ST. PETERSBURG — Thousands of stories by the world’s greatest minds line the shelves of Haslem’s Book Store and some are as endearing as the love story between the family-owned institution and the community that created it.
The independent new and used bookstore in the Grand Central District, one of few in the nation that has survived in an age of Kindles and e-books, celebrated its 80th birthday Sunday with hours of tears, laughter and hugs as the minds that make up St. Petersburg’s creative community did what they do best — tell stories.
“The store is not necessarily a reflection of my family, but of this community,” said Raymond Hinst, son of the third-generation owners of the store, Suzanne Haslam and her husband, Ray Hinst.
“Everything that’s in here came from your homes, you brought it to us or called it in because you were interested in it. Everyone in this town made a store this big with all this amazing diversity and history, and you’re still bringing more in.”
To get a sense of what makes St. Petersburg tick, one need only look around at the characters and stories haunting Haslam’s. Former Florida Representative and current Dean of the College of Education at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg Bill Heller and St. Petersburg’s first poet laureate Peter Meinke were just a few of the familiar faces that filtered through the store Sunday. The men mingled with the up-and-coming writers and 20-something’s in fedoras and horn-rimmed glasses that weren’t there because of the store’s history in the city, but simply because this is where they hang out. The next generation of customers, school children in flip-flops and tank tops, ran around the musty stacks looking for new stories to leaf through, chasing the store’s cat Tea Cup.
At Haslam’s, where the family’s “best friends are our customers, not necessarily our best customers,” it’s okay to leaf through the pages of a book in the corner or stop by to discuss new projects and ideas, Raymond Hinst said. The store saw St. Petersburg through the end of prohibition, segregation and World War II, welcoming all, black or white, into the family.
First opened as a magazine exchange in 1933 during the Great Depression, John and Mary Haslam’s family store was a frequent hang-out for icon Jack Kerouac, who is rumored to still haunt the store, moving his books to more prominent display locations as he did in life.
As customers and former employees took turns sharing their stories Sunday, a stack of children’s books inexplicably flew from a display.
“When you walk in the door you know this place is something different and some strange things could happen here,” said Ray Arsenault, an American historian and co-director of the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg’s Florida Studies Program.
Hearing customers’ heart-felt stories is “edifying,” Ray Hinst said, especially as the family watches bookstores as big as Borders close their doors and big cities like New York and L.A. struggle to keep independent shops open. After the depression, as people flocked to St. Petersburg to retire to “paradise” and the pursuit of leisure, the store became a collection of the community’s favorite stories, family heirlooms, dreams and aspirations. Now it’s those stories that are sparking younger generations to keep the creative spirit of the community alive, he said.
“People came with the books they always wanted to read and started sharing,” Ray Hinst said. “We’re truly a reflection of the pursuits of the community. ... As long as the community interest is there, we’ll be here.”