From left are Raymond Hinst, owner of Haslam’s; his son Raymond Hinst, Ray Arsneault, a history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg; and Peter Belmont of Preservation St. Petersburg, organizers of Haslam’s 80th anniversary celebration on Dec. 8.
ST. PETERSBURG – Any institution that lasts for 80 years has to be considered an icon in any community. Nowhere better suits that label than Haslam’s Bookstore at 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, which has to be considered an icon for all of Pinellas County.
Haslam’s celebrated its 80th birthday on Dec. 8. One of those present at the festivities was Ray Arsenault, a history professor at USF’s St. Petersburg’s campus. And no one was more pleased to see the store endure than he. Arsenault, 65, can remember Haslam’s as a beacon of light when he first arrived in St. Pete 33 years ago.
“I had been here for maybe a week and was beginning to wonder, my God what have I done? I came from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis which was the largest single campus in the country with 52,000 students,” he said. “I was wondering what the intellectual life was like here, I was wondering what I was going to do to keep myself occupied.”
Then, he said, he discovered Haslam’s.
“I was thunderstruck,” he said. “I was amazed at this wonderful used book store with extraordinary stacks. I thought as long as I had Haslam’s I could stay here forever. It was a great discovery for me. It was my lifeline for the first few weeks I was here.”
The secret to the success of Haslam’s has to be traced to the Haslam family who founded the store 80 years ago. Today it is owned and operated by Raymond Hinst and his wife Suzanne (Haslam) Hinst. Their son Raymond is also involved in the business.
“It has been a family business since 1933. I’m a third generation family owner and my son is the fourth generation,” said Hinst. “We’re fortunate to be able to support the business this long.”
Hinst said he and his family are fully aware of the difficulties of operating a bookstore in this day and age, noting the closure of the large Borders chain of stores.
“Sure it is disconcerting, anytime someone goes out of business it is disconcerting,” he said.
Haslam’s hasn’t stood still during the years. Hinst said in the 40 years he has been involved in the business the store has expanded from 5,000 to 11,000 square feet. He is convinced the future is bright.
“There is always going to be a need for the printed word,” he said. “In 1455 Gutenberg printed the first book, a version of the bible. So for 550 years we have had books. It is the way we’ve communicated, shared knowledge and emotion. We still think there is going to be a place for it.”
Helping celebrate the 80th anniversary is St. Petersburg Preservation, a group founded in the late 1970s and dedicated to preserving history in the city. The group’s president, Peter Belmont, says Haslam’s deserves some type of recognition.
“It really is one of those loved institutions in St. Petersburg,” he said. “We think bookstores are an important part of the community, lots of them have been lost. We’re lucky to have Haslam’s. 80 years is quite an accomplishment.”
Belmont says Haslam’s brings something special to the community.
“The buzzword that is used today is a ‘sense of place.’ Does your town or community have a sense of place? Is there something special about your town or is it just like everywhere else? Haslam’s brings us a sense of place. It brings together what is important in the community,” he said.
USF’s Arsenault says Haslam’s is actually a symbol of St. Petersburg as a whole.
“St. Pete is a very stimulating and diverse place,” he said. “There are a lot of fascinating people here, people who are interested in new ideas and have a kind of civic pride and attachment to the city. St. Petersburg has a vital intellectual life. It is intellectually alive with the people here. It is one of the best kept secrets in the United States and Haslam’s is a symbol of that.”
It is not likely the symbol will be gone anytime soon. With yet another generation of the family already involved in the business Raymond Hinst says the family will soldier on, it takes its responsibility seriously.
“There is an element of a sacred trust in all this,” he said. “We kind of feel the weight of the years, it is not an unpleasant weight, it is an opportunity with a variety of aspects to it,” he said. “Having a family business endure that long has an obligation attached to it.”
Still, you don’t operate a bookstore for 80 years without having some feeling of the product, and Hinst made it clear he loves books, all books.
“New, used and rare,” he said. “We treat them all with equal dignity, from 10 cent paperbacks right on up.”