David Brown has loved books since he was a little boy, and he's in his happy place at the Old Tampa Book Company he created in downtown Tampa.
His mother used to tell him he had two choices on certain days: Help out with chores or go across the street to the library. A love affair with books was born and has only grown stronger over time.
Brown, 82, and his wife, Ellen, 80, have run the Old Tampa Book Company
for more than two decades, but it wasn’t part of their life plan.
As a businessman for Xerox in Rochester, N.Y. in the early ‘90s, he found himself downsized and up for a change. He came to the Tampa Bay area after a friend invited him to join his firm, but it wasn’t a good fit. “After awhile, I started thinking -- I had more than 4,000 books in storage, a part of my own collection.”
He says this as if it’s the norm to have 4,000 books in storage. A little prodding, and he concedes that he’s a bit of a book fiend.
Ellen, who once ran an art gallery, had the business background and the people skills. So the couple made a great partnership for the store, which they set up with the help of a partner who was briefly a part of things.
His retirement funds allowed them to have more flexibility in running the business, he says – they had fairly low overhead with low rent and no employees initially. Other businesses have come and gone in the area as the economy changed and the downtown area also transitioned. But the store held steadfast, he says.
Saying goodbye won’t be easy
Ellen Brown says the store is such a part of her life she is nostalgically emotional about leaving at the end of April – and moving back up North to be near their daughter and grandchildren. But it has been quite a ride, she says.
They were perfectly suited to run a bookstore, as it turned out. “David is the book man,” she says. “Finding the books, caring for the books, cleaning the books, keeping the books and looking for more books – he has an insatiable appetite for finding books.”
She was the one who connected with the cast of characters that made up their customer group. “I am a people person,” she says. She did not have to talk with people long to make a connection, and help them find what they were looking for among the piles of books of many shapes and sizes and types.
She was also the one who ran the store’s finances, and when she found herself facing health challenges – David faced running the store without her help. It was too much, she says.
And so plans were made to turn the store over to Carrie Carnes, 30, who’s worked at the store nearly five years. All involved seem congenially connected in the quest to make the handover a positive one.
And Carnes, also a self-proclaimed book fiend, has fallen into the role of owner-to-be with grace – and a bit of kismet. She and her husband, Matt Saxon, are already immersed in the business and prepared to take over the stacks of books and quirky customers that make up the Old Tampa Book Company
Much in the way that Brown wound up owning and operating a bookstore, the process that led to the passing of the torch onto a new owner seems like providence.
But if the transition had followed a well-planned script, it would not have seemed like part of the store’s special, eclectic “brand.”
Carnes says she will miss the Browns, who have mentored her and been her friends. But she is honored to pick up the mantle and run with it.
“Ellen and David have changed and bettered my life in so many ways,” she says. “Life is full of weird and wonderful moments. Four-and-a-half years ago was the start of this incredible journey, which has led me to now owning this beautiful store.”
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – a trite but true fact – and if you love books, it’s likely you will agree with Carnes. The store is downtown on North Tampa Street, a short distance from an Indigo Coffee
at East Twiggs and Tampa Street.
Carnes was working at a coffee shop when she met the couple; they were customers. They invited her to come work at the store part-time to list books for sale online – a way the store sells about half its books. It was a good match. “I look back on that moment as such a key turning point in my life. And that is more apparent now than ever,” she says.
David Brown says Carnes has started some trendy new ventures, such as open mic events and lots of social media twists.
Carnes says the friendship has been great for all.
“Ellen has said to me that I saved the store when she got sick and David had to take care of her, and I just did whatever needed to be done to keep the place running,” Carnes says. “But in reality, Ellen saved me years ago when she asked me to come work for them. I don't know what my life would be today if I had not met these two incredible individuals.”
And they clearly share affection for the Old Tampa Book Company. The Browns asked Carnes if she wanted to take over, and it did not take her long to make up her mind. “I love this store. I love and care deeply for David and Ellen as well. I wanted to continue on with this tradition and their legacy.’’
The next chapters should be good ones
“I hope to do them and their legacy honor. Keep their traditions alive, and add a few of my own -- such as our Poetry and Music nights, more author chats and extended hours. I want to cater completely to any and all of the would-be guests and long-time regulars of the bookstore,” she says.
David Brown says it will be a mixed bag of emotions to leave the store, but he knows books will always be a part of his life. The couple has lined up a place to live that will allow them to transition in the next phase of their lives, and it’s a nice place.
It’s also right across the street from a public library.
Mary Toothman, an independent journalist writing her way around the Tampa Bay region, lives in Lakeland with a boxer and a rescue Chihuahua. She can often be found at a nearby Starbucks, and has a passion for old books. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
Old Tampa Book Company
507 North Tampa Street
Tampa, FL 33602-4805
Monday through Friday, 10 am to 5 pm
Saturday, 11 am to 5 pm