I found myself in Sarasota again the other day for a book signing. I had arrived early after driving up from another bookstore in Fort Lauderdale the day before, my 59th stop of the current promotional tour. This night would be the 60th. I had some time to kill, so you’d think the last place I’d want to hang out was a bookstore.
But I’m a book person. We know who we are. And if you’re not, you’d better fake it in Sarasota, where reading, thankfully, is still what you do between the covers of a novel and not in a grocery checkout line. (Although I admit I just couldn’t resist "Britney Collapses! Enquirer exclusive!")
So there I was again in the "city of the arts" with a few hours on my hands. What to do? At times like that, I check the sky. Dark: bar-hop. Light: bookstore-hop.
I learned long ago that bookstores are pretty much the answer to all of life’s troubles. Something about them just naturally brings down the blood pressure, clears the brain, makes you more sociable … No, wait, that’s bar-hopping. But the principles pretty closely translate to the fiction aisles. Think about it: Have you ever come out of a bookstore more tense than when you went in? Ever come out angry? Depressed? And, unlike bars, there’s no downside. I’ve never gotten in a fight, lost my wallet or thrown up in a bookstore, except that once.
Yes, bookstores are the ultimate panacea, Dr. Feelgood’s Snake Oil, for all that ails you, from anxiety to irregularity to the nagging sensation that you have a nagging sensation. For my money, a couple hours scanning the shelves over in literature works better than all your lucky crystals, magnetic bracelets, St. John’s wort and bran muffins combined.
I love books so much that I’m appreciative of any operation that supports and expands reading habits. I buy a bunch of books online, and I spend more than I should in the chain stores. There’s nothing wrong with the Amazon.coms and Barnes & Nobles of the world. Discounts and clean, well-lit (and in Florida crime-free) places are not to be taken for granted. (Thanks, Frank, Mike, Paulette, Doreen, Renee, Aaron, Jennifer et al.!)
But when it comes right down to it, in my heart of hearts, there’s nothing like a funky independent bookstore. It’s the quirky individuality that endears them to me, like baseball parks with odd dimensions- bookstores with cats and signed author photos, artwork and antiques, historic locations and weird architectural nooks, distinct smells and ghost legends.
I’ve had the pleasure of traveling extensively through four book tours, at least 300 total stops, and seeing all the finest bookstores in the state-several times. I’ve seen most of them night, day, weekend, off-hours, peak-hours, and I decided to compile a list, because this magazine paid me. When the roster was done, I realized, without a lot of surprise, that almost a majority were in Sarasota.
So, on the eve of the Sarasota Reading Festival, isn’t it apropos we publish a list that makes the cogent argument this city is the bookstore capital of Florida? It’s almost as if the magazine scheduled it that way.
Without further ado, the Best Bookstores in Florida:
Book Bazaar/A. Parker’s Books-Two stores operating out of the same frontage. Book Bazaar covers the majority of the space starting in the front, and A. Parker is the rare book room in back, with its name etched in glass on the door, to get you ready for the quality (and prices). You know how we all have that mental Rolodex of out-of-print hardcovers we always look for when we enter a great used bookstore? Well, get it spinning before you walk down these hallowed aisles of the leather bindings and don’t be shy to ask for help from Gary, Joe, Lore, Dan and Art. There’s almost a hushed reverence for the books in this place, where you could just as easily be inside an antiquarian store in San Francisco or New Orleans. Too much money in your pockets? Head to the rear of the store and pick up an 1843 first edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Only $10,000. 1488 Main St., Sarasota.
Books & Books-Everyone in the book industry knows Mitchell Kaplan, founder of the trend-setting Miami Book Fair International and owner of the most stunning bookstore in the state. When rumor spread that Kaplan was moving out of the historic coquina building a block off the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, it was hard not to believe an institution would be lost. Instead, he moved into an even more impressive building with a redesigned interior of interconnecting rooms around a Mediterranean courtyard. The magnificent hardwood private-library-style shelving combines with high ceilings and minimalism for tremendous sense of space. 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables.
Brant’s Used Books-After World War II, an old wooden surplus military barracks began moving around Sarasota and finally landed a block west of the intersection of Bee Ridge and U.S. 41. Originally constructed to be cool without air-conditioning, Brant’s is strictly an open-door, open-window affair that lends a lazy old Florida feel as you peruse the shelves in the balmy cross breezes. The creaking, warped floor boards make it all the better. Check out the cool antique neon clock from a Sarasota radio station in the north wing. And be sure to say hi to owner Mary Sciarretta, who’s been greeting me with a smile since I started coming around when I was practically a kid. 3913 Brown Ave., Sarasota.
