In 1976, Ron Chamblin started a bookstore with 15 boxes of books salvaged from a fire. Four decades later, Chamblin’s Books has between three-and-a-half and four million books packed into more than 54,000 square feet, including 33,000 square feet of retail space between Chamblin Bookmine proper — the flagship store — at 4551 Roosevelt Blvd. and Chamblin’s Uptown at 215 N. Laura St.
To offer some perspective, Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, one of that
city’s proudest cultural institutions, calls itself the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. Its inventory is four million books in 68,000 square feet of retail space.
The 40th anniversary of Chamblin’s Books demands an appropriately big celebration. So, from 7 to 10 p.m., on Saturday, July 23, Laura Street will be closed between Hemming Park and West Adams Street, in front of Chamblin’s Uptown. It’s a block party. Someone, perhaps yours truly, will have written a book about the intense quiet man behind the stores’ growth and operations.
Chamblin’s is unequivocally Jacksonville’s literary headquarters. If you want to find the new issues of Bridge Eight and Perversion magazines, or new books by local writers Heather Peters, Teri Youmans Grimm, or Johnny Masiulewicz, you head to Chamblin’s. Local noir novelist Michael Wiley has held release parties for all six of his books at Chamblin’s Uptown.
The fanfare and local love for the spot isn’t just because Chamblin’s is the largest independent bookstore in the Southeast, but because Chamblin’s has encouraged and supported countless writers, artists, and curious readers for four decades.
Ron Chamblin never intended for the business to develop into something so large.
To make the store work, he worked — all day, every day. He sees that dedication as necessary to any business enterprise.
“You have to exert so much energy and creativity just to survive, and when you feel that truth, a whole new thing takes over, and exertion becomes exhilaration.”
Chamblin turned 74 in April, but he hasn’t slacked off at all.
He’s currently renovating the three-story building adjacent to Chamblin’s Uptown. The two top floors will be apartments that overlook Hemming Park; the ground floor will contain literary performance space and offer the works of local writers.
In a recent email he sent me at 2:18 a.m., Chamblin explained his ability to accomplish more than most.
“It’s after midnight, and I’ve slept already,” he writes, “I must admit that my determination to build the operation has overcome my sense of priority to the degree that I’ve destroyed four marriages and perhaps some friendships along the way. I’ve sensed all along that nobody had better get in the way of the bookstore, not even me.”
Before Chamblin Bookmine, there was Crawford Bookmine.
Cy Crawford was an eccentric man who began selling books in the late 1950s. In the early 1960s, “Cy Crawford, Books” operated from a ramshackle Victorian mansion on Riverside Avenue where the Florida Blue building stands today. By 1965, the bookshop was listed as “Crawford Bookmine” and known informally as “Red Buddha.”
Curious young people frequented Red Buddha, which took its name from a statue in the front entrance. Some spoke of a “beatnik atmosphere.”
Crawford then housed his Bookmine in two of his own homes in the Lakeshore neighborhood; by the time Ron Chamblin started paying regular nightly visits, Crawford was looking for an heir. After a fire ravaged his house and shop on Shirley Avenue, Crawford sold his business to Ron Chamblin for $7,500. Ron reopened his newly renamed Chamblin Bookmine at 4148 Herschel St. the summer of America’s Bicentennial.
Realizing that this new enterprise was all or nothing, he gave up selling motorcycles and attending college part-time. Also, he’d been searching all his adult life for a “Project Liberation.”
He describes it this way:
“I knew that eventually I must liberate myself from this low-wage, low-opportunity, low-everything system, even though I was writing sophisticated technical manuals for Northrop Grumman, I knew I was still trapped. And I know millions of people feel this way. They search for a vehicle to liberate themselves from this … this … well, this semi-slavery, this drudgery
He’d felt imprisoned during high school, partly because his father was an abusive alcoholic, and so he traded one jailer for another and joined the military, where his first stop was boot camp. When he left the Navy in 1964, he burned his uniform in the mountains outside San Francisco and rode his motorcycle across the continent to his hometown of Jacksonville.
In 1976, Project Liberation birthed Chamblin Bookmine.
A WELLSPRING OF MEMORIES
Most booklovers in Northeast Florida have a Chamblin’s Books story. In 1990, when I was 16 years old, I stole a book from Chamblin Bookmine. I made my getaway in my father’s 1984 zigzag-striped Toyota van. Ron Chamblin chased me down in traffic, miles away, called me an asshole, and took back his book.
When Chamblin pounded on my window at a stoplight, I rolled the window down and handed him the copy of Manson in His Own Words, feeling terribly ashamed.
UNF English professor Joe Flowers recalls how, when he was younger, Chamblin pronounced him dead.
Flowers had religiously read the works of Richard Brautigan until Ron Chamblin told him at the register of Brautigan’s suicide. The same thing happened with Jerzy Kosiński’s novels.
Even as he wounded him with knowledge of his favorite authors’ demises, Flowers says Chamblin was kind and conversational, even showing the 20-year-old Flowers an airplane he was building in back of the Bookmine.
Still, Flowers says, “I’d learned to spare the writers I liked by having someone else check me out at the counter.”
