A decade ago, people were writing obituaries for independent bookstores. Hit by the one-two punch of chain bookstores and digital bookselling, their numbers were sinking all over the country. If Borders and Barnes & Noble didn’t wipe out the indies, the thinking went, e-books and Amazon would.
The reports of their death, as Mark Twain once said about his own premature obit, were greatly exaggerated. The American Booksellers Association reported in June that it has 1,887 members with 2,524 store locations, the highest numbers in 10 years. The Association of American Publishers says that sales of digital books are down slightly and sales of hardcovers and paperbacks are up.
Consumers, it turns out, crave the indie bookstore experience of hands-on browsing, local booksellers, author events and places to lounge.
In the Tampa Bay area, we have both long-established independent bookstores and new ones to explore. Whatever kind of book you’re looking for — or maybe one you didn’t know you needed — a local bookseller can put it in your hands, and maybe serve you a latte and introduce you to the author into the bargain.
One of the best things about indie bookstores is that each one is different, with its own vibe and character. Here are some you might want to get to know.
420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa
7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
(813) 253-0222; oxfordexchange.com
Near downtown Tampa and just south of the University of Tampa campus, the Oxford Exchange is a stunning remake of a former stable built in 1891. Its restaurant, coffee and tea bar, gift shop and bookstore add up to one of the most handsome retail environments in Tampa. The bookstore is light-filled and spacious, with artful displays of a carefully chosen array of current literary bestsellers, classics and kids’ books. Oxford Exchange’s real strength is its programming: In recent years, both at its building and at the Tampa Theatre, it has presented such stellar authors as Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, George Saunders and Colson Whitehead, with Lisa Unger, Salman Rushdie and Ibram X. Kendi coming up this fall.
(727) 755-9456; tombolobooks.com.
For a couple of years, Tombolo Books owner Alsace Walentine has been operating her thoughtfully curated shop as a popup bookstore in several downtown St. Petersburg locations and at events, including David Sedaris’ recent appearance at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and the 2018 Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading. She says she’ll soon be announcing her long-awaited bricks-and-mortar location; in the meantime, you can order books for delivery in downtown St. Pete and sign up for the Tombolo newsletter to hear about popups.
Haslam’s Book Store
2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday
(727) 822-8616; haslams.com
In business since 1933, this St. Petersburg landmark has been in the Haslam family for four generations. More than 300,000 books, new and used, fill its rambling 30,000-square-foot building in the Grand Central District. The operation is overseen by four bookstore cats: littermates Teacup and Beowulf, almost 15 years old, and youngsters Clancy (for Tom) and Emily (for Dickinson), rescued as tiny kittens from the engine compartment of the store’s van. The store is a browser’s paradise, with all sorts of unexpected titles tucked into its shelves. Among its customers are second- and third-generation fans, and some say even the dead hang around. The most famous ghost story is that Beat novelist Jack Kerouac, a St. Petersburg resident in the last years of his life, used to move his own books to prime display space at Haslam’s while he was alive — and they still sometimes jump off the shelves.
Mojo Books & Records
2540 E Fowler Ave., Tampa
10 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday
The owners of Mojo were swimming against a tide of closing indie bookstores when they opened it in 2007, but by 2011 the store had moved to a larger space west of the University of South Florida in Tampa. The place is like a flashback to a ’70s college book shop, right down to the warren of tall bookshelves, the milk crates of used records and, layered over the yeasty scent of used books, the aroma of patchouli. But the shelves are extremely well-organized and rich in every sort of book, some new but mostly used. There is a notable abundance of graphic novels, manga, science fiction and fantasy. There’s music, too, new and used on vinyl, CD and even cassette, in a wide range of genres. The store sometimes hosts live music performances, and the “from scratch” coffee and tea bar offers all-vegan pastries.
6901 22nd Ave. N (Tyrone Square Mall), St. Petersburg
9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday
(727) 648-9451; 321-books.com
Malls used to be the territory of chain bookstores, but these days it’s rare to find books for sale at the mall. 321 Books stepped into that vacancy with a huge, ever-changing array of used books at rock-bottom prices that give the store its name. Used hardcover books are (with a few exceptions) $3, trade paperbacks are $2 and little mass-market paperbacks are $1, as are larger children’s books. The big bargain is to be found in the kids’ books room, where you can get a bag from the store and pay $15 for all the kids’ books you can stuff into it — the store estimates at least 30. The large, well-organized store also sells used CDs, DVDs, vinyl and more.
And three more ...
Back in the Day Books
New and used books (specialties include pulp fiction) in a cozy neighborhood store.
355 Main St., Dunedin
10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Fascinating collection of antiquarian and rare books, with an emphasis on Floridiana.
1735 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
(727) 822-3278; oldfloridabookstore.com
Wilson’s Book World
Family-operated used and antiquarian bookstore.
535 16th St. N, St. Petersburg
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday