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Store of Stories

Do spirits really reside among the stacks at Old Tampa Book Company? 

Few possessions seem to imbibe their previous owner’s personality more than used books. Habits, traits and wear can reveal a wealth of information about readers long after these books change hands.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Old Tampa Book Company — a repository of used and rare books spanning thousands of volumes downtown — should have its own story to tell.

And some of those stories are spookier than others.

“We would turn everything off at night, and in the morning classical music would be playing or a chandelier would be turned on,“ says Carrie Carnes, co-owner of Old Tampa Book Company with her husband Matt Saxon. “I know this place like the back of my hand but still, I don’t like being here alone at night.”

Once, a would-be criminal broke into the store and took nothing, but left pools of blood on the wall and floor in an apparent struggle. While Carnes and her husband treat the rumors and strange occurrences like old family legends, Ellen and David Brown, founders and previous owners of the bookstore, claim historical guides created the stories during tours of the area.

“There were no hauntings,” says Ellen Brown.

According to Brown, the failed criminal broke in through a bathroom adjacent to the store but set off the burglar alarm as soon as he entered. It was the scratching escape through broken glass that led to the blood on the walls and floor.

“It became a great story that the town historical walks made into a haunting story,” she says, “but it was a break-in. It was still pretty weird, though, coming in and finding blood on the floor.”

The Browns opened the bookstore shortly after moving to Tampa from Rochester, New York, in 1992.

Ellen was a prominent curator for art museums who specialized in Native American and Inuit art, while David was a Xerox employee for 28 years and an avid book collector. Though David gave away most of his vast personal collection, the Browns still arrived in Tampa with roughly 4,000 books, some of which were more 400-years-old.

Unready to retire, the Browns opted to turn their collection of books into a bookstore and bought the location at 507 N. Tampa Street. Located in downtown Tampa’s historical district, the store was originally a Richard Bennett Tailor until late 1989, when the owners abandoned the store with everything inside.

“All of his inventory and equipment was there,” says David. “We made a deal with [lease owner] Merrill-Lynch where we would clean out the premises in exchange for three months rent.”

The Browns cleaned out the tailor equipment and textiles, but kept the original tables, shelves and low-slung chairs that still give browsing customers a chance to sit and read.

The couple was running the store full-time when Ellen’s health began to decline, and they met Carrie Carnes. She and her husband took over the store as owners and managers, but the relationship between David and the store continues even though the Browns have relocated to Maryland.

“David volunteers at the libraries here and he’s allowed to ‘acquire’ any books that he thinks Carrie would like to have,” Ellen says. “He sends them to her, and she’s thrilled. You have to understand, this store is important to us, it’s like a treasure that came into our lives and Carrie and David are keeping this treasure going. We’re sad that we had to leave, but it will always be a part of our lives.”

Carnes and Saxon haven’t just kept the store going, they’ve turned it into a community gathering place that now hosts open-mic comedy nights, poetry readings and author chats.

The Old Tampa Book Company

Recently, at a customer’s suggestion, Carnes began the Downtown Book Club in an effort to get fellow book-lovers acquainted with each other.

“When I first started working here, it was very serious and stiff in here, quiet and stuffy,” Carnes says. “Now we have a more comfy atmosphere. It’s not just our bookstore it’s also your bookstore. You can come in and relax, so it’s changed a lot.”

Despite its welcoming atmosphere, Old Tampa Book Company is still a serious spot to acquire signed and first editions of books on a range of topics, from the Civil War to Floridiana and classic literature.

Carnes recently bought a collection of books so large that it occupied two entire homes and required five packed U-Haul vans to move. In the past the store has sold a first-edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, an English dictionary from 1675 once owned by Lord Baden Powell, a copy of James Joyce’s Ulyssess illustrated by Henri Matisse and a copy of Aesop’s Fables from the 16th century.

“There’s such cool stuff, it makes you wonder where has this been for centuries?” Carnes says. “That’s what’s fun about it. You’ll buy a whole bunch of books and as you’re going through them you’ll maybe find a gem or two. It’s like a treasure hunt.”

Like the Browns, Carnes views Old Tampa Book Company as part of the city’s history. “It needs to stay,” she says. And if that includes some restless spirits as customers, then so be it.

“These books are all secondhand,” Carnes adds. “Sometimes I think they might contain the energy of their previous owners.”

Photos courtesy of Old Tampa Bay Book Co. 

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