Later, after a traumatic car accident, so many people wondered aloud how Flowers could be alive that he, too, began to question his existence. One day during his recovery, he strolled into Chamblin Bookmine, and Chamblin said, “I thought you weren’t around anymore.”
For a long strange moment, Flowers felt sure that he was dead. Then Chamblin said he’d heard he was teaching English as a Foreign Language somewhere in the Middle East.
A PLACE TO CALL HOME
In 2001, Chamblin had a handsome, two-story riverfront house built in the wealthy Clay County enclave of Fleming Island. Balconies stretch both stories, front and back, but the book stores were his home.
He’d built himself an apartment in the back of Chamblin Book’s third and largest consecutive location on Roosevelt Boulevard in the 1990s, where he moved partly to escape living with the poet Alan Justiss, who’d painted the new store and whom Chamblin had known in elementary school.
Justiss was down on his luck — as he’d always been. Chamblin says one of Justiss’ favorite memories was being tossed in the drunk tank with the prolific underground writer Charles Bukowski. Chamblin let Justiss live in the former Chamblin family home on the rural Westside. Justiss stayed awake writing and drinking all night, every night — and never paid rent.
One night in 1996, as a former Orlando cop broke through the front windows of Chamblin Bookmine to pilfer the registers, Chamblin emerged, completely nude, from his apartment in the back, and confronted the burglar with a shotgun.
In 2007, when Chamblin’s employee Jennifer O’Donnell endured a brutal divorce, Chamblin told her he was building apartments in the back of his new Downtown store, and that if she needed a place to stay, she had one.
“I just cried,” says O’Donnell, who now manages Chamblin’s Uptown, “I’m standing there like an idiot, blubbering. I have no clue where my life is going, and all I have is the paycheck in my pocket, and here’s my boss telling me, ‘Look, you have a place to call home.’”
Many bookstore employees feel much the same way. Chamblin has a longstanding habit of finding out the stories of homeless men and women, testing their trustworthiness, offering them jobs and, if they prove their mettle, giving them a place to stay.
When John Evans first walked into Chamblin’s Uptown, he found a six-volume audio set of Mark Twain’s work and asked Ron Chamblin the cost. Chamblin told him he could take it home for free and bring it back when he was finished. Chamblin had no way of knowing – except perhaps from his own intuition – that Evans was out of work and had little money. Soon Chamblin offered Evans a place in his Fleming Island home.
At a time, Marv Kramer says, when he “really needed a friend” and his law practice and marriage both lay in shambles, Chamblin helped him back on his feet. Kramer had left Dallas to come back homeless to his hometown of Jacksonville.
“Without Ron,” Kramer says, “I don’t think I could’ve gone on. My life had hit the bottom.”
For much of the last decade, Chamblin has resided in an apartment behind Chamblin’s Uptown, while several formerly homeless employees called his new riverfront mansion home.
MOTORCYLCLES + MANATEE
When I ask Ron Chamblin how his pursuit of Project Liberation led to his business success and his autonomy in life, he tells me of his daughter, a manatee, and a motorcycle.
When Naomi Chamblin, Ron’s daughter from his third marriage, was 29 years old, she quit her job as an elementary school teacher in the San Francisco area, and wondered what she should do next. Then she had an epiphany: Napa Bookmine. To help Naomi get started, her father filled a tractor-trailer full of his books in Jacksonville and sent them west.
“We still have plenty of books originally from Chamblin Bookmine,” she says, “and every time I see the Jacksonville stamp on the inside of the cover, I smile.”
She says her father was always intense, though he could be charming. She sells a greeting card that reminds her of him. It says, “Good things come to those who work their asses off.”
About five years ago, a sudden surge of water startled Ron and Naomi as they kayaked near his Fleming Island home. They were surprised to see that the surge was caused by a manatee, the largest, gentlest of Florida’s mammals, who, with no natural predators, evolved no defenses.
It wasn’t Ron Chamblin’s first encounter. He already knew Marge. Intimately.
When he moved into the back of his Downtown store after a brief suburban stint, he’d blamed the move on Marge
He knew the sight of an alligator’s nostrils riding just atop the water, but he didn’t immediately realize that the slow-bobbing bulbs he saw just over the bulkhead were eyes.
The way Chamblin tells it, after he recognized Marge’s interest, he courted her until she broke it off for a gator, then sought refuge Downtown.
The long story he tells me when I finally ask him how Project Liberation altered his life has nothing to do with a bookstore or a manatee, and everything to do with a cross-continent motorcycle ride that reads better by far than Easy Rider.
After his military discharge in 1964, he rode through swarms of bees and serpents, slept at night in the Mojave and the mountains, and remembers one tailwind in which he “rode down the mountain the same speed as the wind,” so that all the earth around “fell eerily quiet and calm.”
Chamblin’s Books’ 40th Anniversary Celebration & BYOB Block Party is held 7-10 p.m. Saturday, July 23, at 215 N. Laura St. Admission is free. Tim Gilmore’s new book, We Are All Used Books: 70 Conversations with Ron Chamblin, will be available; $17.