Editor’s Note: In praise of bookstores

The reports of the death of indie bookstores have been greatly exaggerated.

click to enlarge SEDUCTIVE: The bookstore at Oxford Exchange. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
SEDUCTIVE: The bookstore at Oxford Exchange.

Bookstores. They’re supposed to be a thing of the past — obsolete edifices not good for much except kindling.

That may be true of the big chains. But small independent bookstores? The reports of their deaths have been greatly exaggerated. According to a recent feature in the New York Times, sales at indies across the country are running 10 to 15 percent higher than last year.

Two Tampa stores, one an institution, one brand new, suggest why.

Inkwood Books may feel too cozily personal to warrant the weighty label of “institution,” but after 20 years as a book lovers’ haven that’s what it has become. So the news this summer that co-owners Carla Jimenez and Leslie Reiner were looking to sell the business filled local bibliophiles with dismay. In fact, the prospects for Inkwood are bright.

Jimenez, taking time out for a phone call on a busy Saturday, said she and Reiner are “still moving forward” with the buyer they’ve been talking with for a few months now, and that by February the new owner will be in place. She’s confident the change will be “good for the bookstore, good for the community… Everyone will be very pleased.”

You get the feeling that Jimenez will make very sure that’s the case, not just because she’s a good businesswoman (which she is), but because she’s passionately concerned about the legacy she and Reiner will leave behind. And, like any successful bookstore owner, she’s passionate about books. Though she’s happy to be moving on, her one-on-one interactions with other readers still delight her. “If you know the reading habits of the person you’re buying for,” she says, “that’s even more fun for us.”

And anyway, books are what she wants to talk about most these days, not “What’s going to happen to Inkwood?” In preparation for our conversation, which she has to interrupt a few times to help customers, she has amassed a pile of books to recommend, including: This Moose Belongs to Me, a “very, very cool picture book” for kids ages 4-8; Field to Feast, a “gorgeous” cookbook celebrating Florida farmers; The Sisters Brothers, a “funny and heartbreaking” Western saga; and Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust, “one of the best memoirs I’ve read in years.”

The connecting thread in all these recommendations: She’s not only heard these books are good, she’s read them. As one Yelp reviewer said about Inkwood, “I don’t know about you, but I feel glee when I see some indication that employees read the books they sell.”

Glee is one of the feelings triggered by the bookstore at Oxford Exchange, mixed with a degree of shock, as in “How did this get here?”

OE’s luxe restaurant-cum-hangout spot has, of course, has been attracting buzz since it opened. But to me, its bookstore is the real gem — an elegant space with the feel of a private library, yet with an accessible, cheeky attitude reflected in idiosyncratic touches like a collection of antique typewriters; an old-fashioned card catalogue used not for indexing books but for leaving messages about them; and droll, hand-written bookshelf labels like “Romances That Would Be Sanctioned by the British Museum” and “America, Deeper Than People Give Us Credit For.”

Like Inkwood, the shop bears the stamp of its proprietors: OE owner Blake Casper, who felt strongly that a bookstore should be an integral part of the OE mix, and manager Allison Powell, a vivacious polymath whose circuitous route to OE included jobs in journalism and reality TV (Interview, Bridezillas), degrees in English and creative writing from UC Berkeley and Warren Wilson College, and a stint as manager of the Las Vegas branch of a venerable rare books dealer, where Casper met her during a business trip. They kept in touch, and he eventually offered her the job at the Exchange. She began full-time in January, opened in September, and the learning curve has been steep. Fortunately, she was able to get advice from area veterans, including Carla Jimenez: “People have been generous to us for 20 years with their experience, so we’re generous with ours,” Jimenez told me.

The business model for OE’s bookstore differs from that of a stand-alone shop in that it functions as a curtain-raiser for the larger complex — like “the first scene in a play,” says Powell. The entryway and big display windows face onto Grand Central Avenue, which doesn’t get a great deal of foot traffic, so there’s no compulsion to pull in passersby with splashy best-seller come-ons.

But the store has been pulling them in nevertheless, says Powell; sales have been “way better than expected.” She’s doing particularly good business with hardcover editions of the classics (it helps that OE is across the street from the University of Tampa). And what’s most surprising — and kind of heartening, when you think about it — is the success she’s had with more esoteric titles. She’s sold out three times of a book on creativity by choreographer Twyla Tharp, and recently she had two people in two days inquire about a book on Madame Blavatsky, the 19th-century medium.

“I can’t believe you have this!” people tell her. “I can’t believe you’re buying it!” she replies.

Also on the docket: an OE book club (next up: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned), a good excuse to hang out at the Exchange in its off hours. But that sounds almost too tempting: the ambience of the place is so seductive you might wind up spending all your time there, slouched in a leather armchair, paging through Dickens or the latest Anne Lamott.

“It’s so much fun to be here,” says Powell, speaking for herself. That’s true for her customers, too.

Speaking of reading, take a moment’s pause in the holiday rush this week to vote on your favorite story in this year’s CL Fiction Contest. The theme is Ybor Stories, and the judges have now chosen the top 10. Go to cltampa.com/YborFiction to vote; judges’ and readers’ choices will be published in Jan. 3, with a reading in CL Space on Sat. Jan. 12.

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