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Balancing the books

The owners of an independent bookstore have successfully combined their talents for more than a decade.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002


OSCAWANA -- Tampa's top independent bookstore has gotten so popular, people are kicking down doors to get in.

Well, not exactly. But there is a shoebox-sized hole worn in the back door of Inkwood Books, leaving the distinct impression that a passionate bookworm couldn't wait another minute.

Leslie Reiner points it out as her co-owner, Carla Jimenez, arrives in the shop one afternoon. Neither seems too worried.

"It's not like the place is falling apart," Jimenez says of the converted 1920s home. "It's an old building, but that's part of the charm."

Reiner and Jimenez have been polishing that charm for nearly 11 years at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave.

Any English lit major worth a dog-eared Ulysses has made at least one pilgrimage to Inkwood. The draw: an esoteric selection, from children's books to graphic novels, and an eye-popping roster of in-store appearances from such luminaries as Dave Barry, Emeril Lagasse, Ralph Nader, Andy Rooney and Carl Hiassen.

Separating the owners from the store isn't easy -- "Where do we end and it begins?" Jimenez muses -- primarily because of how much of themselves the owners pour into Inkwood's existence.

Every book on the shelf was hand-picked and ordered by Jimenez or Reiner. The two can offer recommendations to customers at the drop of a hat.

The store straddles the duo's complementary personalities.

Jimenez, the entrepreneur, is quick with a pitch: "I always tell people, if you just get here once, I know you're going to come back," she says. Her investments of time and money helped get the store off the ground in 1991, and her background as a lawyer provided an element of practicality.

Soft-spoken Reiner has the literary background. Nearly every other shelf contains at least one book labeled "Leslie Recommends."

For the longest time, Reiner wasn't sure what she wanted to do. She has enough diplomas to wallpaper an office: from Northwestern University, a bachelor's in history and literature of religion and a master's in counseling; from the University of South Florida, a nursing degree and a master's in public health. "I did three days of law school," she adds for good measure.

But one busy Christmas season, her favorite independent bookstore, Hyde Park Book Shop, needed help. Reiner volunteered.

Eventually, the shop was put up for sale. A newspaper article mentioned that an employee, Reiner, was thinking about buying it, lacking only a partner.

Enter Jimenez, weary of her job as a USF lawyer. Fittingly, her independence came after she worked an entire July 4 weekend. When she got home, she told her husband she wanted to quit.

Reiner and Jimenez had already met on a camping trip organized by a mutual friend. When Jimenez saw the news article, she called Reiner.

Jimenez says she "knew enough about that business to know that Leslie was the good will of that business, that if I got Leslie, I got the precious part of that business."

Instead of buying an old bookstore, they opted to start a new one. Together, they took classes and seminars in business management and bookselling.

Says Reiner: "The thing they said first off is, 'Don't have a partner. Don't do anything with a partner. You'll ruin your friendship. You'll ruin your business.' "

"And no matter what, if you have to have another person, don't let it be 50-50," Jimenez adds.

So much for the formula. "We've broken all those rules," Reiner says.

To some, their lives appear impossibly romantic -- open a small shop, read books all day, get to know your customers on a first-name basis.

"We still have customers that come in and say, 'Oh, you have my ideal job,' " Jimenez says.

Some yearn for stores of their own. "Usually when people hear how little you make . . ." Reiner begins.

". . . they change their mind," Jimenez finishes.

Inkwood turns a tidy profit. But during the mid 1990s, when enormous booksellers like Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon.com quashed many independent bookstores, Reiner and Jimenez had to sit down and face their future.

"We certainly did get hit hard by the chains, and we do, even now, feel their presence," Reiner says. "We had a long, soul-searching meeting and decided we had to lower our expectations, that the growth we were having was not going to continue at that pace."

Reiner and Jimenez learned to adapt. They've managed to stay afloat.

At the moment, the worn-out back door isn't as pressing as the mounds of new books waiting to be shelved.

Books keep coming, and so, thankfully, do the rewards of small business.

"I feel like without a doubt, I've got one of the most fulfilling jobs around," Reiner says. "We have so much fun."

- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 226-3374 or cridlin@sptimes.com.

Leslie Reiner

  • AGE: 48
  • FAMILY: Husband Tony Kriseman, a pediatric pulmonologist; daughters Ellie, 12, and Lydia, 5
  • CURRENT FAVORITE BOOK: Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger
  • CURRENT FAVORITE AUTHOR: Mystery writer George Pelecanos
  • LAST BOOK READ: Easter Island, by Jennifer Vanderbes, due in January
  • SOME OF LESLIE'S PICKS: Last Days of the Dog-Men, by Brad Watson; Atonement, by Ian McEwan; To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; July, July, by Tim O'Brien; The Last Uncle, by Linda Pastan

Carla Jimenez

  • AGE: 48
  • FAMILY: Husband Jim Freeman, a trial lawyer; dog Lucky Girl, a Havanese
  • CURRENT FAVORITE BOOK: I Thought My Father Was God: And Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project, edited by Paul Auster
  • CURRENT FAVORITE AUTHOR: Suspense writer Dennis Lehane
  • CURRENTLY READING: Comfortable With Uncertainty, by Pema Chodron.
  • SOME OF CARLA'S PICKS: Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser; Accidents in the Home, by Tessa Hadley; The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen; The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver; The Church of Dead Girls, by Stephen Dobyns

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