Last week, Luke and I traveled to Tampa for a brief family holiday. (The main motive of our visit was to meet the newest addition to our family. Despite being well over-due, the little guy had a mind of his own and, despite our pleading, could not be coerced to come out of his mother’s belly on anyone’s time but his own.) That said, we managed to entertain ourselves without a bouncing baby boy to pass around.
Since I was a little girl, trips to the bookstore have been a feature in these family vacations to Florida. In the past, though, the nearest bookstores to us were Borders and Barnes & Noble, and so, I have to confess, I’d never visited any of Tampa’s indies (!). Happily, that all changed this visit. My aunt, an avid reader herself (like everyone in my family), was happy to oblige with a tour of Tampa’s only full-service independent bookstore, Inkwood Books. Have you ever shopped here before?
Nestled in a quaint Florida bungalow the color of lemon ice cream on a palm-lined street in South Tampa, Inkwood Books belongs to its environment as only a native can, a feature few national chains are able to achieve with their generic cookie-cutter facades. Inkwood celebrated their 20th anniversary in November, and their specialization in literature by Florida and, particularly, Tampa authors reflects their commitment to their community. Walking around the shop, it didn’t take me long to uncover its appeal or the reasons for its longevity.
A gift wrapping station is just one of the personal touches on offer at Inkwood. Plus, it lends itself to the homey, DIY look of the store. Other touches include a What We’re Reading dry erase board behind the check-out counter, hand-written shelf-talkers, cut-out “love note” decorations for Valentine’s Day, and free cookies on the Sale table.
Candy at the till draws attention to charities they support and upcoming literary events. (Is that a poster for World Book Night I see?) Not to mention, Valentines M&Ms are an excellent way to sweeten the deal on a hefty book purchase.
Whether it was the particular way the warm, Florida sun cast cozy beams of light on the wood floors or because Joni Mitchell was playing on the stereo, I immediately felt at ease in the shop. It soon occurred to me, though, that it was the staff who most contributed to this homeyness. After browsing on our own for a moment, we began talking with Leslie, the co-owner. She was stocking some sort of game on the counter and, after introducing ourselves and talking about books we’d enjoyed, festivals we’d attended, we asked her what the game was.
“It’s called Spot It!” she explained and began to deal. Without wasting any time, we took up our stacks and began to play. Ice broken.
I rarely admit to booksellers the reason I write a blog about independent bookstores, beyond the obvious wanting to discover and promote them. The reason closest to my heart, that of longing to own my own indie bookstore one day, often feels too personal to admit to strangers.
So it was a surprise when the words came barreling out of me.
“You know,” Leslie said, “it may be the hardest job in the world, but it’s the best job in the world. You meet so many interesting people…”
And there it was, the reason why booksellers do it; buy and hand-sell books day in and day out, even when the media tells us books are on their way out (they’re not); the reason they pay themselves last in hard times so that they can pay their employees. They do it for the people and, I suspect, for the stories that connect us in this spider’s web called human existence.
“We need a recommendation,” he proclaims. “My son is in sixth grade and his favorite author is Grisham. What other books would he like?”
I hear some mumbling in the other room as Leslie asks the necessary questions and begins pulling down books from the shelves. The customer decides to leave her to it and moves to another section of the store. A few minutes later she walks in with a tower of books in her arms.
“Oh my Lord!” the customer says. The boy sits down with his stack and leafs through each one before deciding on the first book in the A Game of Thrones series.
I feel like a secret shopper rating not only Leslie’s customer service but her approachability, which is an often understated requirement in booksellers. The latest study on book buyer behavior suggest that over 30% of adult readers find out about books from staff recommendations and 49.2% from personal recommendations. These are the two largest categories and a testament for why indie bookstores, with their knowledgeable staff are essential to the book business.
When the visit finally comes to a close (my family are waiting for me in the car), I buy one of Leslie’s recommendations, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. It’s a book her daughter, a bookseller at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, recommended to her, and one I will be recommending to you all in the near future. And so the chain goes on unbroken.