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A nook for book lovers

You might say David Brown loves books enough to let them go.

When he and Jim Shelton opened the Old Tampa Book Company in downtown Tampa last month, nearly an entire wall of the inventory offered to customers was Brown's personal collection of automotive and sports car books, lovingly gathered over 40 years.

But he is willing to part with them for the cause, which in this case is helping other book collectors fuel their passion.

"There really was not a bookstore in South Tampa that caters to the needs of book collectors," Brown said. The Old Tampa Book Company, 507 N Tampa St., has about 5,000 books in stock and is accumulating more by the day. Brown and Shelton are always looking for someone to sell or trade their volumes and are eager to build up inventory. Most of the titles in stock are out-of-print.They are both hard and soft cover editions.

Shelves line the walls with books ranging from topics such as literature, philosophy, biography and travel. As classical music plays in the background, customers can thumb through volumes and talk with the owners, who are eager to chat about a hard-to-find edition. Brown and Shelton will help their customers search for books the store doesn't have or do appraisals.

"There are not many people who think of themselves as book collectors," said co-owner Shelton. "There are many people who have personal libraries. This is a people's bookstore, a browser's bookstore, a reader's bookstore."

Shelton wanted the store to convey a friendly, welcoming atmosphere, where people could touch the books and feel comfortable talking with employees.

The owners expect a large percentage of their customers will be casual readers seeking inexpensive hard or soft-cover books, starting as low as a few dollars. Many of these people stop in during their lunch hour or are part of the foot traffic that walks past the shop each day. Another segment of customers collects fine books, with a discerning eye and attraction to antiquarian book shows. Still others are people with a specific interest in a topic.

"The fun of collecting is finding rare items," Brown said. Along with his own automobile collection, the store also features an extensive history and military book collection.

Frank Meacham, a tourist from Roanoke, Va., was happy to discover the bookstore last week. He browsed through the selections, marveling at the Civil War treasures he found to take home.

"This is just the kind of place I look for," said Meacham, who considers the discovery of the bookstore a highlight of his vacation. "I like it when I go to a new town and find a bookstore, but most of them are not this neat. I like to find a good buy or collectible book."

Brown and Shelton do the same thing when they travel, whether they're at book conventions or just browsing other shops. Both have owned other book businesses. Brown owned the Motorbook Shop, a mail-order book sales company, and Shelton owned three bookstores, including the Hyde Park Bookshop. Shelton also works for the Tampa Public Library as a reference librarian.

They would like to see the Old Tampa Book Company become a place of conversation and coffee as they become more established and expand inventory.

And even with the growing role of technology in people's lives _ when books can be downloaded into your home PC _ Shelton thinks there will always be a need for physical volumes.

"The format of the books may change, the nature will endure . . . and flourish," he said.