‘Something for everybody’ is Haslam’s Book Store’s mantra

If you’re a reader, or know a reader, chances are you’ll find a book to purchase or a gift to buy at Haslam’s Book Store, a St. Petersburg institution since 1933.

Step inside Florida’s largest bookstore and it soon becomes clear you could spend days perusing its vast collection.

Ray Hinst III and Ray Hinst Jr., help customers find what they’re looking for at Haslam’s Book Store, Florida’s largest bookstore in St. Petersburg. The store stocks hundreds of thousands of new and used books. (B.C. Manion/Staff Photo)

Ray Hinst III and Ray Hinst Jr., help customers find what they’re looking for at Haslam’s Book Store, Florida’s largest bookstore in St. Petersburg. The store stocks hundreds of thousands of new and used books.
(B.C. Manion/Staff Photo)

John and Mary Haslam opened the store, which is now situated at 2025 Central Ave., at the height of the Great Depression. In the beginning, the store rented reading materials to patrons for a few cents a day, said Ray Hinst Jr., who now operates the bookstore along with is wife and partner, Suzanne Haslam. Their son, Ray Hinst III, also works at the store, representing the fourth generation of the family-owned business.

Over the years, the bookstore has operated at four locations, expanding along the way. It now takes up about three-quarters of a city block, offering 300,000 to 400,000 new and used books.

“It’s bigger than a lot of libraries, and nowadays, we have more books than a lot of libraries,” said Hinst. Jr.

Its diverse selection of new and used books is intentional.

“We try to have something for everybody. We specialize in what the cash register says the community and the market wants,” Hinst said. “We don’t have an agenda. If there’s a category that sells and there are books available in that category, we’ll go ahead and do it.”

Over the years, the store’s selection evolved.

After World War II, it began offering new books, initially to help fill a need in the construction industry for contractors to prepare for licensing exams.

Then it added a large selection of Bibles, inspired by Hinst’s father-in-law, Charles Haslam, who worked at the store and was a preacher.

“There’s a need for it,” Hinst said. “Folks should have someplace where they can go to have a spiritual resource. That room includes many sides of the spiritual coin.”

The store also has how-to books covering every imaginable topic — from how to be a better writer, to choosing plants for your garden, to perfecting your crochet.

There’s a vast collection of books that are entertaining, amusing or mysterious, including works from Florida writers such as Tim Dorsey, Randy Wayne White, James Swain and Carl Hiaasen.

Book collectors may find it helpful to make an occasional visit to Haslam’s, to help them find that rare book, or two. And parents who want to encourage reading can check out the offerings in the store’s children’s section.

Over the years, Hinst has seen scores of changes in the bookselling industry. Many of the large bookstores have closed because of real estate prices. And electronic publishing and e-books, for instance, have had a considerable impact.

It’s far easier for authors to publish electronically and to have books printed on demand. But the number of publishers printing traditional bound books has plummeted.

The number of titles on the market has soared, but it’s harder to ferret out quality, Hinst said.

“There’s all kinds of stuff out there that you can download. How do you choose?” he asked. “Anyone with a laptop or a tablet or one of these (smartphone) can write a book, and for very, very nominal amounts of money, can publish both electronically and in a printed, bound version. Not everybody has extraordinary and literary command of the English language and so, it can be problematic.”

Besides selling books, Haslam’s also buys them. Hinst suggests anyone who wants to sell him books call ahead to see if he’s interested.

The popularity of authors waxes and wanes, he explained. There are instances when the store would have been interested in a particular author 10 years ago, but isn’t now.

“The people who read that author are generally no longer with us,” Hinst explained.

Values for books fluctuate, too.

“Some things have remained valuable over the years, and as time goes by, may increase in value,” he said. “Other things have peaked in their value, but they’ll hold it. Other things lose their value.”

Demand plays a role, too.

“I may have nine or 10 of them, in which case, I don’t want yours. I don’t care how much it’s worth,” Hinst added.

Ultimately, he said, “we are investing our money in it, so we determine how much we want to invest.”

Besides its size, Haslam’s also is uncommon because it has remained a family operation for more than eight decades. Hinst thinks that’s because the enterprise provides ample challenge for the family members and employees who work there.

“You have to pay attention to your customers, to your market. If your market changes, you need to change with it,” Hinst said. “In a lot of cases, that may be what happens to family businesses, the market changes – there’s an evolution in the service or the product in which they have chosen to engage, and they don’t make that transition. They don’t reflect what’s going on.”

The business is devoted to the preservation of the printed word, but it’s also aware of the importance of profit, Hinst said.

“Keep in mind, we’re a business. We’re not a library,” he said. “We’re not here out of the goodness of our hearts, only. The cash register, we have learned over the decades, is a good guide to success.”

Being a new and used bookseller also offers its own kind of adventure, he said.

“For me, as a buyer, every day is like Christmas. You open up that box of books and you never know what’s going to be in there,” Hinst said. “You never know what phone call you’re going to get – ‘I got some of these’ or ‘I got one of those.’

“It’s that kind of thing that makes it interesting to come to work every day,” he said.

Despite the increasing popularity of electronic readers, Hinst expects printed books to have staying power.

People often ask him: “What are you going to do when books go away?’

He typically responds: “We don’t think they’re going to go away.”

When people buy a book, Hinst noted, they own it. No one can come along later to edit or delete it.

It’s handy, too. No batteries required.

Published September 3, 2014

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