Talk about timing: Tombolo Books had been open just three months when the pandemic shut everything down in March 2020. “It was so devastating because it was really quite fast,” says Alsace Walentine, co-owner of the independent store in St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District.
In 2015, Walentine gave up a career with Asheville’s Malaprop’s Bookstore to move to Florida where her wife, Candice Anderson, had received a job offer. At a time when so many businesses have failed, Tombolo has done surprisingly well, hosting authors and legions of avid readers. Walentine, who runs the store with her wife and several employees, spoke with Bay editor Susan Taylor Martin. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to open your own store?
My wife moved down here in January 2014 and over the course of visiting her I discovered I loved St. Petersburg. There’s a lot of similarity between St. Petersburg and Asheville — a really strong local arts movement, there’s foodies, there’s tourism, there’s natural beauty. And then one terrible rainy day I was here in St. Pete, my wife was called into work and I was really distraught. And I thought, “What do I do to cheer myself up? I go to a bookstore.” That’s the moment I realized I didn’t have that same sense of community here but I had been working for 16 years in all different aspects of running an independent bookstore and it clicked. I knew I could do it.
So it was that easy?
I was naive and thought I could pull this off in one year. That was ridiculous. It took me a solid year after August 2015 to get the business plan written and get my footing here in St. Pete. Then in 2017 we became an LLC and started doing popups and book clubs.
How did you come up with the name?
We were literally going through the dictionary looking at words for something meaningful. Tombolo is a geographic term for a type of sandbar that connects an island to the mainland A tombolo connects a lone island, and I thought that’s what a really good independent bookstore does, it creates connections to this whole world of ideas and stories, a whole world of authors and other readers.
Was it hard finding a place for the store given how expensive St. Pete has gotten?
It took a long time to find a space where I felt like we would have some foot traffic and some parking and could afford the rent. In the meantime, we were raising money. We started with our own personal investment, then we asked family and friends and we offered a couple of different ways to help us. One was we invited a handful of people to open a prepaid book account. They would basically loan us a certain amount of money and when they came in they would use their store credit. Another was asking folks to loan us a certain amount of money at a low interest rate so we wouldn’t have to go through a bank — we’re already paying these folks back — and then the last thing we did was a crowd-funding campaign that put us right over the top.
Are you happy with the place you landed?
I love that there’s a courtyard and other businesses in here (a coffee shop and a juice bar), and the shape of the space inside was perfect.
Then came the pandemic. What did you do?
It was a very panicky day but we decided to shut our doors before the city said we had to and we just switched all of our operations online and instituted a delivery system. We decided that in a 2-mile radius around our store I would offer free delivery. We’d get web orders and at the end of the day, I’d get on my bicycle and it was wonderful. There was no traffic on the road.
What else did you do to survive?
We were doing a lot of shipping, of course, and we ordered in many more jigsaw puzzles. That was the craze, which was fun, and we eventually started doing Zoom book clubs, offering a way for people to get together. We hired an event coordinator with technical savvy, which I didn’t have, and she started doing Zoom author events and authors would send us signed bookplates. We had Jack Davis, who won the Pulitzer for The Gulf, and local folks like Lisa Unger.
Have customers been drawn to certain types of books during the pandemic?
We sold more of the plague that (first) year. I think it’s really interesting how many authors had books coming out at the very beginning of the pandemic. It had been about 100 years since the Spanish flu so I think a lot of authors were just looking at history. Certainly a lot of people want to escape the pandemic so a lot of shoppers are buying things that have nothing to do with it. We always intended to have a strong Florida nonfiction section because there are so many tourists, but it’s also important to understand your history.
How about all the political books that came out about the Trump presidency?
Typically we lose money if we try to bring in books that people are enthusiastic about for 24 hours and that’s it. We’re looking for books with a nice long tail so they can pay the rent on the bookshelf.
Tampa’s Inkwood Books has closed and Haslam’s in St. Petersburg hasn’t reopened since the pandemic. Are you worried about the future of independents like Tombolo?
I’m a 100 percent optimist about the future. I have unwavering faith in people’s desire to read physical books and have a place to go and browse a curated selection of physical books.
Tombolo Books is at 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. tombolobooks.com.