringe at the thought of trying to sell our personal collection."
Tannaro and booksellers like her tend to stock specialized inventory in order to attract customers. The Book Corner is known for its extensive military section, while Riverview's Bookworm Used Books caters to teachers buying books for their classrooms.
In downtown Tampa, David Brown, the owner of Old Tampa Book Company, sells books to true collectors.
"We don't feel any impact from the e-books or Kindle or whatever because those are people who want new books just to read," he said. "We cater to collectors and people who have special interests."
He relies on robust Internet sales to supplement the store, and just signed a new five-year lease for his storefront on Tampa Street.
"We're going on 17 years here — we're going to stick it out for a while," he said.
Brown stocks 40,000 books at Old Tampa Book Company — about twice as much as many other booksellers in the area. Still, he says, sales over the past year have been "very, very flat."
At Book Swap of Carrollwood, owner Cynthia Floyd says she's had to cut staff and change policies on how much store credit she gives out. She started noticing a drop in sales the day after Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, she said.
"It's just never come back," she said.
Cade and her co-owner opened Mojo in January 2007 — "not exactly a rip-roaring economy," she said, laughing. As the economy continued to decline, longtime customers became scarce, she said. At the same time, a new clientele started making its way to the store.
"You'd start seeing people show up that maybe used to be full-price, new book customers, that were coming to see what a used bookstore looked like," she said.
On Sunday afternoon, a handful of customers browsed Mojo's shelves, sipped coffee and flipped through boxes of records. Many said they'd been buying used books for years.
"A lot of new bookstores just don't carry what I'm looking for," said Tampa resident Joe Chuney, lingering in the arts section. "And their prices for out-of-print stuff are really good."
A few rows down, University of South Florida senior Brett Pechiney paused by the sci-fi section. Though he appreciates the lower prices at Mojo, he said, he shops at used bookstores because he's never sure what he'll find there.
"I just kind of like treasure hunting," he said.
Aubrey Whelan can be reached at (813) 226-3446 or email@example.com.