For Wilson’s Book World owner Michelle Jenquin, 50 years in business means she’s doing something right. “Especially surviving 2020,” she says with a smile.
Jenquin’s grandmother, Helen Wilson, opened the first iteration of St. Petersburg’s used (and some new) book emporium in November, 1971. An avid reader, Wilson began with 20,000 volumes acquired from an antique dealer – who had in turn bought them from an estate purchase.
Three years later, she moved into an odd-looking art deco building – an old Chrysler dealership with islands out front where gas pumps once stood – on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Wilson’s son, Jeff Morris, took over the store in the 1980s; Wilson died in 1995, and Morris – weary of the retail grind – retired and sold the building in 2017.
And he handed the reins of Wilson’s Book World to his daughter, including the inventory of close to 200,000 books (with some antiquarian volumes – Morris’ specialty – and thousands of back-issue comic books).
“I’m an only child – we don’t really have a large family, so there wasn’t another person to carry on the Wilson’s name if my dad just decided to close the doors,” Jenquin says.
“He said ‘You either want it or you don’t.’ And I would be a fool to turn something like that down.”
She had worked at Wilson’s on and off, for much of her life. “Of course, as a teenager I wanted to go work at Publix with my friends,” the Gibbs High graduate explains. “But because of my love of books, and because it was family … it’s what you do. So it’s kind of second nature to me.”
Her early 20s meant college, then marriage and a family of her own. Jenquin worked successfully as a real estate agent until the 2008 recession, when that business went south.
Around the same time, her mother became seriously ill, and Jenquin returned to help her dad operate Wilson’s Book World. “All roads led back to home,” she says.
And she took to the low-key, informal atmosphere Dad had created, with “regulars” dropping by at all hours to talk about politics, or the environment – or the latest news from the literary world.
“My father had so many ties to the community,” Jenquin reports. “He knew so many different people. I loved working with him every day for that aspect of things.”
Morris launched a new career as a novelist – as R.W. Marcus, he has written a series of “Pulp Fantasy Noir” books (they’re available, of course, at Wilson’s Book World, as well as Amazon and at other retailers).
When he handed her the keys to the store, it fell to Jenquin to find and secure a new location for the business. She bought the 2,800-square-foot former P&M Lighting building, at 535 16th St. N. She opened the doors in February 2018.
“I can’t complain about the location,” she smiles. “I’m far enough from downtown, and I get all the traffic going in and coming out.”
She also gets customers disappointed that Haslam’s, the venerable Central Avenue bookseller, has yet to re-open – the 88-year-old retailer has been closed since early in the pandemic.
Charles Haslam had encouraged Helen Wilson to open her shop back in ’71, famously telling her “St. Pete could use another book store.” The two retailers, Jenquin explains, frequently referred customers to one another for this title or that.
In the meantime, there’s plenty of work to be done. “We moved over 800 boxes of books when we left our old location,” Jenquin says. “I have probably 30 of those boxes still, that I’ve never gotten to unpacking. Just due to sheer volume of things coming in. It’s going to be like Christmas one day when I finally get to those.”
She estimates there are 125,000 titles currently on her shelves – and, she reports, business is good.
“Nobody gets in the book business to get rich. If I can sustain, I can feed my kids, feed my animals and pay my bills, I’m OK.”
November 6, 2021at11:35 am
My husband was a regular at the MLK and 16th Street locations. We moved from St. Petersburg, but we drop in when we visit.
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