The 16 months since COVID-19 struck have been hard for independent bookstores, but the owners of three Lakeland shops specializing in used books say they are are ready for a new chapter, eager to move forward and working hard to make Lakeland a destination for bibliophiles.
“If there’s one thing I think that Covid has done (it’s that) people have started reading again,” says Sandi Silverman, owner of The Unbound Bookery used bookstore, located inside Bungalow Boutique at 1026 S. Florida Ave. “I think it’s brought that to the forefront.” (Hours: 10:00am-5:00pm Monday-Saturday)
Silverman reflects on a mother who brought her daughters in looking for poetry and novels from the 1900s.
“There’s just something about those books that have a history to them,” she says. “100 years ago, not everybody could afford books.”
Silverman, whose store includes antique, vintage, collectibles and classics (she says poetry is perhaps her most sought-after), relocated her business from Bartow to its current location in April 2019. Less than a year later, in lieu of foot traffic she found herself delivering books curbside and shipping orders. “That helped me stay afloat,” she says.
She turned to social media, posting several times each day, and also relied on PayPal. “I knew I wasn’t going to make a fortune doing this,” she adds, “but I was able to pay my rent. As long a I was able to pay the rent, I was good.”
Finley and Carmen Walker, owners of Inklings Book Shoppe at 2120 S. Combee Road, purchased the former Book Bazaar and opened under their new name on Jan. 20, 2020. The Inklings/Book Bazaar combo is the oldest independent bookseller in Lakeland, dating back at least 40 years, according to Finley Walker. (Hours: 9:30am-5:30pm Tuesday-Saturday).
“It was really difficult,” Finley Walker says. “We had just started. There’s a lot about starting a business that people don’t know. But we believed in this enough and felt comfortable enough (after) doing the research. We thought barring a global catastrophe (we’d be fine). The irony cut pretty sharp.”
Today, Walker sees an ever-growing need for stores like his and others.
“More people today read physical books than they ever have in history,” he says. “Books are all inclusive; there’s a genre for anyone. A lot of used bookstores closed over the past 20 years, not because of sales but because the owners retired … and there wasn’t anyone to take them over. Most independent bookstores that open up today are much, much smaller because they’re difficult to run.”
Inklings boasts an inventory of roughly 200,000 books, specializing in antique, vintage, collectibles, collections and out-of-print.
“We love books,” Walker adds. “Books are an important part of the community,” citing the importance and impacts of early literacy, libraries, curiosity and imagination. “We believe that these are some of the most important things that exist in humanity. And a love for word and good storytelling.”
Given the opportunity, true bibliophiles will always turn to bricks-and-mortar, according to, Connie Russell, owner of Bookends Used Books, 5100 U.S. Hwy 98 N., Suite #4. After a tough summer, she began to see an uptick in business this past autumn, she said. (Hours: 10:30am-5:30pm Monday, Wednesday-Saturday, 9:30am-4:00pm Tuesday, 10:30am-6:00pm Thursday)
“And it’s just resurged,” she says. “It seems to have come back with a passion. We’re doing very well. A lot of these customers are new to Lakeland,” after their favorite indie bookstores in other cities closed.
Russell shares the story of two teachers from Bradenton who select a different area each month to visit and do their book shopping.
“They said they’d be back in a few months … every few months they get to Lakeland. I have gotten customers now who come from Orlando (because of closings), Winter Haven, Plant City. I do get customers from quite a distance.”
Bookends opened in 2000 and offers more than 125,000 books covering more than 70 genres. Russell says that according to her latest research, only 9% of used book sales are online.
“I think to be good at this business you have to have a sense of extraordinarily customer service,” she says “One of the reasons people don’t go online is because they want this experience. They want that personal one-on-one.
“What is wonderful to me, my favorite thing, is that I’m getting more and more young adults. I think used bookstores are going to continue to flourish, to keep growing as long as you remember that this is not a business you get into to make lot of money. I don’t see used bookstores going away.”