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Why the book fetish of the Old Tampa Book Company owner? It's a long story

David and Ellen Brown linger amid some of the 25,000 books offered by the Old Tampa Book Company in downtown Tampa. (Another 20,000 are in storage.) David, a lifelong book lover, began feeding his “compulsion” by selling books in 1995. 

Courtesy of Ryan Norris

David and Ellen Brown linger amid some of the 25,000 books offered by the Old Tampa Book Company in downtown Tampa. (Another 20,000 are in storage.) David, a lifelong book lover, began feeding his “compulsion” by selling books in 1995. 

TAMPA

The bull snorts and charges straight for David Brown standing tall and fearless in the ring, flourishing a red cape.

Another day, Brown races the Daytona 200 on a Ducati motorbike, accelerating to 175 mph in mere seconds.

Sometimes he soars like a hawk in a hang glider, low and slow, seeking an updraft to stay aloft.

All those adventures and more spring from the books that stoke Brown's boundless curiosity, vicarious thrills lived through the printed page.

The armchair matador admits he opened the Old Tampa Book Company to justify buying more books.

"The only way I can feed my compulsion is by selling them," said Brown, 78.

Who knows what editions will be his next additions.

Inventory has multiplied into two categories: new and used popular paperbacks and hardcovers and rare first editions and out-of-print collectibles.

The bulk of his stock — 25,000 books in the store and 20,000 in storage — comes from callers who are moving to smaller homes, spring cleaning or taking care of a late relative's estate.

Brown appraises their collections, makes an offer and hauls them away. "They say, 'Just get them out of here,' " he said.

Some books land on the store's shelves, priced from 50 cents to $9. One in four or five will be posted for sale on the Internet.

Some sell to interior decorators for wall decor, strictly for appearance, not content. The rest are donated to the Friends of the Library.

Many people expect Brown to tell them that they own rare and valuable tomes.

"I try to be gentle, but mostly, they're not so wonderful."

• • •

Brown opted to read O. Henry rather than do chores as a kid growing up in Union, N.Y.

"His mother said he could help her or walk to the library," said Ellen Brown, his wife of 52 years and partner at the business at 507 N Tampa St. The two met as students at Cornell University.

"He always chose the library, and now he has his own library."

David retired in 1992 after nearly three decades on Xerox's information systems corporate staff in Rochester, N.Y.

Tampa fit the bill as "not a retirement community," said Ellen. The couple arrived with 60 boxes of books, probably more — at least 3,000 volumes.

In 1995, the collector became the seller.

The Browns leased an empty tailor's shop and unpacked about 2,000 books about sports cars and auto racing. Transportation has always been David's favored genre, encompassing planes, trains, ships, cars and motorcycles. Cookbooks, many autographed, are Ellen's bailiwick.

David has had some paydays.

A first-edition Huckleberry Finn he found years ago in Arcadia sold for $5,000. A two-volume, first Paris edition of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita fetched a few thousand. The controversial novel turned up in an envelope David dug out of a box in a Sarasota storage unit.

Contrary to expectations, technology has helped the independent bookseller. E-commerce brings book seekers to the store from every continent. Three Internet websites account for 50 percent of the store's sales.

"That's what's keeping us going," Ellen said. The two-person staff posts titles on Amazon, Abe Books and Alibris. Sellers pay a fee for each listing and a commission for each sale. Buyers pay for shipping,

Ellen, 77, prefers human search engines. For her, customer interaction is like a daily book club.

"I love finding out their interests and helping people find things they will love and cherish," she said. A longtime board member of the Tampa Independent Business Alliance, she owned an art gallery for 20 years in Rochester, representing regional artists as well as Inuit and American Indian arts. A collection of New Guinea Oceanic art — masks, shields, carvings, a canoe prowl — fills their South Tampa home.

Travelers who research bookstores often put the Browns on their itinerary. Last month, journalists and delegates attending the Republican National Convention found them.

"We sold a first edition about the Rough Riders by Teddy Roosevelt to one delegate," Ellen said. "A woman from POLITICO came in, sent by a colleague who had seen a book on the Gridiron Club, which she had just been elected to."

She bought that, and then found another about the club and bought that, too.

It dawned on her, said Ellen, that she was beginning a collection. "And that's how it starts."

Amy Scherzer can be reached at ascherzer@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3332.

About the series

It's a Living is an occasional series introducing readers to a variety of creative, hardworking people who have made interesting, some might say quirky, career choices. Suggestions are welcome; email ascherzer@tampabay.com or call (813) 226-3332.

Why the book fetish of the Old Tampa Book Company owner? It's a long story 09/06/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 6, 2012 4:30am]

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