Bookstore keeps faith in downtown

You know a place like this.

Nestled in a downtown storefront, the Old Tampa Book Company is the kind of book store you wander into — maybe by accident, maybe because the cart of dollar books on the sidewalk caught your eye — and promptly lose yourself.

There's that Carl Hiaasen novel you've been meaning to read, for only $8. A book on Vietnam. A shelf of Hemingways. All cookbooks half off.

It's dark and cool, with that unmistakable bookstore smell — dust? leather? old paper? — and classical music in the background. If you love books, this is the kind of place you fall into like a dream.

For more than 15 years now, they've been here. Ellen Brown had an art gallery in Rochester. Husband David worked for Xerox. He got downsized. He did consulting work for awhile. He didn't like it.

And he had his books — "a genetically wired book scavenger," she calls him — a collection of thousands. Their entire married life — 51 years now — they poked into bookstores anywhere they traveled.

They decided to give one a go.

Tampa looked right to them. Rents were high around town, and they're hardly mall types, so downtown it would be.

When they opened, Tampa Street was a sad row of empty storefronts, theirs a former tailor shop with bolts of cloth still lying around. They kept the old scissors, for luck maybe, and the low-slung chairs the tailor probably used when he hemmed pants, perfect for customers who want to sit and read.

He is the book finder, hitting library and estate sales and such, she the bookkeeper. She remembers how he came out shaking after he opened a long-packed box of books they had bought, a first edition Lolita in his hands. They say their store manager, Penelope Livingston, keeps them from stacking their finds to the ceiling.

The Internet brings collectors from all over the world. Most of their books are bargains, but behind glass they keep some amazing leather-bound ones that look older than time. When he says they don't sell new books, she gently corrects him: "We sell new books that have been read once."

Over the years, buildings filled. Business owners looked out for each other like small-town USA. Downtowners and out-of-towners found them. Ellen Brown loves it when the high school thespians are in town for their big conference, all those kids sitting cross-legged on the worn rugs, devouring books. "Hope for the future," she says.

They have seen the economy play out in regulars who disappeared when their jobs were cut, in cranes from the building boom that slowed. Still, it's fair to call downtown Tampa bustling, at least on weekdays, with signs of life at night even. These days, within a block to two, they can lunch on Vietnamese, French, Thai or respectable New York pizza. Outside their door is the tantalizing garlic smell of Spain, another downtown diehard that toughed it out. A yogurt shop just opened next door and a sign a few doors down promises something called Peppermint Reindeer Konfection Kafe is coming soon.

Do the Browns have faith in downtown Tampa's future?

They have a new awning and a new sign. They're planning for their big half-off sale the first three days of October.

She is 75, he is 76. And they just signed a new five-year lease.

Bookstore keeps faith in downtown 09/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 17, 2010 10:42pm]

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