MASARYKTOWN — A few miles south of the Hernando County border, a pink stucco building sits on a rural stretch of U.S. 41.
The wooden bookshelves inside U.S. 41 Books are stacked with rare gems that independent bookstore fans won't find at popular chain retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble.
A 1970 Life magazine with Muhammad Ali on the cover. Mad magazines from 1965. Soft-cover Harlequin novels and Baby-Sitter's Club books.
In all, the store holds 250,000 books and about 100,000 comic books.
Regular customers say the 4,800-square-foot store is a literary oasis, where they peruse the narrow aisles for bargains. They say its simplicity — no air-conditioning or coffee shop here — contributes to its appeal.
After 17 years in business, Gary Le Blanc, whose father opened the store in 1993, says business has slowed because of the recession, but customer foot traffic is steady.
"I have W.E.B. Griffin hardbacks and out-of-print Emily Dickinson poetry," said Le Blanc, 46. "I have stuff (chain bookstores) can't touch."
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Le Blanc's father, Joseph Le Blanc, bought the building at 17244 U.S. 41 in 1980. For about 12 years, as Le Blanc searched for a tenant, the abandoned auction house stood empty.
Le Blanc wasn't sure what to do with the space he purchased. Then, the lifelong book lover remembered the 80 boxes of books he brought with him to Florida when he moved from New Hampshire, where he had owned an art gallery.
In an August 1998 Times story, the elder Le Blanc, who is now suffering from Alzheimer's, said: "I wanted to rent it, but nobody had any ideas. So, I decided I would do books and pictures."
Through purchases, donations and estate sales, Le Blanc's collection soon grew to thousands of books. Genres are written on white paper in black marker and taped to the wooden bookshelves.
Most of the literature is dirt cheap: $1 to $2.50 for paperbacks, $2 to $20 for hardbacks.
"That's what keeps me in business," said Gary Le Blanc, who lives in Spring Hill. "You go to Barnes & Noble, and $10 is just one book."
The collection dates back over 100 years. One of the oldest items is an 1870 hardcover book by Charles Reade, titled Put Yourself in His Place. It's going for $49.95. Another rarity: first-edition copies of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Le Blanc says in some ways, the cost-cutting measures people are implementing during the recession is helping keep the doors open at the bookstore.
"A lot of people are coming because they don't have cable," Le Blanc said. "They've watched all their DVDs and all the Law & Order episodes they can. Now, they're coming here."
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Gary Le Blanc, a former bartender, has run the store since his father's diagnosis with Alzheimer's about five years ago. When he's not at the store, Le Blanc is taking care of his father, now 85.
He runs the store from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. He closes shop on Sundays and Mondays.
On Wednesday afternoon, a lanky man named Roger Calven, 68, ambled into the store.
"You got a section on philosophy?" he asked Le Blanc.
Le Blanc knows the store like the back of his hand. He leads Calven, a first-time customer from Ellicott City, Md., to the back of the store.
Le Blanc returns minutes later, as another customer crouches near a shelf filled with romance novels.
"I came looking for Cynthia Friedman books," said Suzanne Peel, 64, of Spring Hill, who has been coming to the store for years. "I used to read them, and you can only find them here."
"There you go," said Le Blanc, smiling. "That's it right there."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.