Celebrate Tampa Bay Bookstores Saturday On Independent Bookstore Day
Celebrate Tampa Bay Bookstores Saturday On Independent Bookstore Day

Celebrate Tampa Bay Bookstores Saturday On Independent Bookstore Day

Updated: 9:34 p.m., Friday

TAMPA BAY, FL — Things once looked dire for independent bookstores, which struggled to keep their doors open as readers turned to Amazon and other online shops and big box stores for their book buying needs.

While these challenges still remain, things have turned a corner in recent years, and independent bookstores, once on the verge of extinction, are thriving, both nationally and locally.

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“Customers return for that interaction, for this small friendship we’ve made, to say hi and chat, even if their visit has nothing to do with making a purchase that day, and it fills my heart,” said Crystel Calderon, owner of Portkey Books.

With Independent Bookstore Day celebrating indie bookshops across the country on Saturday, there’s no better time to check out indie booksellers in the Tampa Bay area. (Find a list of bookstores in the region below.)

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In 2009, there were just 1,651 independent bookstores in the United States, according to Statista.com. This number saw a significant jump since then with 2,506 indie book shops in 2022.

This year, the American Booksellers Association, a not-for-profit trader organization, represents more than 2,500 bookstores, compared to 1,700 member companies in 2,100 locations in 2021, according to the organization’s website.

While some stores have closed regionally in recent years — The Tipsy Bookworm in Plant City, DoraLynn Books in Madeira Beach and ZBookz in St. Petersburg shut their doors in the past few months, and there’s a big question mark over the future of Haslam’s Book Store in St. Petersburg, which closed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and hasn’t reopened — the area has also welcomed new shops.

The Gilded Page in Tarpon Springs opened at the end of February and Read the Waves is coming soon to St. Pete Beach. Meanwhile, two pop-up shops established permanent brick-and-mortar spaces — Portkey Books opened in Safety Harbor in 2021 and The Book Rescuers set up shop in Pinellas Park last year. And within the last five years, downtown St. Pete welcomed two bookstores focused on new books, Tombolo Books and Book + Bottle.

Some local booksellers told Patch the pandemic actually spurred the recent support of indie bookshops.

“During the shutdown, people had relatives staying longer periods and they were reading more, and they accumulated a lot more books,” Joan Hepsworth, owner of The Paperback Exchange in New Port Richey, said.

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Many people turned to books for comfort and entertainment as COVID-19 spread, according to Melanie Cade, owner of Mojo Books & Records in New Port Richey.

“You saw it first with records, well before COVID, but during COVID, people wanted actual books,” she said. “People started getting really tired of digital. It’s a very impersonal experience, something you do very passively, and you don’t have to put a lot of intent into it, and I think people began feeling more disconnected from music, in a way, by only doing things digitally. And that’s happening with reading as well. I think (readers) are going out into the world and deliberately choosing books. … They want to be present with a book. It’s more of a thing now, than ever.”

Calderon opened Portkey Books in the midst of the pandemic, a time when many people were isolated. When the shutdown ended, she thinks indie bookstores served as a way to bring people together again.

“During our country’s recent divisive years, where it became more evident how little some people understand each other and each other’s experiences, I thought more about how important it is for books to connect us, both by allowing us to experience someone else’s experience and gain just a little bit of understanding of someone else’s life, but also to connect us in a shared experience,” she said. “Different people that have read the same book have experienced the same journey; they can have that connection.”

As the world began to open up again, indie bookstores brought people together — at least that’s what Calderon saw at her own shop.

“Since I started Portkey Books during the pandemic, when most people were isolated in their homes, these two aspects seemed even more important — books help us escape, and they help connect us,” Calderon said. “But since actually starting my brick and mortar, what I didn’t really foresee is the in-person human connection that the bookstore provides, and it makes me tear up thinking about it. Being such a small store, every interaction with a customer is a personal one. We connect. … And beyond that, I’m able to foster connections in the community, between customers.”

Reading has also become political in recent years, Hepsworth said. With book banning prevalent in Florida schools, many of her customers are specifically seeking these titles.

“With all these books being banned, there’s more interest in them,” she said. “It’s important that people have access to them. These book bans have definitely sparked more interest in actual printed books.”

Michelle Jenquin, owner of Wilson’s Book World in St. Petersburg, agreed.

Shoppers “are always looking for the banned books,” she told Patch. “I recently had a gentleman come in and he told me that he collects banned books, and he had a whole list of them. We went through the entire store trying to find them.”

One of a bookstore’s most important roles in a community is to educate people, Jenquin added.

“You know, knowledge is power. And I love seeing the kids from the (University of South Florida’s St. Pete) campus come over,” she said. “They’re looking for philosophy; they’re looking for essays; they’re looking for classics. They’re wanting to go back and read the classics and all of those things, instead of all the new stuff that’s coming out. They’re not just looking to read the romances or the fantasy; they’re wanting to get information. And that’s what truly inspires me. I see these kids come in and they’re just hungry for information.”

Hepsworth is also seeing younger readers seeking physical books.

“It’s interesting. This younger crowd is sensitive to the fact that if they spend too much time in front of the screen, it’s harmful to their mental health,” she said. “So, they’re reaching out and studying subjects and books, where they don’t get that depth of coverage if they’re reading an article in a magazine. If you’re just reading blurbs on TikTok or doomscrolling on Instagram, you don’t get the depth of it; you get all the radicalized stuff. It’s like an emotional slot machine.”

With Mojo, which sells new and used titles, so close to USF’s Tampa campus, the shop caters to that audience as well, Cade said.

“Being near a large college and one that’s diverse and has a wide range of students and faculty, we try to have a really broad and deep selection of material,” she said. “We have the bestsellers, but we also have a deeper selection of nonfiction titles and classic literature for people looking for something more academic, something a little deeper in their studies or interests.”

Indie bookstores are not only comfortable spaces for those who want to explore new topics, but also those seeking a little escape, Calderon said. “I’ve always loved the ability that books have to transport us, to take us away and give us a break from our daily reality. That has always been important to me, that escape especially helped me in some of the harder times of my childhood when my mom was sick.”

Lorielle Holloway, owner of Cultured Books in St. Pete, agreed.

These stores “provide a safe haven for readers to explore and discover new worlds, learn about different cultures, and a place to find themselves, (as well as) a safe space to discuss current events and a safe space to get away from them,” she said.

Check out some of the Tampa Bay region’s independent bookstores and find out what they have planned for Independent Bookstore Day:

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