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A beloved bookstore loses its owner, reason for being

Gary Nippes, O.J. Brisky’s friend and longtime employee, standing in front of O. Brisky Books in Micanopy, will bring books from the Brisky collection to this weekend’s Antiquarian Book Fair at the Coliseum.
Published Mar. 13, 2014

MICANOPY — O.J. Brisky hated his first name, but he loved books, old dusty books, books with a little mildew or history hidden among the pages. For decades, he bought them by the thousands and sold them at his beloved North Florida store, O. Brisky Books.

Brisky, who helped start the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair, which celebrates its 33rd year this weekend in St. Petersburg, would perch behind the counter next to his rotary-dial phone and hold court about one antique book or another. If a customer was unable to locate a desired book, Brisky could almost always put his hand on it, which seemed impossible given that neatness and a dependable filing system was a low priority.

After he sold a book, writing out a receipt because he hated computers, he'd retreat to the bench in front of his store with a book, perhaps The Tragedies of Sophocles or As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, ignite a Lucky Strike and start reading.

Now the bench is abandoned. Brisky died from lung cancer complications on Jan. 20. His friend and longtime employee, Gary Nippes, is in the process of selling Brisky's inventory of nearly 100,000 books.

"Everybody in the business knew him,'' said Mike Slicker, who operates St. Petersburg's Lighthouse Books and has organized this weekend's book fair at the Coliseum. "If you loved books, you couldn't drive on the interstate past Micanopy and not feel his store pulling on you like a magnet. You just had to go.''

Brisky, 71 when he died, helped Slicker start the book fair, where used book dealers from all over America gather once a year to sell their wares. Years ago, when other used-book sellers were arguing about a logo for their group, Brisky grew impatient, picked up a Magic Marker, and drew one. The logo is still used today.

Born in Hungary and raised in Louisiana, Oscar Brisky began collecting books as a child. As a young man he traded the hated Oscar for O.J., majored in American literature at LSU, and then opened a used book store in New Orleans. Later, he moved to New Port Richey, joined the staff of the defunct Clearwater Sun newspaper, and started an antique book store in Tarpon Springs. In 1985, he moved operations to Micanopy, the campsite in 1774 for the botanist William Bartram. Bartram's famous book, Travels, came out in 1791. Brisky, on occasion, sold first editions of it for $1,500 or more.

"What gave him the most pleasure was hunting for books,'' said Nippes. Driving a dilapidated van from city to city, Brisky scoured garage sales, went to auctions and haunted estate closeouts. He'd trade, buy and beg for them.

In his 28 years in Micanopy, he filled the store, a nearby warehouse and every room of his house with books. "I need the garage for books'' he liked to tell neighbors who wondered why he parked in the driveway.

He loved old children's books, histories, travel tomes and anything Florida. He always had a few first-edition Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novels lying around. He liked books about Indians, Africa, Russian histories, old plays, fishing adventures. He specialized in obscurities long out of print. A customer who had been searching for, say, Geology of Ethiopia, went home happy. Someone hunting for an old novel by Danielle Steel might leave in a huff. Brisky didn't do modern.

"You could ask him about an old book he couldn't possibly know about and he would know about it,'' said an old customer, Josh Braley. Brisky kept them on sagging shelves and on dusty piles on wooden floors that seemed on the verge of collapse. Neighborhood cats strolled through the door with impunity. Mosquitoes came by air unimpeded. The door was open. Brisky's lacked an air conditioner and a heater. Customers sweated or shivered. Most sneezed. Brisky thought old books should be dusty.

Customers paid in cash or by check. He never learned how to use a credit card machine. He hated computers. Receipts were filled out by pencil. The phone behind the counter was 1970s vintage. The phone booth in the back of the store was even older and also worked.

Nippes, his old employee, will bring a few Brisky prizes to the book fair on Friday, including Garcilaso de la Vega's History of the Conquest of Florida from 1680, priced at $1,800, and John T. Sprague's 1848 account of Indian battles, The Origin, Progress and Conclusion of the Florida War, for $800.

A lifelong smoker, Brisky started losing weight last summer. In December, he was diagnosed as terminal. He kept coming to his store. Somebody from the business across the street, Coffee 'n Cream, brought him soup every day.

Brisky was divorced. His son lives in Germany. Nippes plans to retire.

Old book stores die, too.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@tampabay.com.

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