Before Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million, Amazon, EBooks, Nook and Kindle, there was Haslam’s Book Store in St. Petersburg. For me, it is a place that holds a special Christmas memory.
Growing up in Temple Terrace, a small city north of Tampa, in the 1960s my family rarely ventured to downtown Tampa, much less to St. Petersburg. A trip across the bay seemed exotic — an adventure worthy of snacks, maps and backseat squabbles with my two brothers.
One of the problems with road trips, however, was that my father, oblivious to the fact that we were a family of five, kept buying sports cars. So three kids were always crammed into skimpy back seats, or sometimes, no real back seat at all. One year he bought a Triumph Spitfire, and my brothers and I perched ourselves on a back shelf, parade-style, as we cruised the sparsely traveled roads of North Tampa.
We were a family of readers. An English professor, my father had a library of thousands of books. On rainy days as a child I would take books off his shelves and flip through the pages, wondering if I would ever be smart enough to read such small print and big words. The grown-up books would have to wait. As a fourth- and fifth-grader at Riverhills Elementary, I read all the biographies in the school library and loved the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. Owning a book, though, was a rarity because we either checked books out at school or the Temple Terrace Public Library.
It was during this time my father announced a field trip — he was taking the three of us to a book store in St. Petersburg called Haslam’s, and we were going to pick out books for Christmas. Wow! Traveling all the way to St. Petersburg — across the bridge — going to a place called Haslam’s and buying books! It could hardly be more wonderful.
So into the sports car my brothers and I crammed, and we drove off on the great adventure. Upon our arrival my father laid out the plan: We could each select 10 used books, and they would be part of our Christmas gifts. We wouldn’t receive them until Christmas morning.
I remember Haslam’s as being a big store with lots of rooms. There was a large section of used books that I thought was pretty neat. It was kind of like the books I borrowed at the library, except I was going to keep them!
I could hardly contain myself. As I darted around the store picking out each book, I would run up to my dad and ask, “I can get this one, too?” I couldn’t believe the literary riches before me as I piled 10 books onto the sales counter.
Haslam’s history is pretty remarkable given all of the changes that have occurred in the book publishing industry. The bookstore was founded in 1933 during the Great Depression by John and Mary Haslam, both of whom loved to read. Their son, Charles, and his wife, Elizabeth, continued to operate and expand the store. Remarkably, the bookstore is in its 80th year, and today St. Petersburg Preservation is holding a celebration at the store to commemorate the event.
You may meet the third generation that runs Haslam’s. Charles and Elizabeth’s daughter, Suzanne, and her husband, Raymond Hinst, keep the store up-to-date by trying to provide something for everyone. Their children are likely to become the fourth generation to take over one day.
Back then I didn’t know anything about the Haslam family or the store’s history. I just knew, as a 9-year-old, with Christmas right around the corner, that I had hit the Santa jackpot.
The books were placed in the car trunk, such as it was, and we made the journey back to the suburbs of Temple Terrace.
On Christmas morning I made as much noise as I could to wake my parents so we could tear into our Christmas presents. Underneath the tree there were three stacks of books wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with twine. The plain packages stood out amongst the many gifts adorned in bright Christmas wrapping. And though I knew the contents of the plain package and didn’t know what was in the others, I quickly undid the twine of the brown stack and out spilled those 10 books. They were special treasures.
I love bookstores and still go to Haslam’s. It’s no longer an ordeal to drive across the bridge, and traveling to St. Petersburg is a regular occurrence. I often wonder if my lifelong love for bookstores was formed that day in December 1968 when I excitedly scampered around Haslam’s and gathered up 10 used books.
Pam Iorio, the former mayor of Tampa, is a speaker and author. Her history column, Our Journey, runs biweekly in The Tampa Tribune. Contact her at [email protected]