ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Alsace Walentine didn’t have much use for a bicycle in hilly North Carolina, but when she moved to St. Petersburg two years ago, she found that the streets in her new home were perfect for lazy afternoon rides.
"I got here, and I was like, ‘I want a cruiser,'" she said. "It’s nice to get out on the bike in flat Florida."
She bought a green bike and hit the road, even periodically riding it to her new business. Tombolo Books was just a short distance from her home, and the bike became a common sight outside the ally entrance next door to Black Crow Coffee and Squeeze Juice Works.
"We opened mid-December, right before Christmas so that’s great for retail," she said.
Walentine opened Tombolo in December 2019. She called it the perfect time of year for a retail operation to get business rolling.
Then, everything halted on March 16.
"I do not like COVID," she said with a chuckle. "It was a night full of tears. I knew what we had to do for safety."
To this bookstore owner, COVID may as well be a five-letter word. The pandemic forced the businesswoman to pivot. It was either innovate or die. She chose to focus on her website and boosting online sales. She got good at shipping but wanted a more personal touch during a pandemic. She didn’t have to look far to find the perfect mode of transportation for local deliveries.
"I do love my bike, obviously," she said. "We did over 200 deliveries while we were shut down."
For weeks, she fielded orders in the shop before loading up the blue milk crate bungeed to the back of her bike seat. Short trips from her shop on First Avenue South to downtown and nearby Kenneth City were common. She’d even travel further for big orders.
Thankfully, they kept coming in.
"The problem of COVID forced us to look at all the difficult elements and tighten up and I think we’ll be better because of it," she said.
Even after re-opening Tombolo to limited occupancy in June 2020, the bike remained a useful weekly tool. Regular customers would expect to see a masked Walentine pull up on her bike and leave a brown paper sack full of books on their front porch.
The fun of riding and the joy of books mixed well for the new business owner.
"I’ve been a bookseller for twenty years and we’ve never done anything like this," said Walentine. "It’s fun to change an old tradition."
A miniature version of the now-famed book bike sits atop the shelves in the children’s section of Tombolo. Walentine even painted the replica a nearly identical shade of green to match her real bike. She still makes house calls on the cruiser twice per week, although she’s not sure how much longer she’ll be making the drop-offs now that her shop is set to re-open to full capacity as the pandemic wanes.
"The great part about (deliveries) is we get a little bit of face time with people," she said. "Some people really are still indoors at their homes and that’s it."
The bike has become a marketing tool. It is such a popular part of her business, Walentine now sells t-shirts with the bike scrawled across the front. She wore one proudly on a recent Tuesday ride to drop off multiple orders.
"It now is famous," she joked.
Tombolo dodged the worst of the COVID pandemic thanks in part to its owner’s willingness to adapt. The shop, located at 2153 First Avenue South in St. Petersburg, is open seven days per week. Walentine suggests making an appointment to visit. Tombolo’s maximum occupancy is currently eight customers at a time.
Find Tombolo on social media at @TomboloBooks.
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