by Tim Gilmore, 4/29/2016
Phil May hunches over his walker and walks me from one condo high over the Ortega River to the “guestroom” condo next door.
At one time, his book collection numbered about 100,000 volumes. He bought anything he thought he’d like one day to read, but shakes his head now and says, “I was crazy.”
Out the sliding-glass doors to the balcony, I look down on sailboats in slips at the marina below and into the distance at the downtown skyline.
Phil May sits back in a walker that doubles as a wheelchair and rests one leg on a footstool. In World War Two, a shell fragment entered his thigh, and his old combat wound has haunted him greatly in his later years. He turned 90 last June.
His praise for Ron Chamblin is unequivocal: “He’s the most remarkable man I’ve ever met in my life.”
He remembers when Ron bought the Bookmine from Cy Crawford in 1976. Phil frequently scoped out estate sales for possible book purchases, and every sale he attended, Ron had immediately preceded him and snatched every valuable find.
Ron was quite the book hawk (or vulture), expanding his stock rapidly and aggressively. Crawford Bookmine offered perhaps 15,000 titles, while Ron’s current inventory contains more than 3 million.
Ron tells me how he and Cy attended an annual book sale in Gainesville, Florida, an enormous affair:
“He would guard the books that I had gathered and piled up. Otherwise, people would take my selections in the chaos. It was frantic business. I gathered perhaps 200 or 300 books in the rush in about 45 minutes. When I finished, I looked at Cy’s serious face. It was an intense moment. I said nothing about the urine at his feet.”
Phil says that when Cy moved Crawford Bookmine from the Victorian Riverside Avenue house nicknamed “Red Buddha” to the smaller house in Lake Shore, “he had declined greatly.”
In the Riverside Avenue house, replaced by the 19-story Blue Cross Blue Shield Building in 1971, Cy’s books were well-ordered, but in the two Lake Shore houses where Cy subsequently lived and operated his Bookmine, the books stood in wildly disordered stacks.
“You couldn’t look for a particular book,” Phil says. “You couldn’t hunt. You had to browse and see what you might find.”
He says gossipers whispered rumors about Cy’s eccentricity, maybe that he was other than heterosexual, “but I never did see anything where I could say one way or the other.”
He remembers other old eccentrics drawn to the Bookmine over the years, people like Charlie Strickland.
Charlie walked daily from his inherited home in Ortega, Jacksonville’s old-money peninsula, to Chamblin Bookmine.
Charlie always wore faded white button-up shirts and old blue work pants. His shoulders and back slumped.
I saw him wander regularly through the public library on 103rd Street where I worked as a page, at 16 years old, 1990. His mouth slumped in symmetry with his shoulders. His hair fell mussed just past his ears, grayer all the time.
“He came in every single day,” Ron says, “every day for years, perused the shelves, but never bought a thing.”
Because Charlie was so gentle and strange, local grocery clerks always asked him carefully to leave. They repeatedly found him in the produce aisles, freely sampling grapes and berries.
Charlie died a few days before Christmas, 2007. His obituary description reminds me of the subject of my 2015 book The Mad Atlas of Virginia King. Virginia wandered the city daily for decades and wrote an unreadable 8,448-page book about Jacksonville.
Says Charlie’s obit, “An inveterate individualist, Charlie was often recognized on his long daily walks through local neighborhoods. Many who knew him saw him as part of an era of Jacksonville that has nearly disappeared.”
Phil’s descended from the old-money Stockton family. His son Philip May III, known to friends as Tiger, grew up with future Jacksonville Mayor Herb Peyton.
A future president of the Jacksonville Historical Society, Phil earned a history degree from Princeton in 1952. After 25 years as a Jacksonville stockbroker, he went to work for Mumford Library Books.
By the late 1970s, he’d declared himself a “book nut.” He shared storage space with a lawyer friend, and amassed his collection of 100,000 volumes. He bought anything, but focused on Florida and South Carolina history.
Sitting in his guestroom condo atop the Ortega River, he hands me the key to a glass-fronted barrister bookcase behind me. He asks me to look at his Phil May collection on the bottom left-hand shelf.
Over the years, Jacksonville’s Phil May bought every book he could find of English illustrator and caricaturist Phil May, staff member of the British satirical magazine Punch, who died at age 39 in 1903.
From his front balcony, Phil stares down at Chamblin Bookmine, Ron’s largest retail location, just off Roosevelt Boulevard by the Ortega River.
“Ron has the most agile mind I’ve ever known. He can do anything, but all he wants to do is work.”
Phil calls Ron about once a week and tells him he needs to work less, “enjoy life,” and “get right with the Lord.”
Ron has enough money, Phil says, and enough books, “and it’s just a shame to see him waste that agile mind and waste his life.”
I ask Phil why he thinks Ron’s wasting his life.
“I tell him, I tell him all the time,” he says. “He has that beautiful house on the water out in Clay County. He needs to spend less time working. Why, he was living downtown in the back of that store for years. That’s no way for a human being to live. He needs to come into the church and make things right. He knows it too, but I haven’t seen any action on it.”
I don’t say anything to Phil about the fact that Ron’s an atheist.
Another time, when I tease Ron about “getting right with the Lord,” he winces slightly at the feudalistic language for a servant to address his master, and says, “If there were a Lord, I’d consider it.”
Before I take the elevator down, Phil and I walk slowly back to his primary condo. His wife Gloria’s therapist has arrived. There’s talk of the increasing numbers of scams against the elderly. Someone has just used the Mays’ credit card number to make $10,000 worth of purchases at Home Depot. It’s the second such scam they’ve suffered this month.
Phil says he’s enjoyed our visit immensely. I have too and I tell him so.
Before I go, he says once again that Ron Chamblin’s the most remarkable man he’s ever known. When my book about Ron comes out this summer, he says, “I really must get Ron to sign my copy.”