The Guardian: Interview with a Bookstore: Oxford Exchange in Florida
September 14, 2016
Photograph: Literary Hub
Found in Tampa, Oxford Exchange is simultaneously a bookstore, restaurant and workspace. Its booksellers share how they organise the books thematically, rather than by genre, and what they’d add if they had infinite space
Blake Casper and Allison Casper Adams opened the Oxford Exchange in 2012 to create a space where conversation and connection happen. With its aesthetic taking inspiration from old English shops and clubs, Oxford Exchange is a bookstore, restaurant, workspace, and retail shop in Tampa, FL; hand built using materials from over a dozen countries. The result is a visually distinctive and unique experience, but its spirit is familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a great bookstore— Oxford Exchange is a place to encounter new ideas, share passions, find inspiration and discover something new.
What’s your favorite section of the store?
Laura (Bookstore Director): Our signed-copy table of course! It’s the ultimate finishing touch to any book, transforming it into something personal that should be held on to and never ever given away.
Allison (Co-Owner): I love how our store doesn’t organize itself only by traditional sections. We try to group books together on a deeper, thematic level instead which I think lends itself to better browsing.
Tracy (Book Club leader): The classics. We gather beautiful editions and put them all in one inviting display. I get a kick out of how well they sell to teenagers who find them less intimidating than other copies—the content is the same, but the cover and display make all the difference.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Tracy: I would add more vintage books. I love the feel and smell of older books, and I love introducing people to them. So many people don’t realize this world exists; they assume that they have to have the knowledge or money to invest in a first edition. That isn’t the case—if you look carefully, you can hold a piece of history for relatively little investment.
Allison: A bar! What’s more literary than that?
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Mike (Community Events): Oxford Exchange surprises better than any other bookstore I’ve been in. With so much happening in our space everyday, the bookstore isn’t always the main reason to stop by. But we’re the first thing you see when you walk in the door — just walls and tables full of books. When people come inside, it’s wild to see their faces light up — it’s like they’re running into an old friend, like they’ve come home. We get to see that every single day, and that’s something.
Laura: The bookstore takes up just 450 square feet, and we manage to represent a really well-rounded selection. We have such a varied clientele, and the titles that we carry reflect that. You’ll find timeless classics inches away from our contemporary favourites, Whitman beside the latest poet to take over Instagram. We aim to carry titles that could be anyone’s next favourite book.
Who’s your favourite regular?
Laura: We have a fantastic woman who comes down from Minnesota regularly to visit her daughter. Every time I see her, I look forward to hearing what her book club is reading and what she is excited about. A lot of the books we carry are because someone raved about it at one time or another.
Tracy: I’m (obviously) partial to the book club members. We are all interested in finding new things, and we have the level of trust that allows us to experiment on authors and genres we wouldn’t otherwise explore. We’ve become friends. I enjoy hearing what they have to say, and I enjoy the fact that we can be passionate and divided, yet still respectful.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Allison: I always thought of the library as my personal bookstore. I loved everything about it. The quiet peacefulness, the feel of the velum, the pictures in the books and the endless choices. There is something hopeful about it all, right? To know you’re only hours away from learning something new or feeling something you’ve never felt before.
Mike: I was a terrible reader as a little kid, but I was tremendous at having books bought for me. I went to Barnes and Noble with my grandparents every single weekend and they bought me everything. I mean, if we’d been shopping at Borders instead, Borders would still be a thing. Everything.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Allison: It works! It really has started some incredible conversations in our city.
Laura: The little things that make a book sell. It’s not always a great write-up in the Times or a big marketing budget, it’s so often much more unexpected. Word of mouth seems to always be king, but even moving a book from one spot to another can make a title just fly off the shelf.
Mike: Maybe not so much a surprise as it is the biggest source of joy for me, but the authors we’ve been lucky enough to work with and get to know have been the absolute best. Their energy and their generosity to our community here has been so positive. Lauren Groff, Jamie Poissant, George Saunders, Anton DiSclafani, Megan McDowell, Kevin Powers, Karen Russell, Boris Fishman, Erica Dawson, Dan Cluchy, Lisa Unger, Dawn Tripp, Craig Pittman, Nathan Hill, Stephanie Danler and everyone else — thank you so much for giving our space something new to be proud of this year.
The staff shelf
What are Oxford Exchange’s booksellers reading?
- Hemingway in Love: His Own Story by AE Hotchner (2015). “One of the books I’ve picked up without any prior knowledge. Hemingway has always seemed more of a figment to me, than a real person. This book piercingly describes some of his regrets, and humanizes him as someone with his own set of problems, instead of the larger-than-life, macho man most consider him.”
- Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (2015). “Danler’s work tight walks so many fine lines, it’s almost indescribable. You pick it up for the conversational tone, maybe even for that shattered wine glass on the cover. You remember it for the way that glass ends up cutting you—what Danler teaches you about the perils of the American Dream, about yourself.”
- The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016, edited and introduced by Rachel Kushner (2016). “This yearly anthology never misses. Edited by high school students, its aim is to help readers fall in love with reading again. It introduced me to writers like Sherman Alexie, Tea Obreht, Matt Klam, Nam Le and Jennifer Egan. Maybe you haven’t heard of those names before. Read any installment of this series and you’ll wonder how you’d gone so long without them.”