Yesterday, I was driving through St. Pete’s to meet a friend who had, by some strange twist of fate, ended up with my driver’s license the night before. Since I had a plane to catch the next day back to Pennsylvania and I needed my ID, I didn’t have much of a choice but to meet up for lunch to get it back.
On the way though, as I was driving to meet my friend, I passed a building with “Haslam’s Book Store” modestly painted onto a simple white sign. Since I was in need of a book for my upcoming three hour layover in Detroit, I pulled over - not knowing anything about it other than it boasted having an inventory of 300,000 used and new books and was apparently the largest bookstore in Florida.
Indeed, the inside was impressive. Still owned and operated by the family that opened it back in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, it had a wide variety of all sorts of books new and old. Behind enclosed glass cases were first editions, signed copies, and antiques. The decor was dated, but not off-putting. The owner’s two cats walked freely throughout the store. Locals browsed quietly.
And as I came to find out how the local lore goes, in the last years of Jack Kerouac’s life before he died of liver failure while he was living in St. Pete’s, he used to frequently come into the store to browse. It was rare that he made a purchase, but he would often rearrange his own books on the shelves so that they were eye-level and easy to find - much to the displeasure of the current owner’s grandfather, who asked him repeatedly to stop taking the books out of alphabetical order.
I found myself in a conversation with another customer, an older man in a cut-off t-shirt with whispy white hair and stubble. He had lived in St. Pete’s all his life.
“So, really, this Kerouac story - how true is it?” I asked, still skeptical of the story, despite appreciating the sentiments behind the possible myth.
“Oh, yes, yes, it’s true enough,” he said. “I didn’t know him. Most people didn’t know him. But he was always around, always walking somewhere around town. There was this bar just down the street, he was there about every night. Me and my buddies always saw him there. Of course, I knew that he was a writer, but I didn’t know much else about him at that time. He kept to himself mostly, but he had a temper too. We even saw him get in a fistfight one night.”
I nodded, wondering if this was all a part of the myth - did everyone who lived here have a personal story about Jack? - and then realizing that it didn’t even matter. Truth or not, it was real.
“It was a while different world then,” the old man said and his voice trailed off. “Boy, it was a different world.”
We talked a little longer. After a bit, I continued perusing until I picked out a used book for my travels, gave one of the cat’s a goodbye petting, and made my purchase. Then I went on to retrieve my license, book in tow.