The word “scoop” is news slang for a story obtained by luck or by business. This is when you beat the competition in the fist. In a 40 year career as a writer, I have had fewer scoops than you could put on an ice cream cone.
Now I have another one. This is not a ball of news derived from in-depth investigations. Think of it more as a hunch or a fervent wish, a heart lump.
This comes from a question that was asked of me countless times during the pandemic. “Will Haslam’s bookstore ever reopen?” “
The answer of truth: I do not know. My gut response: yes it will.
My love for the place is such 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 reopening. U.S. too. Owners Suzanne Haslam Hinst and her husband Ray closed their doors at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Since then, the family have generally been low-key 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 only seen a large beige building and empty parking lot at 2025 Central Ave., allow me to introduce and motivate you for a possible reopening.
Over the years, Haslam’s had just about everything a great local independent bookstore needs: a mom and pop story dating back to the Great Depression; 30,000 square feet of exhibition space for over 300,000 new and used books; family booksellers now in a fourth generation; famous residential cats (Beowulf, Teacup and Emily Dickinson); and, of course, a drunk and cranky literary ghost.
Plus, it was a place where books flew off the shelves. But more on that later.
My association with Haslam dates back to my arrival in town in 1977. Today St. Pete is a gem of the city, but at the time it was a ruin, run down and run down. To be fair, on some days the area around the store on Central could seem quite shaded, and not from the trees.
Run by Charles and Elizabeth Haslam, the place felt like a storefront church. I would bring used books to sell, and Charles would look at the titles and scoff at my academic pretensions. He died in 1983. Elizabeth survived him for 24 years and reigned as one of the great Book Ladies of America. She has run book fairs in local schools. I was delighted when she helped promote my first book on teaching children to write.
For nearly four decades, I felt married to the place, a distant cousin who loved to visit and just hang out. You never knew who you might meet or what treasure you might find.
On the walls hung oversized book posters, autographed by authors who visited the store for special events. Six are mine. These works were sold and celebrated at book festivals across the country, but I insisted that the launch event for any new book be at Haslam. I have a new book to release in 2022. I dream of a launch at Haslam.
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One memorable Saturday, I was at Haslam’s to meet and greet clients, sign and sell copies of my books. I brought a strange accessory, a small Italian-made accordion. Rather than announce that the event was about to begin, I strapped my clamp box, walked around the floor and around the stacks to play sloppy versions of “Lady of Spain” and “Beer. Barrel Polka ”. It had the desired effects: agitation, curiosity, gathering of potential readers (and buyers!)
Ray Hinst, Haslam’s son-in-law and third-generation manager, laughed beside me.
“It must be something new for Haslam,” I said. “I must be the first author invited to play the accordion.”
“No, I think you’re the second.”
“Who else?” I asked.
“Lawrence Welk,” he said.
At the time, many famous big band musicians like Welk traveled to St. Petersburg to entertain the city’s retirees. Welk was also an author and had stopped by Haslam to promote one of his books. The story goes that an ambitious mother brought a talented young boy to play for the band leader, and Welk sent someone back to his car to collect his accordion to accompany the child.
Proof that Haslam’s was an eclectic place: I can go from a king of polka beat, to king of beat writers, Jack Kerouac. Author of On the road, he lived his last years of love in St. Petersburg, taking care of his aging mother. He died here in 1969 from alcoholism, but left some imprints. He visited local bars and cafes. He would go to the sports department of the local newspaper and publish a few columns. And he would go to Haslam.
There he was frustrated to find that the alphabetical order had directed his novels to the lower shelves. Like a lot of other authors I know (ahem), Jack would take his books out and put them on a more accessible shelf. The men and women of tidy books of Haslam then put the volumes back in their place.
Since these encounters with Jack and his untimely death, rumors have spread that Haslam is haunted by the ghost of Kerouac. He shows his rowdy discontent on occasion by dropping a book or two from one shelf to another. I spoke to a clerk who swears he saw this happen. I think it’s probably not Kerouac, but one of the other cool cats in the room.
All I know is that when I was at Haslam, holding an old 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 neighborhood around Haslam’s is now as funky and progressive as it was once empty and depressing. A trendy store, Tombolo Books, has opened nearby. When Haslam reopens – I mean it does – it might need a hip replacement, maybe a glorious literary arts fresco. But it’s not what is on the outside that matters. It’s all those stories inside.
On rare occasions, I have been known to beg. At Haslam, we need you. I can think of no greater gift to the city than the news that we might one day – ghost or not – see your books flying off the shelves.
Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer for the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at [email protected].