Florida Classics bookseller remains all in the family
Founder’s niece takes over store, rolls out new business plan
BY JANIE GOULD
Florida Classics Library, a bookstore and publishing house in Hobe Sound, has gotten dressed up for the new decade, with tropical colors and a mural brightening the exterior, new gardens and walkways on the grounds along Southeast Dixie Highway, and inside, carefully arranged displays of books, gifts, maps and other items prized by fans of Florida history.
The boarded-up windows that gave an eerie nobody’s-at-home look to the exterior have been replaced by plate glass windows. New French doors also let in natural light that makes the retail space shine.
Veteran bookseller Val Martin opened the business after selling his downtown Stuart store, Valentine’s Bookstore, in 1979. He operated Florida Classics Library by himself until last year, when his niece, Julie Alexander, agreed to join him in the business when she retired from the upscale retailer Neiman Marcus last spring. She grew up in Coral Gables, just two hours from Stuart by car.
“I was always interested in Florida history,” she said. “As kids I remember our parents taking us to Val’s store in Stuart. He always allowed us to get a book. Then, about 10 years ago, I really became interested. I stopped by to see him and we started having a conversation about what was going to happen to the business. He said he never went on the computer, so I helped him create a website. To do that, I started reading every single book that he had.”
Alexander and Martin share a passion for the Everglades, so it should come as no surprise that her favorite volume in the inventory is Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass. The book, which has never been out of print, is credited by many with changing attitudes about the importance of wetlands. Martin acquired the rights to reprint the paperback edition in 2002.
In the early to mid-20th century, many Florida promoters viewed wetlands as worthless unless they could be drained to make way for subdivisions or farms. They turned reclaimed wetlands into towns throughout South Florida. As a result, arid conditions in South Florida turned the “river of grass” into a “river of fire” in the 1940s, Douglas wrote.
“She is such a hero of mine,” Alexander said of the author, who died in 1998 at the age of 108.
Martin says he feels the same way because, as a Florida native who grew up in Hollywood, he can see the effects that Douglas warned about.
“I can remember when you could set your clocks by when the rain storms would begin in the afternoon,” he said. “That’s how accurate rainfall was back in the 1940s. It’s not that way today, because of overdevelopment.”
Martin’s favorite book in the inventory is a report about the Everglades that Congress issued more than a century ago. He happened upon a copy of the original on a store shelf in Pensacola. It was produced by the Government Printing Office in 1911.
“I had never heard of it,” he said. “I didn’t know it existed.”
He reprinted the book with the title, South Florida in Peril: How the United States Congress and the State of Florida in cooperation with land speculators turned the River of Grass into a billion dollar sand bar. The cover photo shows an alligator “seeking scarce water” in a culvert along Shark Valley Road in the Everglades.
STATE AND LOCAL HISTORY
The store carries numerous books about Martin County and Treasure Coast history, salvage and shipwrecks, nature and landscaping, along with children’s books, art, note cards and post cards and lots of maps. As a business partner with the U.S. Geological Survey, the store carries more than 1,000 of the agency’s topographical maps.
Martin’s business plan with Florida Classics Library was largely to secure the rights to publish out-of-print books and then to sell them to customers such as national and state parks, historical societies, museums and botanical gardens. Besides the updated website, Alexander has created a more walk-in retail business and expanded book offerings printed by other publishers. She says the retail portion of the business now accounts for about 50 percent of revenue.
While publisher, Martin printed books as disparate as three of Theodore Pratt’s books of Florida-based historical fiction, The Barefoot Mailman, The Flame Tree and The Big Bubble, and the late Stuart News editor and environmental crusader Ernie Lyons’ musings, My Florida and The Last Cracker Barrel. Sales of a book by Palm City resident Annie Potts, Last Lights, about hand-wound lighthouses, are earmarked to help repair lighthouses that were damaged by the September 2019 hurricane in the Bahamas. Another book, Up Keeps the Light On, is a children’s book written and illustrated by students at the Hope Town Primary School in Elbow Cay. The school was damaged by the hurricane, and book sales will help pay for repairs.
Florida Classics Library got its start because of Martin’s love for the book Jonathan Dickinson’s Journal, which was first published more than 300 years ago, in 1699. It’s the saga of a Quaker merchant whose ship, the Reformation, was wrecked on the beaches of Jupiter Island during a storm. The book was popular among customers in Martin’s store in Stuart, so in 1971 Martin bought the last 600 copies from the publisher, Yale University Press. Later he acquired the rights to reprint the book, and when he sold the store he established Florida Classics Library so he could continue reprinting the book that has been called America’s first classic.
He says the book remains popular in part because so much of the action was local. No trace of the shipwrecked brigantine has been found, but its approximate location is known, Martin said.
“It lies somewhere in the vicinity of 27 degrees, 8 minutes north latitude, which is approximately the St. Lucie Inlet, plus or minus,” he said.
After graduating from Florida State University with a degree in criminology and working one year for the Miramar Police Department in Broward County, Alexander had a 32-year career in retail loss prevention and retail operations with Neiman Marcus at its headquarters in Dallas and a total of four stores: two in Dallas, one in Honolulu and one in Orlando. Helping her with the remodeling of the store is her husband, Lindsay, who is also retired in loss prevention.
“I will tell you the job was very stressful and being in retail at Christmas time makes you really not like that time of the year,’’ she said.
“This year has been such a blessing. I love what I do and I’m so relaxed and happy. My husband says I am a different woman.”
Martin County reminds her of what Coral Gables and Miami were like when she was growing up.
“I love the fact that it’s beautiful here and not busy,” she said. “I like the beach. I like parks and enjoy being outdoors. I enjoy gardening and I also like to paint.”
She’s painting the mural, an Everglades scene that catches visitors’ eyes as they approach the building.
As for Martin, he still comes into the shop every morning and helps ship book orders. He says bringing his niece on board means he has more time to take care of his yard.
“I was out there yesterday doing some trimming,” he said.
“He has two acres, so he has a lot to do,’’ Alexander said.
Visit Florida Classics Library at FloridaClassicsLibrary.com or 11300 SE Dixie Highway, Hobe Sound, FL 33455. Phone 772.546.9380.
Top Sellers (in order) at Florida Classics Library
Everglades River Of Grass by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas
Barefoot Mailman by Theodore Pratt
Jonathan Dickinson’s Journal
Florida’s Ashley Gang by Ada Coats Williams
The Search for the Atocha by Eugene Lyon