June 30, 2005

By Meg Martin

He was a frequent customer at Haslam’s Book Store. The notorious Jack Kerouac. Jack, who would duck in the front door and slink over to the trade fiction section. Jack, who pulled all of his books from among the Ken Keseys and the Nikos Kazantzakises on the bottom shelf of the second bookcase. Jack, who shoved them, covers facing out, among the chest-level books on the second shelf. Jack, who has been shifting his books for better placement for almost 40 years.

Jack, who has been dead since 1969.

Jack Kerouac, the writer who, more than any other, defined the dreams of a generation by spending his restless youth on the road, bled to death in St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg 35 years ago. His alcohol-ravaged body was ushered to rest in his childhood town of Lowell, Mass., buried under an unpretentious slab of rock.

But some say he never left St. Petersburg. Or Haslam’s.

In a life of nomadic existence, it’s the place he’s stayed the longest.

Pick up a St. Petersburg phone book dated as recently as 1999, and find his number, right there between Kerns and Kerpsak.

Scroll to 5169 10th Ave N. in the 1970 St. Petersburg city directory and find his name in parentheses after his mother’s and wife’s.

Then stop by Haslam’s Book Store at 2025 Central Ave. — the biggest independent bookstore in town — after dark on any given day and wait. If Jack’s feeling mischievous, his ghost just might drop one of his books behind you.

That’s what happened to Ray Hinst, third-generation owner of Haslam’s, while he restocked the fiction shelves a few years back.

The slap of a book cover smacking the tile floor behind him sliced through the calm of the empty store. It was just before midnight.

Booksellers and librarians know that sound. It can only be made by a book slapping flat onto the floor. But Haslam’s books are shelved snugly upright, spine-outward.

Hinst glanced behind him. A copy of Kerouac’s “On the Road” lay face-up on the brown and black tiles.

Haslam’s has been a St. Petersburg institution since its founding by John and Mary Haslam in 1933. The largest new and used bookstore in Florida, it houses more than 300,000 books at any given time, Hinst says. It’s listed in Fodor’s online Tampa Bay travel guide as “one of the state’s more notable bookstores” and was named one of the top 25 independent bookstores in the United States by bookmarket.com.

Walk through the scores of bookshelves at Haslam’s and pick up a copy of Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums,” “Visions of Gerard” or “Mexico City Blues.” You might even bump into the disembodied poet himself.

“He honored life,” says the gravestone that he now shares with his third wife, Stella, who died in St. Petersburg in 1990. Kerouac’s writing pays homage to the raw, boundless exhilaration of a life lived with bohemian soul. He gave name to the generation of youth rebelling against the establishment, the legions of kids eager to embrace the road-bound existence of poetry, sex, music and drugs that he preached. It was the Beat way.

After a life on the road, Kerouac spent his final years in St. Petersburg: reluctantly, drunkenly and altogether miserably. Many days, he stopped by Haslam’s to browse on his way to or from the local watering holes. Other times, he would ensure the prominent placement of his work.

He was unhappy here, a living legend of rhythm, road and wheels wedged into an existence of sedentary sunshine. No more was the syncopation that had propelled him west and beyond, no more the Buddhist mantras and the thumb to the wind. He was a disappointed shadow of his former Beat self. He had been dragged here by his ailing mother, to whom he was devoted, and his anxious wife, who wanted to get him away from his usual drinking crowd in Lowell.

Of the hundreds of tales circulating about Kerouac’s life, the facts are hard to pin down. One of the stories often told is set the night before Kerouac was scheduled to move to St. Petersburg. He had disappeared, running away from his mother and wife, only to be found two days later, sleeping off a hangover in a field. He came here under protest, calling the city “the town of the newly wed and the living dead,” a 2002 St. Petersburg Times article said. It was “a good place to come to die.”

Some say Kerouac came to St. Petersburg in 1964. Others say it was 1966. His byline appeared three times in the sports section of the Evening Independent, St. Petersburg’s former afternoon newspaper, in 1965. Within four years, his alcohol-saturated liver had rebelled against him and his battle with life and St. Petersburg had come to an end.

Ray Hinst has heard all the stories. He married into the Haslam’s book business, and has been running the store with his wife, Suzanne, since 1973.

Until about eight years ago, Kerouac’s encounters with Haslam’s were just part of the bookstore’s everyday history. He was just another writer in a town swarming with them. When Kerouac came in to reshelve his books — sometimes, Hinst suspects, after a morning binge — then-owner Charles Haslam was frustrated. Sometimes he asked the author to stop his book-shifting habits.

“I happened to ask my father-in-law about it a few years before he died,” Hinst says. “That’s when he told me about [Kerouac] coming into the store. It was not a big deal. We had a lot of authors here of considerable more fame and talent than he at the time.”

But the other authors who spent time in the store had made their mark and left. Some believe Kerouac never did.

Word has spread, among ghost hunters and Kerouac fans alike. Occasionally, Hinst says, people come into the store to ask if the place is really haunted by Kerouac’s ghost.

Brandy Stark was one of those people.

Stark, co-founder of SPIRITS of St. Petersburg, a volunteer team of paranormal investigators, has scoured Haslam’s three times to determine whether the incidents at the store are hauntings or natural phenomena.

On its first investigation four years ago, the team determined that the Haslam’s building is home to a “benevolent spirit” — a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and an unusual nose — that looked strikingly similar to the figure on the back cover of “On the Road” — Kerouac.

A team member who recognizes herself as a “sensitive” — a person who can perceive and communicate with a paranormal entity — asked the ghost about himself. He didn’t reply.

“He’s somewhat elusive, and he doesn’t answer questions very much, but that’s his option,” says Stark. “Most of the time, entities do like to tell a little bit about themselves. This one does feel a bit enigmatic, but I guess that’s just him. I think he’s a little mischievous but very gentle. … He likes the people, he likes the interaction, he likes the books and he really enjoys being there.”

SPIRITS teams have visited Haslam’s twice since their first encounter with the ghost of Jack Kerouac, and have picked up multiple other entities each time. There’s the little boy who likes to take the books off the shelves. The little girl who wanders around the store, confused and sad; SPIRITS members believe she was killed in a car accident near the store. The man and woman who sit near each other in a wary coexistence, reading.

And, of course, the man with the salt-and-pepper hair who sits back and chuckles at the paranormal investigators. Stark is convinced that he is Kerouac.

A psychic who was brought in by a local television crew to communicate with the writer’s ghost says Kerouac remains at Haslam’s because it is familiar.

“She concluded that he likes being near his books in a place where he was comfortable and found succor,” Hinst says.

Even though his antics could be irritating to the Haslams, who were forced to reorganize his shelf after nearly every visit, the restless wanderer had found solace in the local bookstore while he was alive.

And now that he’s dead, Hinst says, his ghost is welcome.

“As long as he’s not hurting anything, we just live and let live.”

The strategy must be working. Hinst can’t remember any unusual or paranormal incidents in the past year. No employees have reported falling books or voices in the corridors, and the Kerouac volumes have stayed on their shelves.

But that doesn’t mean Kerouac’s ghost has left Haslam’s. He might just be satisfied. The Haslam’s inventory has expanded over the past few months, and the addition of new titles has required a shift in the alphabetized fiction department.

Today, the few dozen Kerouac volumes can no longer be found on the bottom shelf. They have moved to eye level.

Just where he wanted them.

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Meg Martin was last year's Naughton Fellow for Poynter Online. She spent six weeks in 2005 in Poynter's Summer Program for Recent College Graduates before…
Meg Martin

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