Sticking around in the South, this month for our spotlight on independent bookstores, we took a trip to Tombolo Books in the tropical heart of St. Petersburg, Florida’s Grand Central District. First operating as a pop-up in Tampa before setting its roots down in St. Pete, Tombolo’s bookshelves are lined from floor to ceiling with a wide selection of works stemming from those found in its children’s reading nook to new releases peeking through the front windows. We sat down with Tombolo’s founder Alsace Walentine and co-owner Candice Anderson to discuss Tombolo’s history, the origin of its name, new and old traditions and memories, and more—find the full interview below!
Three Rooms Press, 3RP: Starting at the beginning, how did Tombolo Books get its roots? Tell me a little about the history of the store itself, and how you got it started—when was the idea born, and what sorts of books do you typically carry?
Tombolo Books, TB: Tombolo Books’ roots go back to Malaprop’s Bookstore & Cafe in Asheville, NC where owner Alsace Walentine got her start as a bookseller. She worked at Malaprop’s for over 16 years in a number of roles including weekday manager and author events coordinator. Malaprop’s is not only where Alsace learned her chops as a bookseller, but is also where she developed her passion for the independent bookselling culture and community as a whole. In 2015 Alsace moved to St. Petersburg, FL, to join her wife, Candice. St. Pete is a fast growing, arts and local business oriented city where Alsace and Candice saw the need and potential for a new progressively minded independent bookstore.
The inventory mix is broad and carefully curated to match the interests of St. Pete—we sell exclusively new books covering all genres, including a relatively large children’s section, Florida fiction and non-fiction, and titles from independent publishers.
3RP: What about the name Tombolo? Where did it come from, and how did you know it would be a good fit?
TB: Great question! We spent many months considering different names for the bookstore—and of course all of our friends had great ideas to throw in the hat. But ultimately we wanted the bookstore to reflect our new home on the Gulf Coast without being too “beachy.” We started reading about coastal geography terms and came across “tombolo”: a land bridge connecting an island to the mainland. It was a classic “aha” moment. It connects to the mission of indie bookstores—connecting people to authors, creating bridges between communities and identities, bringing people out of isolation, but also the word itself feels playful and open with all those round letters.
3RP: How does Tombolo interact with the greater St. Pete area, and how would you describe the community within Tombolo itself?
TB: Tombolo Books was a roving pop-up for 3 years before we located our bricks-and-mortar home in December 2019. During that time, Alsace made great connections all around the city of St. Pete and even a few across the bridge in Tampa. She set up at outdoor arts festivals, book festivals, lecture halls, galleries, churches, schools—you name it and we were there. Since then we’ve continued to develop those relationships through our events programming—we were waylaid by the pandemic but are looking forward to jumpstarting that again as soon as we can.
We have a great team of booksellers. We currently have 5 incredible folks on staff in addition to Alsace and Candice. Besides having a lot of different interests as readers, our booksellers bring so much creativity, curiosity, and genuine love for bookselling through the door every day.
3RP: Tombolo also has quite an extensive book club network, with clubs for all topics and genres ranging from crime travel and horror, to anti-racism and social justice, to celebrating Florida authors in the Gabber Book Club—how did they begin? What’s been your favorite part of creating and hosting so many diverse clubs for every kind of reader to find their niche?
TB: Going back to your previous question, book clubs are just another way for Tombolo to interact with St. Pete and to reflect the interests of our customers and booksellers. A few of our book clubs like Horror and Social Justice were started by customers who approached us. Others, like Crime Travel and the Fantasy book club were started by booksellers based on their interests. We have also done some book clubs in partnerships with local businesses and organizations—the Gulfport Gabber Book Club is an example of that. The fun part has been watching how they took off during the pandemic—almost every one of our clubs started since the spring of 2020 and meet on Zoom. It has really affirmed our belief in bookstores as a place where people seek out connection.
3RP: In light of the pandemic, how has Tombolo adapted to the challenges of COVID? Any new traditions, or any old ones now coming back to life?
TB: We have done a lot of things to adapt during COVID. Frankly, since we had only been open as a bricks-and-mortar for 3 months prior to the stay at home order, we were still adapting every day to our new home. Our staff were still learning the ropes, so we all just started training together on new unplanned procedures like appointment shopping, downtown deliveries, curbside pickups, mask policies, Zoom events, etc.
What we cautiously see coming back to life is our in person events programming. It’s a big part of our vision for the bookstore and the first thing we had to give up for COVID safety. We have a large outdoor courtyard area where we can set up a small stage and do in person author events. We’ve held a few events there this summer and we’re experimenting with hybrid in-person/live streamed events.
3RP: What’s been your favorite memory of Tombolo since it opened its doors in December 2019, or earlier when it was operating as a pop-up in Tampa?
TB: Well, we will never forget our first pop-up at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading at USF St. Pete—it was our first time sharing our name and vision with some of the most avid readers in the Tampa Bay area and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Similarly, our first author event at the bricks-and-mortar with local author Sterling Watson—it was standing room only with people spilling out into the street. After all the years of work to open the store, it was a real reward to see that response.
Finally, a few weeks into the COVID shutdown, Alsace started making contact-free deliveries to people’s homes on her bicycle. More than once, she would be pedaling along on her green cruiser and have folks shout out from their yards or cars—”Hey, it’s the book lady! Thank you!”
3RP: Lastly, what are some ways to get involved and support Tombolo Books?
TB: Wow, thank you! Well, please follow us on all your social media platforms @tombolobooks and visit our website tombolobooks.com where you can sign up for our newsletter, virtual events, and browse our webstore. We ship everywhere USPS delivers. Heading into the holidays, we like to remind folks they can buy gift cards if they get pressed for time or ideas. If you’re an audiobook fan, sign up for LibroFM and tag us as your indie bookstore—we’ll get some proceeds from your purchases. Finally, just support your local indie bookstore wherever you are. Being located in a vacation destination, we see folks from all over the country and we always ask them—who is your local indie bookstore? We are a tight knit industry and we love to hear the names of all our indie bookstore friends. We love to know that all around the country people are making the choice to shop local.