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With History And Charm, Oldest Bookstores In North Florida Endure

By on October 21st, 2013
 

It’s a labyrinth of information, a relic of time.

Its backbone is built from wooden shelves that hold organized volumes, spines facing forward in attention. Its voice sings like a wind chime and its heart is pumped by devotion. Like all things that have aged, it has the charm of a time forgotten and the comfort of the modern.

And as one of the last in a dying breed, it has surpassed its life expectancy.

Now in its 30th year, Book Gallery West has survived the onslaught of the digital age. So far.

It was 1983 when the bookstore came onto the Gainesville landscape.

It was a year of unseasonal highs — 97 degrees in August — and unseasonal lows — 16 degrees in December. A gallon of regular gas cost $1.24. That year, the Gators ranked third in the Southeastern Conference and pummeled Florida State University, 53-14.

As the years passed, Book Gallery West owners watched as other bookstores came and went. The original Book Gallery, a textbook store, closed in 1995 after 16 years in operation.

Words found a new home in pixels rather than pages.

Today, a white decal celebrating the bookstore’s birthday greets customers as they come in. A gator with three balloons tied to its tail stands next to a sign that reads: “30th ANNIVERSARY 1983-2013.”

Inside, the store is divided: the left houses books, the right caters to new demands: cards, mugs, clocks and more knick knacks. Modern readers like their gifts, too.

Owner Jan Fronk, 67, divides her time between meticulously organizing every imperfectly aligned book cover and guiding customers, many of whom she knows from years of running the store.

Fronk came to Book Gallery West in May 2004 when she inherited some money and decided to leave behind her 25-year career as a social worker and start anew.

“It just occurred to me to ask the owner if she’d like to sell her store,” she said. “It was a crazy idea, but hey, I’m a little crazy.”

The answer was no.

Then, Fronk received a call back. The owner reconsidered. Nine months later, Book Gallery West had a new owner.

“I never had a job like this where it’s fun to come to work and it feels good every day to be here,” Fronk said.

She isn’t sure what the secret recipe is that has contributed to the store’s prolific life, though she does have a hunch.

“The concept of the third place,” she said. “There’s home, there’s work and there’s the third place. Where do you go? And Book Gallery West just happens to be one of the best little third places there are.”

Outside the store, 81-year-old former cardiothoracic surgeon Rodrigo Quintana remembered standing in the same spot years ago, when Book Gallery West gifted him with a rare find.

Standing by the rolling outdoor bookshelf, a younger Quintana saw Fronk come outside and place a few more books on the shelf.

Among them was a treasure — a decade-old Canadian cuisine book.

“Sometimes you find books that are now out of print that you can’t find in other bookstores,” Quintana said. “For me, it’s a trip of discovery.”

Inside Book Gallery West’s double glass doors, for three decades, customers have discovered. They have traded their used books for new stories. They have asked Fronk to wrap a girlfriend’s present or tried the assorted natural fruit spreads made for the store by the House of Webster in Rogers, Ark. Book club meetings occupied the mosaic tile tables in the back, the same tables that during the day held the contemplative, who sat and watched time go by.

“It’s just stood the test of time,” Fronk said.

Last of a dying breed

The oldest bookstores in North Central Florida appear as scattered pins on a map.

Bradford, Union and Gilchrist counties don’t even have one, much less one of the eldest.

On Florida’s west coast, about 65 miles from Book Gallery West, is Poe House Books, the last bookstore in Citrus County.

On the façade, a sign entices, “Come in for a spell.” Creaking under the weight of customer footsteps, floorboards threaten to collapse under the mounds of books.

Its allure is personified by the poet who lends it a name.

In organized disarray, books fill shelves from floor to ceiling. There are books stacked on tables, on chairs, in boxes, on a kitchen sink and on a dining table. Plastic-wrapped volumes from the 1800s mingle with the latest mystery thriller.

The same rooms were once home to Serenity Funeral Home Incorporated.

A tiled room in the rear remains a remnant of the funeral home’s prep room.

“One man came in once, and he said his grandfather had been laid out here,” owner Kathleen Ballo said. “He didn’t like to come in. He came in twice and I never saw him again.

“A psychopath alcoholic and a funeral home fit perfectly.”

If that isn’t enough to spook customers, a cardboard cutout of Edgar Allen Poe watches from the end of the narrow hall that bisects the shop. The hall’s wall is lined with reproductions of letters Poe wrote to his girlfriend.

The largest room in the back, left of Poe House’s cardboard guardian, was once the stage for a library scene. Gary Burghoff, the actor who played Radar on the 70s TV series MASH, starred in a small-budget 2010 Christian film, Daniel’s Lot, which inhabited the store for two nights.

Originally called Book Nook, Ballo took over the store in 2003 and changed the name to Poe House Books in admiration of the poet. The years have muddled and she can’t recall how long it was open before she became owner and worked as an employee. She has been working at the store for at least 18 years.