The Book Mark-Located near Jacksonville on Atlantic Beach, Rona Brinlees’s place is one of several shops nestled in an old brick building across the street from the historic Sea Turtle Inn, where Rona and husband Buford also help with the annual First Coast Writer’s Conference. The Book Mark attracts some of the biggest authors in the country, who sign one of two large canvases on display in the store (which has evidence of this piece of Florida author trivia: Les Standiford always draws a palm tree with his signature, and James W. Hall always comes behind and draws Christmas balls on it). In the back of the store is an intimate sitting room, like the den of someone’s house, where some of the book readings are held. 299 Atlantic Blvd., Atlantic Beach.
Chapters Bread and Books Café-Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner? A restaurant in the aisles of an old used bookstore. Enjoy some wine, try the Sundried Tomato Alfredo Penne and reach over to the shelf next to your table and grab a Hemingway that catches your eye. Located on a quaint strip in College Park near Orlando. Also features an indoor balcony and large collection of ephemera. 717 W. Smith St., College Park.
Circle Books-This mainstay on the south end of St. Armands Circle has a soft spot in my heart. Owners Eric Lamboley and Deborah Stowell invited me to my very first book signing in 1999. It’s the perfect stop during a traditional shopping stroll around the circle, and a wonderfully eclectic crowd shops here: Al Gore dropped by during his campaign, and AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson, who has a home on Bird Key, is said to slip in from time to time. Circle Books has a tremendous devotion to Florida authors and guidebooks. Also, the events coordinator is Paul Bergin, grand master of Liar’s Poker and feared mystery critic of the St. Petersburg Times. 478 John Ringling Blvd., Sarasota.
Haslam’s-The granddaddy of Florida bookstores. This is a big old concrete-block building on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg, with large 1950s-style lettering on the side: "Florida’s Largest New & Used Book Store." This one will take you back quickly to the days of the green benches and Webb’s City drugstore. The store has seen it all, opening in 1933 under John and Mary Haslam. In the second generation, son Charles promoted the store for 15 years with his local PBS TV show The Wonderful World of Books. Now in its third generation of family management, under Ray Hinst and his son, Ray Jr., the store is nothing less than a Florida time capsule and cultural touchstone. Central Avenue is almost empty now, few cars and fewer pedestrians, except for the faithful who still come to Haslam’s in stout numbers. Walk down the avenue toward Haslam’s on a hot summer day, and you can almost see men in Stetson hats and cars with tailfins. 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.
Inkwood Books-At first glance, you’d think this charming yellow-and-white bungalow is another of south Tampa’s restored historic residences. Which it used to be. Now people wander room to room in the 1920s-era home browsing books (plus for parents: separate room for the children!) Like the Book Mark, one of the rooms is also used as an intimate reading area where many an author has climbed on the stool in the corner to recite from his or her latest. Owners Carla Jimenez and Leslie Einer make Inkwood what independent stores are all about: newsletters, events, knowing your name. In short, they’re neighbors. 216 S. Armenia Ave.
Key West Island Bookstore-With a literary tradition as rich as Key West’s, you know the bookstore has to be great. Located down a side street in Old Town, the Island Bookstore is where the Key’s literati have been coming for years; and the walls are jammed with more than a hundred signed, framed photos of the famous, from Jim Harrison and Jimmy Buffett to Carl Hiaasen and Thomas McGuane. There’s an excellent collection of Keys’ books up front, to put you in that Duval Crawl mood. And all the way in back is the sanctum sanctorum, a tiny rare book room with highly sought first editions and autographed books. 513 Fleming St., Key West.
Main Book Shop-This store cultivated the fine art of loitering before the chains made a killing at it. A jumbo selection of remainder books fills two large floors of a bargain hunter’s dream. And it’s in an ancient building to boot. Owner Scott Proffitt recently gave me a ride in the old freight elevator, where you have to close a mesh gate by hand and yank on a metal cable to connect the copper electrical contacts. He said that late at night, as legend has it, you can still hear the ghost of someone. He said who it was, too, but I was busy playing with the elevator. 1962 Main St., Sarasota.
Murder on Miami Beach-This is one of the nation’s top crime fiction stores. People from across the United States and abroad send in orders for collectible and signed books from the parade of authors who come through these doors and sit in a large, antique burgundy chair-like Sherlock Holmes might use- while pontificating and autographing. Nice touch: Before writers are allowed to leave, owner Joanne Sinchuk has them dip their hands in red ink and leave a palm print on the wall. Elizabeth Cosin left a footprint. 16850 Collins Ave., North Miami Beach.
Sarasota News & Books-Everyone knows about this place. The ivy-covered walls, the cappuccino, the iron patio furniture outside-who needs Paris? (A lot more people will soon be finding out about it, too, now that Stuart Kaminsky is putting it in his Lew Fonesca mystery novels.) One of the owners is Caren Lobo, the driving force behind the Sarasota Reading Festival, which has become one of the nation’s premier book events in short order. The other owner, her husband Dick Lobo, will soon be taking the helm of Tampa’s WEDU-TV. A testimony to customers’ loyalty was the recent outpouring of support and, more importantly, the huge turnout when the store opened after recovering from a flood. Downtown literally wasn’t the same for a while. 1341 Main St., Sarasota.