FORT WALTON BEACH — On a recent Tuesday morning Melli Pappas straightened the shelves inside The Book Rack before the store opened.

When the clock struck 10 a.m., a woman arrives almost magically. Pappas hadn't even flipped the "open" sign.

The customer is a semi-regular popping in while she's in town for an appointment. She's looking for the Mitford Series, specifically the "Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader." Pappas took her down the row of neatly organized bookshelves to the Jan Karon series.

Pappas has been running The Book Rack since 2008. Her mother, Mickey Harbeson, and her mother's friend Helen Wise opened the store in 1981. A lot has changed in the book business since either one of them started running a used book store.

No one opens a used bookstore to get rich. They do it because they love it.

 

'We're old school'

Pappas said she started working at The Book Rack about 2006 with her mother. Even while fighting Alzheimer's disease, Mickey insisted on going to work. Now Pappas, who was formerly a nurse, is carrying on the legacy.

"I do the best I can," she said. "I don't do a lot of advertising; it's mostly just people telling other people about the store. I would love to keep this going as long as I can. I love my customers."

It's a regular mix of people who come into the store. Some are just passing by and curious. Others are regulars from all over who come with bags of books to trade in for new titles.

Pappas started to notice a decline in sales in 2011. It wasn't just the e-readers and online retailers that hurt the business. It was the lack of tourism after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

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"Our busiest time of the year is January through March when the snowbirds come to visit," she said. "After the oil spill, a lot of snowbirds didn't come back. Then it was the rise of e-books. It was one thing after another."

It might be easy to find cheaper books online without too much hunting, but independently-owned used bookstores do have a charm that's hard to beat. Pappas has a box of files where she keeps the wish list of customers. Occasionally, someone will email her, but most of the records are on paper.

"We're old school," she said with a laugh.

 

Books and ministry

In DeFuniak Springs, The Book Store has been a part of the downtown historic district since 1984. In 2013, Barbara and Kevin Chilcutt bought the business to keep it going.

The Book Store is one of those shops where you have to spend some time looking for a treasure. There are piles of books down each aisle and cozy reading corners throughout the store. It's "total chaos," Barbara said.

Barbara is a "lover of books" and has a passion for sharing them with customers.

"What makes it worthwhile is when someone finds the book they're looking for," Barbara said. "I once opened the store for a man who was looking for a girl's devotional Bible as a gift. I was so touched that I just gave it to him. There are amazing people out there that you just happen to run into."

What's even more interesting than the books are some of the trinkets left behind with them. Barbara has come across antique coins, a voter registration from the 1930s, family photos and an old World War II German-to-English dictionary with the rough draft of a love letter tucked inside.

"I once found a leather-bound baby book from the early 1900s," Barbara said. "That went into my stack."

Over time, the store has expanded to include a selection of antiques sold by Barbara's landlady. Barbara and her husband also run a ministry from the store offering food and clothing to anyone in need. She's become known to some regulars as "the snack lady." In some ways, the bookstore is the headquarters for the ministry.

"I want to share the community with people," she said.

 

'A barely break-even business'

It was Dooney Tickner's lot in life to be surrounded by books. Inside his nearly 500-square-foot bookstore, he practically is.

Tickner was the Destin Library director from 1987-99 and worked at Books A Million before he opened Dooney's Book Company in 2009. The tiny house where the business is dates back to 1945 and is filled with books new and old that Tickner finds at rummage sales.

"I handpick books everywhere I go," he said. "I take what I can use and donate a lot."

While he's watched the big box stores dwindle down in the local area — Santa Rosa Mall once had two bookstores, he recalled — Tickner has been able to build a business he loves even if it's not a big money-maker.

"It's a barely break-even business," he said. "I do it out of passion."

Tickner said he likes talking to his customers who stop by the shop to hunt for titles. He estimates he has about 75 regular customers he can count on seeing. Books bring out interesting people, he said.

And while used bookstores have been on the decline, with stores closing in Crestview and Niceville, Tickner said he doesn't see an end in sight for his shop.

"I'll keep doing this until I'm forced to retire," he said. "It's still a very satisfying, fulfilling business."

 

Changing the culture

It's been just over a year since Carrie Jackson opened The Blackwater Book Exchange, formerly known as Hat Man Books in Milton.

Jackson changed the name of the business and she hopes to change the culture of a used bookstore.

"I want to foster an environment where people can come visit and feel welcome," she said.

Most of Blackwater Book Exchange customers are middle-aged women, but Jackson said she would like to expand the reach of high school kids and give them a place to hang out. Loitering is pretty much encouraged with the big leather sofa and and free WiFi. Jackson said she hopes to add a coffee bar sometime in the future, but for right now there is a Keurig machine.

What can be exciting about a used bookstore is that the inventory constantly changes.

"We truly do get something new every day," she said.

What doesn't sell will get donated. The store also offers wrapped "mystery books" for $1. Jackson said they're a big hit and just one of things that set her apart from other bookstores.

"I want to make the store more of an experience," she said. "A lot of people don't even know that Milton has a bookstore."