The word “scoop” is news slang for a story obtained by luck or enterprise. It’s when you beat the competition to the punch. In a 40-year writing career, I have had fewer scoops than you could fit on top of an ice cream cone.
Now I have another. It’s not a scoop of news derived from deep investigations. Think of it more as an intuition or a fervent wish, a scoop of the heart.
It comes from a question posed to me countless times during the pandemic. “Will Haslam’s Book Store ever re-open?”
The truth answer: I don’t know. My gut answer: Yes, it will.
Such is my love for the place that when I look up from my reading chair, the first thing I see is a wooden plaque, a replica of their sign: “New Used, Haslam’s Book Store, Since 1933.”
Haslam’s deserves a grand re-opening. We do too. Owners Suzanne Haslam Hinst and her husband Ray shut their doors at the start of pandemic in March of 2020. Since then, the family has been characteristically tight-lipped about their plans, except to reveal that the famous cats who once charmed the place have all found other homes.
For those of you who are new to St. Petersburg and have seen only a large tan building and an empty parking lot at 2025 Central Ave., let me initiate you and fire you up for a possible re-opening.
Over the years, Haslam’s had just about everything a great local independent bookstore requires: a mom-and-pop history that dates back to the Great Depression; 30,000 square feet of display space for more than 300,000 new and used books; family booksellers now into a fourth generation; famous residential cats (Beowulf, Teacup, and Emily Dickinson); and, of course, a drunk and cranky literary ghost.
Moreover, it was a place where books fly off the shelves. But more about that later.
My association with Haslam’s goes back to my arrival in town in 1977. St. Pete is a jewel of a city now, but back then it was a ruin, shabby and degraded. To be honest, on certain days the area around the store on Central could look pretty shady, and not from the trees.
Run by Charles and Elizabeth Haslam, the place had the feel of a storefront church. I would bring in some used books to sell, and Charles would look at the titles and make a little fun at my academic pretensions. He died in 1983. Elizabeth outlived him for 24 years and reigned as one of America’s great book ladies. She conducted book fairs at local schools. I was delighted when she helped promote my first book on teaching children to write.
For almost four decades I’ve felt married to the place, a distant cousin who loved to visit and just hang around. You never knew whom you might meet or what treasure you might find.
On the walls hung oversized book posters, autographed by the authors who have visited the store for special events. Six are mine. These works have been sold and celebrated at book festivals across the nation, but I have insisted that the kick-off event for any new book of mine be at Haslam’s. I am scheduled to have a new book out in 2022. I dream of a launch at Haslam’s.
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On one memorable Saturday, I was at Haslam’s to meet and greet customers and to sign and sell copies of my books. I brought an odd prop, a small, Italian-made accordion. Rather than announce that the event was about to begin, I strapped on my squeeze box, strolled across the floor and around the stacks to play sloppy versions of “Lady of Spain” and “Beer Barrel Polka.” It had the desired effects: commotion, curiosity, a gathering of potential readers (and buyers!)
Ray Hinst, a Haslam son-in-law and third-generation manager, laughed at my side.
“This must be something new for Haslam’s,” I said. “I must be the first visiting author to play the accordion.”
“No, I think you are the second.”
“Who else?” I asked.
“Lawrence Welk,” he said.
Back in the day, many famous big band musicians like Welk visited St. Petersburg to entertain the city’s retirees. Welk was also an author and had stopped into Haslam’s to promote one of his books. The story goes that an ambitious mother brought along a talented young lad to perform for the band leader, and that Welk sent someone back to his car to retrieve his accordion to accompany the kid.
Proof that Haslam’s was an eclectic place: I can transition from a king of the polka beat, to the king of Beat writers, Jack Kerouac. Author of On the Road, he lived his final besotted years in St. Petersburg, caring for his aging mother. He died here in 1969 from the effects of alcoholism, but left a few footprints. He’d visit the local bars and coffee houses. He’d pop in to the sports department of the local newspaper and bang out a couple of columns. And he’d make his way to Haslam’s.
There, he was frustrated to find that alphabetical order had steered his novels to the lower shelves. Like many other authors I know (ahem), Jack would turn his books out and place them on a more accessible shelf. The tidy book men and women of Haslam’s would then restore the volumes to their proper place.
Since those encounters with Jack and his untimely death, rumors have spread that Haslam’s is haunted by the ghost of Kerouac. He manifests his rowdy displeasure on occasion by knocking a book or two from shelf to floor. I’ve talked to one clerk who swears she saw it happen. I think it’s more likely to be, not Kerouac, but one of the other cool cats in the room.
All I know is that when I was in Haslam’s, holding an ancient copy of a long-forgotten book, I felt the inspiring energy of generations of readers and writers all around me. It made me want to write.
The district around Haslam’s is now as funky and progressive as it once was empty and depressing. A hip store, Tombolo Books, has opened nearby. When Haslam’s reopens — I mean if — it may need a hip replacement, maybe a glorious mural devoted to the literary arts. But it’s not what’s on the outside that matters. It’s all those stories on the inside.
On rare occasions, I have been known to beg. Haslam’s, we need you. I can think of no greater gift to the city than the news that we may one day — ghost or no ghost — see your books flying off the shelves.
Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer to the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.