Poe House is now the solitary bricks and mortar book provider for more than 140,000 Citrus County residents.

“I’m not really sure why we’ve hung on so long,” said Ballo, 62. “We all used to send back and forth, ‘Well if we don’t have it, let me call Rainy Days in Inverness and see if they have it or let me call Georgia in Dunnellon to see if they have it.’

“And they’re gone. I don’t think it’s good for the community to only have one bookstore, but that’s another story.”

Through faith

Forty miles east, faith has kept the eldest bookstore in North Central Florida alive.

Rainbow Bible & Book Store in Belleview balances books and a Christian faith. Soft and subdued, Christian books fill half its shelves, Christian music lines the back wall, a piano invites customers to play, and a sign advertises praise banners.

It’s a life owed to an idea lodged in owner Debra Read’s head thirty three years ago.

“I felt like I was being guided in the summer of 1980 by God to quit my job and open the bookstore,” she said.

The coincidences that followed could make one a believer.

A month before opening, Read met a pastor who had bought out a Christian bookstore out of state and offered to sell her his stock at a large discount.

A knock at the door a few weeks later brought even more stock, from a woman who had owned a Christian bookstore in North Carolina. She offered her inventory at a discount.

By November 1980, the store had only one new item in stock: Christian Living Magazine.

“It was like God handed us a Christian bookstore kit and said, ‘Here it is, go to it,” she said.

If Rainbow Bible & Book Store is the quiet Christian giant south of Gainesville, Paxon Discount Christian Books & Gifts is its loud cousin from the north.

Paxon is a warehouse; every surface is covered with trinkets, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, purity rings, house items, CDs, purses, shoes, T-shirts, frames and, of course, books.

Its personality is a mix of a strong Christian faith and an affinity for teen girl accessories, pink faux leather purses, rubber watches and all.

Just on the outskirts of Duval County, a child grew up inside.

Abby Jones was 11 years old when she took her spot behind the cash register at her father’s business.

A customer once asked if she was too young to be working Steve Dobbs’ register.

“And I said, you know, no, I’m 11,” she recalls. “Because you know, when you’re 11, you think you’re so grown.”

At 41, Jones is still running the register, her spot for thirty years.

Paxon’s even spawned a sister store in Orange Park, which opened in 1997.

“There’s people that come in who are hurting and need somebody to encourage them and we do that a lot. It’s rewarding,” Jones said.

The store is an extension of the family’s faith.

“We treat it as a ministry, we don’t just treat it as a business and we think that because we put God first in that way that that’s why we’ve lasted as long as we have,” she said.

Through perseverance

Others should thank their stubbornness.

Sunshine Books in Orange Park  has quietly made it through, giving signs of a dying industry the silent treatment.

A peeling store façade says simply, “Book Store.”

Wooden shelves slice through the room, a sea of colorful book spines. It doesn’t boast. It’s simple. Used books for modest prices. A few toys, records and CDs too, but mostly books.

Sunshine streams through the glass windows and creeps into the isles, just barely reaching the back of the store.

It was Florida’s sunshine that beckoned Wales native Katherine Ouellette, 56, and her husband, Ray, to open Sunshine Books in 1991.

The lifetime readers gave up making signs and made a business from their books, watching customers grow up in 22 years of business.

“We’ve seen a lot of people growing up and kids coming in here, we still see them around,” Oullette said in a characteristic soft voice.

When times indicated at economic decline, she chose to stay with her store.

“Just determination I think … because this is something we wanted to do,” she said.

That same stubbornness born from a love of books has kept Hungarian native O.J. Brisky in the word business.

O. Brisky Books has sat for 20 years among the cicadas and trees on Micanopy’s Cholokka Boulevard, just 15 minutes outside Gainesville.

It’s the scholarly grandfather of the area’s bookstores with walls lined with varying floral wallpapers. Residing in a land locked in time, its rooms offer glimpses at Life magazine covers and books tilted inside vintage wooden apple crates.

Notes line the walls, and a glass counter displays vintage Florida books and glass doorknobs. A functioning black dial pay phone is its ear for customers.

It’s all age and charm, much like its home town and owner.

Brisky, a former reporter and editor, left a job at the New Port Richie Press to pursue books — a lot of them. He opened his first store in New Orleans in the late 1960s, followed by a store in Holiday, Fla., another in Tarpon Springs, and finally his current store that he managed alongside a Book Barn store in Macintosh before closing it about eight years ago.

The 71-year-old sat, welcoming customers in a red chair at the store’s entrance on an October Sunday afternoon reading “Abandon Ship!” by Richard Newcomb. In two full hours, two groups of customers entered the store — a couple and a family from Ocala.

“I’ve always worked in dying businesses,” he jokes.

But given the choice, he wouldn’t choose anything else.

“I’ve done it for 30, 40 years, and it doesn’t grow old,” Brisky said. “There’s always folks that I see for the first time. It’s satisfying.

“This is what I like to do.”


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  • Manny

    What a great read, full of character!!

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