When I heard about the recent closing of Tappin Book Mine in Atlantic Beach, I was at a rare loss for words. At the very least, I was hoping the news was just more hearsay, tied into the same economic woes that had left the Beaches littered with vacant strip malls, and where even the pawn shops are going out of business.
But a visit to the decades-old independent bookstore confirmed the dire news: The store will close mid-June. On a recent rainy May afternoon, I spent a good hour-and-a-half scouring the shelves and talking to owner Doug Tappin and longtime employee Skip Pridgen. The pair resemble a sort of Mutt and Jeff of the local letters scene — Doug is the more professorial, and Skip sports a grey ponytail, forever marking him a countercultural cowboy. We talked about the store’s closure, and the state of the printed word. While saddened by the closing, Doug was stoic about the reasons for shutting the doors on this beaches landmark. “Today the industry is even more oriented toward what is simply marketable,” he explained. “And that doesn’t work for the used-book business.”
Doug pointed out that the diversity in what he sold was indicative of what has been key to his longevity: a book on Arabic psychology, an anthology on late-medieval, early-Renaissance history and a third volume tracing various ethnic histories. “People of a certain age and mentality read and track down all kinds of books, in every possible and divergent interest,” he noted. But contemporary culture seems to be moving in a different direction. “For so long, people have been preached [to] that things that bring more money, or greater things or sex are the only things worth pursuing,” he said. Skip is more direct. “People still go to college, and they still get a degree, but instead of getting educated, they get trained.”
My first encounter with used books occurred during my first visit to Tappin. Doug’s father, F. Donald Tappin, opened the store in 1975 and, three years later, after outgrowing two locations, settled into the current 2,200-square-foot space. Doug started working full time at the business around 1980 and soon took over the operation.
The younger Tappin began stocking the front corner of the store with the colorful bounty that had originally lured me in: comic books. I discovered the store in 1981, as a 9-year-old who was an avid reader and had a growing obsession with all things gory and otherworldly. At the time, Tappin had an incredible display, an entire wall of recent and old titles. Though the words “graphic novel” would gradually legitimize the comic-book scene, in those years the people perusing the selections looked like larger versions of me: pale, bespectacled obsessives.
As puberty kicked in, I grew bored while waiting to develop telekinesis or save buxom wenches (who would probably choose death-by-dragon over my fumbling gropes), and began to tentatively explore the rows of classic literature.
Admittedly, as a suburban kid raised on mostly “new things,” the idea of buying a used book seemed beneath me. Yet after reading a used copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” I had that dreaded epiphany that destroys so many while immortalizing so few: “I want to be a writer.” Increasingly seduced by words, I can remember encountering the word “autodidact” (literally, “self-taught” in Greek) and being excited to have discovered what I was becoming, while being equally thrilled about the possibility of one day using the word “autodidact” in an actual conversation (or even an editorial). At 12, I finished the then-de rigueur biography on Jim Morrison (“No One Here Gets Out Alive,” Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman), a book that led to my discovering all sorts of wonderfully corruptive writers. Realizing that I could double-down on my burgeoning collection by purchasing used books meant that I could then compulsively read certain authors.
My initial interest in the fantastic and grotesque translated into the bohemian, aberrant and offbeat. I mispronounced Jack Kerouac’s surname as “heroic” simply because, circa 1984 Jax Beach, I had never heard anyone say his name. I chose to mumble names like Antonin Artaud or Tristan Tzara just to avoid detection.
It was during this same period that I reached another unforgiving crossroads. Always prone to weird depressions, in a time when growing pains were reworded as chemical imbalances, it was discovered that I bore the mark. If my emerging love of Andre Breton’s surrealist poetry didn’t push me from the pack, prescriptions for tofranil, stelazine and, eventually, lithium, forever barred me from the palace ballroom. I was increasingly comforted by the faces of my new heroes that peered back at me from old paperbacks. Richard Brautigan appeared as confused as I was, in his fringe jacket and sad, wire-framed glasses. In that pre-eBay era, Tappin offered original poetry chapbooks by Allen Ginsberg (then priced $10 to $20) and signed hardback books by William S. Burroughs ($20), underground relics that had been relegated to oddities in the shiny, sanitary nation of Pres. Reagan.
Through circumstances as much spiritual as psychological, it was suggested by my psychiatrist that I be removed from school. My formal education ended in the ninth grade and I surrendered to that level of negative entitlement particular to the heretical and ostracized. I can clearly recall a moment, when I was 15 years old, that overlapped into the mystical. Listening to Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” while trying to navigate Burroughs’ “Nova Express,” I realized and accepted that there would never be any turning back from this direction. Years later, I would discover I’d experienced a moment that was about as unique as a black eye in a bar fight. Yet ever since that initial and defining flash of insight, I’ve found my spiritual tribe of friends, accomplices and even lovers defined not merely but what they have done, but by what they have read.
The discovery of Tappin Book Mine eventually led to the unearthing of Deane’s Books in old downtown Jax Beach, where kind old Mr. Virgil Deane, surmising I was either a kindred book lover or fledgling sex maniac, hipped me to D.H. Lawrence. I also engaged in a solitary moment of shoplifting from Deane’s Books: the Oxford University edition of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” a senseless and, in hindsight, karmically ironic act. And, after getting a job at the Jax Beach all-ages punk club Einstein-A-Go-Go, my boss, owner Tammie Faircloth, suggested Chamblin Book Mine in the then-exotic land of Riverside-Avondale.
Whether I left those bookstores with a stack of poetry by some French transsexual heroin addict or exited hours later empty-handed, I experienced a certain meditative and calming effect by simply walking into a shop. I’ve often wondered if there is some benign chemical found only in the dust that settles in used books, somehow quieting the central nervous system.
As I stumbled into a barely bona fide adulthood, books and the sanctuary of Tappin Book Mine remained a calming influence on a life that was guided by increasingly unhealthier forces, inspired by self-destructive studies. But I can’t blame books for my taking so much encouragement from the shadows. In my mid-30s, I made the life-changing decision to no longer be in felony possession of Keith Richards. And again, Tappin was a footnote in the story of my life. I had spent years hunting down an incredibly rare biography of the obscure poet William Wantling, a doomed writer whose greatest claim to fame is being immortalized as a cuckolded husband in Charles Bukowski’s novel, “Women” — under a pseudonym, no less. After browsing bookstores in the States and Europe, and conducting futile online searches, I had given up. Now clean and with a clearing head, I handed the task to Doug and Skip. They found a copy of the book in a week. Customer service aside, I took this as an overt sign from something greater than myself, assuring me I was still on the right path — with books once again as my beacon.
The tropical rain that had been pounding outside subsided and I had Doug ring up the half-dozen books I’d pulled from the shelves. During our conversation, Skip had put on a CD by his latest find, Texas singer-songwriter the late Walter Hyatt, and the hippie honky-tonker played at a bookstore-appropriate volume. For what might be my final purchase, I snagged a set of hardbacks chronicling the lives of early cinema stars, and a signed book of drawings by Beat figurehead Lawrence Ferlinghetti — all for the whopping price of $12. I thanked Doug and Skip for being de facto guides in my life, surprised at my sudden need to choke back soft tears. “You guys probably kept me out of jail,” I joked, “and at the very least, I surely write because of this place.”
Skip narrowed his eyes, looking down over his glasses.
“Man, you can’t blame that on us!”
No relation to any bestselling authors, Brown has been the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Folio Weekly since April 2010. A former bassist for the bands Royal Trux and ’68 Comeback, Brown admits to currently owning 3,000 LPs but only a few hundred books.