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Tombolo Books owner writes a new chapter in St. Petersburg

After 16 years at Malaprops in Asheville, Alsace Walentine spent more than four years designing her Florida bookstore.

A couple of days after Christmas, Alsace Walentine still seems to be catching her breath.

Sitting down for coffee next to a sunny window lined with book displays, the owner of St. Petersburg’s newest independent bookstore keeps gazing around the inviting interior of Tombolo Books as if she isn’t quite sure it’s real.

It’s not just post-holiday retail fatigue, although she says sales were "amazing. Oh my gosh, it was so much better than we’d hoped.

“Everyone was smiling and saying, ‘We’re so happy you’re here’ And they say they’re so happy not to be buying on Amazon. They feel bad about it.”

Tombolo — the word means “a sandbar that connects an island to the mainland,” according to the store’s website — was painstakingly designed to give book lovers an experience they can’t get scrolling and clicking. And it was more than four years in the making.

The store on First Avenue S is Instagram ready now, with lots of warm wood, open space and natural light, doors on its north side giving onto a wide brick patio. The outdoor space is shared with Black Crow Coffee and Squeeze Juice Works. The building sits amid craft breweries and other businesses where the Grand Central District meets the Warehouse Arts District.

Tombolo Books owner Alsace Walentine poses with a few of the recent books she loves. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

“I really like the open feeling,” says Walentine, 46. “I wanted to be able to see everybody and for everybody to be able to see us.” She’s especially proud of the children’s section with its cozy circular nook, just big enough for a couple of kids to curl up and read in. “My dad built it,” she says.

Display tables and bookcases in the center of the room are on casters, so they can be rearranged to make space for author appearances, book clubs and other events.

The first event will take place Jan. 5, when local author Sterling Watson will debut his eighth novel, The Committee. Watson retired after years as director of the creative writing program at Eckerd College and was the co-founder, along with Eckerd alum Dennis Lehane, of the college’s Writers in Paradise conference.

The Committee is a historical novel, set in Gainesville during the late 1950s, when, as Watson writes in his introduction, “the infamous Johns Committee of the Florida Legislature sought to root out homosexuals, Communists and advocates for civil rights in public universities across the state, portraying them as a dire threat to the children of Florida.”

“It was happy luck that his book is coming out,” Walentine says. “I’m thrilled that it’s a Florida-based novel, that it deals with the Red Scare, that it’s from a small publisher (Akashic Books).”

Rather than the broad array of books found in chain bookstores, Tombolo’s offerings are curated. “I wanted a balance of small press books and voices that aren’t in the mainstream, more books in translation. We’ll have a combination of things you can’t find in other places, popular new things and older classic books,” Walentine says. Currently, the store offers 5,500 titles. “The goal is 7,000. About 70 percent of what we have is paperback, which means it’s been out for a year or longer.”

Denise Gover, center, peruses the offerings at Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg, along with other lunchtime customers. "It's my second visit in a week," she says. "I love a small bookstore. It's intimate, it's friendly and there is always something to read." [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

It’s taken more than four years for the store to become a reality, as Walentine enrolled in courses for entrepreneurs, wrote a business plan, ran popup bookstores and a book delivery service, raised money from investors, scouted locations and, eventually, drove a U-Haul truck loaded with bookshelves down through the mountains from North Carolina.

The idea for the store was born in 2015. Walentine had been working since she was 20 years old at Malaprops, the legendary bookstore in Asheville, N.C. “I started in the cafe,” she says, “but pretty soon I was in the bookstore, because I could see it was so much fun." She became an assistant manager and then events programmer.

She had worked there for 15 years when her wife, Candice Anderson, was offered a job with a Dutch vegetable seed company that would require her to travel all over Florida.

“She could live anywhere in the state. So she said, want to move? And I said no," Walentine says. “We owned a house. But she was unhappy in her job, and I felt like it was her turn to have a job that made her happy.”

Anderson began scouting Florida cities. In Tampa, she visited Inkwood Books, the now-closed, beloved independent bookstore, and talked to longtime Inkwood employee Amanda Hurley, who now works for Tombolo. Anderson came back to Asheville and said, “There are cool things happening in St. Petersburg.”

“It was right about then we got married,” Walentine says. “We got married and then lived apart.” Anderson got an apartment in St. Petersburg, and they visited back and forth once a month.

One rainy day, Walentine says, she was in St. Petersbug when Anderson was called away for work. "So I was by myself in this little apartment, and we wouldn’t see each other for two months. I wanted something to make me feel happy, and I thought, I’ll just go to the bookstore.

“I was picturing Malaprops, and I thought, that’s what’s missing. I could start a bookstore. We could live together, and I could expand my career, because I’d gone as far as I could go at Malaprops. It just felt like a light shining in this dark day.”

So she left Malaprops — “I was crying. They were my mentors.” — and in August of 2015 moved to St. Petersburg.

“I naively wondered if I could find a place with so many cool people. I didn’t know if we could find that acceptance" for a small bookstore. “All those groups that have promoted going local, buying local — I’m so grateful to those organizations.”

Walentine knew her experience at Malaprops was a solid base, and she was optimistic. “I knew it wasn’t like end days for the technology of the book.” But she planned carefully, knowing the business wasn’t easy to break into.

Independent bookstores everywhere weathered a couple of stormy decades starting in the 1990s, first struggling to compete with giant bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, then battered further by online retailers, especially Amazon (which got its start as a bookseller before expanding to, well, everything), and the introduction of e-books.

But the decade just ending has seen a strong comeback by indies. The American Booksellers Association reports that from 2009 to 2019 its number of member companies rose from 1,401 to 1,887, an almost 35 percent increase. Last year those companies owned 2,524 stores — compared to 1,651 independent bookstores in 2009. And e-books seem much less threatening since their sales fell 37 percent between 2014 and 2018.

Walentine says, “A good indie bookstore shows you what your city is because it’s made up of what you read.” She compiled a list of Tombolo Books’ bestsellers for its first month that’s an interesting illustration. “Bestsellers are usually all new books. But St. Petersburg’s Historic African American Neighborhoods is No. 2 on our list. I’ve had to order it three times, in bulk. There’s a lot of demand in our city for books about race and history.”

Tombolo Books owner Alsace Walentine explains how her father, Ellis Walenstine, built book displays in the windows of her new store at her request. "I wanted to frame a book in each pane because they are the perfect size," she said. "My father built the display with UV glass to protect the books from the direct sunlight." [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

Neighborhood was a big factor in choosing the store’s location, and one feature of the Grand Central District is the iconic Haslam’s Bookstore, just a couple of blocks away. Can Tombolo compete?

“We’re really different experiences,” Walentine says. “Our store is a complement to theirs. For book lovers, the Grand Central District should be a mecca.”

She hopes Tombolo Books can help create that mecca. “It’s important to me that this space feels welcoming to most everyone.

"I like to imagine two people who might judge each other just on the way they look, but one person is holding a book the other one loves. They start talking, and something spiritual happens.

“That’s my goal, to create that encounter.”

Tombolo Books bestsellers for December 2019

1. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg

2. St. Petersburg’s Historic African American Neighborhoods by Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson

3. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

4. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

5. The Overstory by Richard Powers

6. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

7. Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer

8. Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

9. Say Nothing: A True Story by Patrick Radden Keefe

10. (tie) Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and Florida by Lauren Groff

Meet the author

Sterling Watson will be in conversation with Tampa Bay Times book editor Colette Bancroft about his new novel, The Committee. Signing to follow. Free. 4 p.m. Jan. 5. Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 755-9456. tombolobooks.com.

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