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Serendipity amid the mess

A used-book dealer that's more barn than noble offers enlightenment between the covers.

By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002


SEMINOLE -- It's not exactly bustling this time of year. No gift wrapping, latte or leather couches like the chain bookstores have.

What you will find at Seminole Books is disarray: rows and rows of used books squeezed on shelves, piled on chairs and packed in boxes. A musty smell lingers.

"We've found that people enjoy a bookstore that is not too neat because it's more like a treasure hunt," said Colleen Wilhite, 51, who owns the store with her husband Virgil, 61.

Used books have been sold at the large wooden building at 8701 Seminole Blvd. for more than a quarter of a century. Most people know of the Porpoise Pub, which shares the building. But for some folks, the shop is a recent discovery.

"We have people coming in all the time saying I never knew there was a bookstore here," Colleen Wilhite said.

The inventory totals 65,000 books: 50,000 hardcovers and 15,000 paperbacks. The stock also includes magazines and sheet music.

"It's a mess," admits Virgil Wilhite. "Most people get overwhelmed when they walk in."

There are books on romance, art, gambling, wars, sports, politicians, history and health. "Yeah, we do have a little order here; I'm surprised," Colleen Wilhite said.

Some books are decades old; others are relatively new. They cost from $5 to $500.

There is Sing Mother Goose, a collection of nursery rhymes published in 1945; The Making of the African Queen, written in 1987 by Katharine Hepburn; and a 1942 edition ofCross Creek that once belonged to the Long Beach (Calif.) Public Library.

"You never know what you're going to find," said Michael Bryan, director of Seminole Community Library. "That's the key attraction for me. There's just not that same kind of pleasure in a Borders. I love going to places like that too, but it's just a different kind of experience."

Bryan hasn't visited the bookstore in years, but he worked for the shop years ago when Tom Brasser owned it. Brasser hired him to operate the store's bookstand at the Wagon Wheel Flea Market in Pinellas Park.

The Wilhites bought the shop about three years ago. They owned a bookstore in downtown Clearwater in the 1990s before opening Seminole Books, which is a member of the Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association.

The couple wanted a bigger store that could hold more books, Colleen Wilhite said. With the Internet, the larger the stock, the more books can be sold and shipped.

"The emphasis tends to more on entering the books online," Colleen Wilhite said. "To reach the most people, that's become the best way for used-book dealers."

About 90 percent of the store's business is from Internet sales, she said. About 18,000 books have been logged into the store's computer, she said.

A print dealer in Atlanta recently paid $1,000 for a 1830s hand-colored atlas that was part of the store's Internet inventory, Colleen Wilhite said.

Although many people use the Internet to buy used books nowadays, some folks remain traditionalists.

"They still like the feel of the book," Virgil Wilhite said.

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