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How Haslam built his bookstore

A deeply religious man, selling lots of books was not Charles Haslam's only mission in life. His work abroad led to his death.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 9, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- He called himself "a shrewd Yankee trader."

His family knew him as a "sweet, hard-headed Englishman."

But to thousands of readers, Charles Shepard Haslam was simply "the book man."

From the small family business he assumed in 1945, Haslam fashioned Haslam's Book Store, by the late '70s the largest new and used bookstore in the Southeast.

"Buy for a nickel; sell for a dime," was Haslam's creed.

Jim Murphy, 69, a Harper & Row retiree, called the bookseller "a great promoter."

Haslam, a pious man who never smoked, drank or swore, also was a devoted missionary. Church associate Fred Fulford once said Haslam "was known throughout the world as the Lord's worker."

Missionary work ultimately would lead to Haslam's death.

He was born Dec. 16, 1912. The Depression ended his studies at the University of Rhode Island, and he came here in 1932 and met his wife and future business partner while selling shoes at Sears, Roebuck and Co.

"I ran as slow as I could . . . and she caught me," Haslam said of Elizabeth, whom he called "Tibby." They married in 1934 and would have four children.

After ministering in Pensacola and Manatee County in the early 1940s, Haslam established and became voluntary minister and elder of the Pinellas Park Church of Christ. "We first met in a big tent," said Mrs. Haslam, 87.

In his free time, Haslam "played catcher for Cooksey's Funeral Home," Mrs. Haslam recalled. "Once, they taped his mouth shut. He liked to argue with umpires."

Haslam was drafted in 1942 and eventually earned the rank of second lieutenant in the Army's Quartermaster Corps.

In 1945, Haslam and his wife assumed partnership of his parents' 15-foot-wide, 100-foot-deep book exchange at 742 Central Ave. "My crib was in the back of the store," said Andrew Haslam, 48, the couple's son.

Haslam relocated to 730 Central in 1959, expanding his business by 4,000 square feet. Customers will shop a store with a "big pile of books," he said.

In 1964, the business moved to 2025 Central, its present location. Haslam built sales upon the principles that non-fiction outsold fiction 5-to-1 and that women bought 60 percent of his books -- for men.

"There was no stopping (us)," Haslam said.

Soon the St. Petersburg Times was calling the 17,000-square-foot concern "a bookbuyer's and browser's delight, stocked wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling."

Haslam's children also helped spur the business, which today is nearly double its 1964 size. "I started when I was 5," said daughter Suzanne Haslam Hinst, 55. "I straightened comic books and 10-cent paperbacks."

Local author Travis Sherman, 47, said Haslam "knew where every book was in the store."

Michael Slicker, 51, of Lighthouse Books, said Haslam was always "scurrying around the store making sure everything was in place."

Customers were welcome to bring their pets. One lady bought a Bible for her dog, which she claimed was her reincarnated mother. "She ended up in the kooky place," Haslam said.

For 15 years, Haslam reviewed books on WEDU-Ch. 3. He broadcast on WTOG-Ch. 44 for more than a decade, and Charles Haslam the Book Man ran on WSUN radio for 3 years.

Haslam helped found and presided over the Florida-Georgia Booksellers Group. He also was president of the American Booksellers Association. Missionary work also kept Haslam traveling. "They weren't your normal paths of travels," said Haslam's son-in-law, Ray Hinst, 55. "He was once charged by an elephant."

Listeners shouted praises in 1983 when Haslam preached at Malawi, East Africa. As a supreme compliment, one lady raced forward and rolled on the floor near the missionary.

That same year in Tanzania, the Haslams -- who always avoided hotel elegance -- stayed in a camper. A screen was damaged. They were bitten by an anopheles mosquito.

After returning home, they fell ill and were admitted to St. Anthony's Hospital on Sept. 16. Haslam's wife recovered, but he died on Oct. 10 of cerebral malaria. He was 70.

- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at Hartzel@gate.net.

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