A one-of-a-kind bookstore

By Greg Lindberg

July 2008

Neighborhood News Bureau class at USF St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG – Surrounded by thousands of books, perusing customers and the sturdy walls of an old building, Raymond Hinst Jr. is in a place where he has spent more than half of his life.

Haslam’s Book Store is one of the historic landmarks of St. Petersburg. Located at 2025 Central Ave., the 75-year-old independent store boasts one of the largest collections of new and used books in the state. Hinst and his wife, who are now co-owners, have been a part of the business since 1973.

“I’ve done everything here, you name it,” Hinst said. “I’ve swept the floors, organized books and now I’m an owner.”

Hinst’s wife, Suzanne Haslam, is the granddaughter of the first owners of the store. They opened it in 1933 as a small place to sell used novels. Since then, it has become a nationally recognized center for independent booksellers. Hinst said the Haslam name is traced back to Lancashire, a small village in northwestern England where the family originally came from.

Hinst, 63, said he enjoys his job, although added pressure to keep the store in the family and the current state of the economy can make his work a challenge.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “But at the same time there is an increased feel for responsibility, especially in a time of significant economic challenges.”

The veteran bookseller was a member of the Air Force during the Vietnam War and worked part-time in the military until the 1990s. That is when he began devoting all of his time to the bookstore.

Because of its reputation and heritage in the area, many famous writers and celebrities have visited Haslam’s. Hinst said in the 1960s, author Jack Kerouac would come in and rearrange his books so they would be in full view on the shelves. The Haslams were not pleased with him doing this as it messed up the alphabetical order of the books. Some customers think the store is haunted by Kerouac’s ghost.

“There have been a number of investigations into it,” Hinst said. “Nobody has ever really come up with anything official.”

Other memorable visitors include Norman Mailer, Lawrence Welk, Robert Schuller and Robert Bork. Hinst described Mailer as “a delightful gentleman.” He also recalled that during Welk’s visit, the entertainer went out to his car to get an accordion, which he played for a young girl who was waiting in line to buy a book.

The bookstore also has a furry friend named Teacup, a four-year-old Tabby cat who makes Haslam’s her home. Hinst said she likes to greet customers and relax on top of warm computer monitors that she can reach.

“She’s a very special kitty,” he said, adding that the feline was given her name because she could fit in an actual teacup when she was a kitten. He said the store has been home to an animal for the past decade to bring a unique dynamic to its atmosphere.

Hinst’s son, Ray III, has had a job at Haslam’s since he was in third grade. Now the store’s only manager, he is very proud of his father and gives him credit for carrying on the family tradition.

“I think he’s done a fantastic job with helping to keep it going,” he said. “It’s a recipe that’s worked for nearly 80 years.”

The 38-year-old Hinst does not have children and said he is the only member of his generation in the family who is willing to continue running the business once his parents retire. He hopes to keep it as traditional as possible – a key factor in the store’s longevity.

The bookstore has more than 300,000 books in stock. Two-thirds of the 30,000-square-foot facility is devoted to the store while the rest is for storage. Some used books are still priced at 10 cents apiece, which has been a long-running practice. Books in a wide variety of languages are also on the shelves, including Swahili and Sanskrit texts.

Linda Villinger worked at the store as a bookseller in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. She spoke highly of the elder Hinst.

“When I worked there, he was always very friendly and helpful to both employees and customers,” she said. “Haslam’s is real quality in both its product and its people, and the people have always been very loyal and trustworthy.”

Villinger also said she learned about a wide variety of subjects through books during her 11-year tenure there.

“Being exposed to so many subjects, it was as good or even better than a college education,” she said.

As for Hinst’s reading preferences, he said he has read most genres but hesitated to name a favorite book or author.

“I have had a long enough time on this earth to have read just about everything,” he said.