Joe Stines trained to be a clown. He loved making kids laugh, introducing them to concepts outside their experiences, and a few clown antics would only help. • He didn't clown around in a circus, mind you, but in the library. • In 1985, he came to the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System as a children's librarian and never left. His best days at work were spent reading to kids in an inner-city library in Tampa's historic Ybor neighborhood. In 1991, he became director of the countywide system, which has since grown to circulate more than 10 million items per year. It ranks as the 17th largest in the country. • Stines will turn 60 on Aug. 27, and has already started planning for retirement in the next few years, although he has set no specific date. • His birthday, incidentally, is also the first day of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Library officials have talked of shutting down the main library, the John F. Germany Public Library downtown, for a time surrounding the convention. • Tampa Bay Times reporter Elisabeth Parker recently caught up with him to chat about his plans for the library before he retires and his penchant for elephants and trains.
How has the library changed in your time there?
Besides growing considerably, we're always weeding. We have to weed. We take out books that are in bad shape and nonfiction that has become outdated, such as medical and travel guides. In general, we're buying less of anything timely because our e-books can be updated inexpensively.
With the start of the RNC and the closure of the main library, will you have much time to celebrate your 60th on Aug. 27?
I plan to be in Mérida, Mexico, then. I'll have plenty of time.
Tell us about your various personal collections.
I have more books in my house than some of my libraries. A lot of them are about trains. (His favorite children's book is Where the Wild Things Are.) I live in St. Petersburg, with my partner of 32 years, Cliff Waters. I've collected elephants since I was a kid. I have over 1,000. The largest is 4 feet long and 3.5 feet tall. It's copper and brass and hollow. I originally planned to fill it with sand and put it outside, but it sits by a fireplace. I have elephant book ends made of glass, metal and wood. Lots were gifts. It's grown to be a sizable herd. I've grown to be very selective as I've grown older and the house has grown smaller.
When you're not working, how do you spend your free time?
I like to travel. Love to read. Read many, many books on a place prior to traveling there. I like to garden together with Cliff.
I hear you like to travel by rail.
Yes. I joke with my friends that I will fly as long as I know there's a train waiting.
What are your favorite routes?
From Montreal to Vancouver, the tracks are so well maintained trains slide over them like butter. I've traveled the high speed rails in Europe, flying into London and taking the tunnel under the channel to Paris several times, and I rode the Orient Express one time from Paris to Venice in the original restored cars.
Stateside, the most scenic rail with the best food is the Amtrak Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. It travels through national parks with beautiful scenery.
What was your first ride by rail?
I took an Amtrak from North Carolina where I grew up to Washington, D.C., when I was in college. That's when I got hooked. It's so convenient. You can read or go to the bar car and talk to people. It's like a small community for that period of time. Over the years I've met some interesting people.
Before you retire, you have some plans?
I have my bucket list at work. We're planning a celebration in 2014 for the library's 100th year. I'd like to be there for that and to see a couple of other projects completed, such as the Seminole Heights Library and the (Robert W. Saunders Sr. Public Library), which was the library where I first worked here.
After you retire, what are your plans?
We plan to move to Mexico. We're rehabbing a house we bought in Mérida on the Yucatan. We found out about this place watching House Hunters International. You hear that you go someplace and immediately fall in love. That's what it was. It's like going back in time, like to in the '50s here in the States. It just has that quaint feeling. And believe it or not, there are no trains.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.