Veal brains and the used bookstore of my dreams in Jacksonville

Our family had a most interesting day today. This was completely unintentional, as I had planned to spend the day painting our kitchen and breakfast nook.

We woke up and hurried to get ready for our local library’s book sale. I had heard wonderful things about all of the books they have available each year, so I attempted to get our family there as early as possible (before all of the good stuff was gone). We did find a lot of good books, but there was hardly anything left on history (my favorite subject). So I was a little disappointed.

After that, we met Elise’s karate class at the pier for the kids to practice on the beach. Her sensei is teaching karate on the beach twice a month now – in addition to the normal twice a week at the recreation center – to get the kids ready for upcoming tournaments. Several of the more advanced kids in the class will be competing (not Elise). She has no idea that having your karate class on the beach is not a “normal” childhood.

Karate on the beach.

We very much enjoyed lounging along the boardwalk watching Elise and her friends practice their katas. We could not ask for better weather, and it felt like the entire town had decided to go to the beach. While we were there, Rodney convinced me to give up on projects around the house and spend the day playing in Jacksonville. And so we did.

We decided to spend the day on a tour of used bookstores around Jacksonville. Good grief, I had no idea that Jacksonville had so many incredible used bookstores. And when I say incredible, I mean INCREDIBLE. This is a very well-educated population, and it shows. I can’t believe we have lived in Florida for a couple years now and not been used bookstore-hopping in Jax before.

The first one we went to was Black Sheep Books, which is an excellent store with extensive history sections. I was unhappy to discover that the place is likely going to close down in June, as the owner wants to spend more time traveling and doing other things after running a bookstore for two decades. Then we went to a big-box used bookstore near Top Golf (I forget its name), which was also impressive.

But nothing could prepare me for the Chamblin Bookmine on Roosevelt Boulevard. This is hands-down the most amazing bookstore that I have ever set foot in. I know you probably think nothing could top places like the Tattered Cover in Denver or Book People in Austin. But they are not even close to the literary wonder that is the Chamblin Bookmine.

Ron Chamblin owns two bookstores in Jacksonville, the 33,000-square foot Bookmine on Roosevelt Boulevard and another 10,000-square foot bookstore downtown. Between the two locations, he has amassed OVER THREE MILLION BOOKS. I am not kidding with that figure. If you are a bibliophile, this store absolutely must be on your bucket list.

One aisle in the Bookmine.
Multiply this by about 200 and you have a sense of the scale of the store.

The Bookmine is aptly named, as it is a cavernous building with a maze of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that keep taking you deeper and deeper, not unlike the tunnels and seams in mines. I did not realize that they offer maps of the store at the entrance, otherwise I would have taken one. You need one. When we made it close to the rear of one section, I ended up getting separated from Rodney and Elise and started to have a legitimate panic attack. I was going to message them, but I couldn’t even figure out how to describe my location. We eventually reunited, but it was intense.

Apart from the sheer number of books in the store, what sets this store apart from others is the quality of the selection. The store has a better selection (by orders of magnitude) than any college bookstore I have ever visited. It is an emotional experience seeing every title you have ever dreamed of getting on a subject, regardless of how obscure or academic it might be. And most of the books are inexpensive, clean copies too. I will never step foot in a Barnes and Noble again – there is seriously no point.

Books, books everywhere.

In researching how this magnificent place came to exist, I found this 2016 article about the owner in the Jacksonville paper:

Forty years ago this month, during the bicentennial summer, Ron Chamblin bought 15 boxes of smoke damaged books and opened a used book store on Herschel Street…

Before he started a book store, Chamblin, who is 74, was unhappy with the course of his life. He’d had an unhappy childhood living with an alcoholic father. He hated high school. He spent four years in the military and hated that. He then went to work writing technical manuals and selling motorcycles. He didn’t like that either. He didn’t want to work for someone else.

So he negotiated to buy the Crawford Bookmine, which Cy Crawford ran out of his Lakeshore home. A fire at Crawford’s house damaged his collection. But Chamblin still paid $7,500 for the Bookmine name and the 15 boxes of books, the most important step in what he called Project Liberation…

For most of his 40-year career, Chamblin worked seven a days a week, though he recently started taking Sundays off. He says he’s taken only three weeks of vacation during that time. He’s owned homes, including his current home on Fleming Island. But for nine years he lived in a room in the back of the Roosevelt story.

After he opened Chamblin’s Uptown in 2008, he spent several years living in a room there.

Probably the most important step Chamblin made in building his used book empire was his acquisition of the old Consumers Warehouse building at 4551 Roosevelt Blvd. He renovated the building and opened with 15,000 square feet of retail space 25 years ago, in 1991.

“I thought we’d never fill the son-of-a-gun,” Chamblin told the Times-Union in 2002.

The building was filled within three years.

Chamblin subsequently bought a plant nursery next door and expanded his retail space by 9,000 square feet. Now, he said he plans another expansion at Roosevelt, an additional 12,000 square feet. Walking through the maze-like corridors of Chamblin Bookmine, with packed book shelves towering over aisles narrow enough to induce claustrophobia, the need for ever more space becomes clear.

One of the things that has made Chamblin a success is his practice of extending credit. People who sell books to him can take their profits in cash. But they get a better deal if they take the payout in store credit. Chamblin said he currently owes about $350,000 in store credit. That keeps his customers coming back.

Some aisles defied categories.

In the middle of our book-hunting, we stopped at the Beirut Restaurant on Baymeadows Road, which is a very cool place to eat. We were out on an enclosed patio. While I do not get into hookah, it was pleasant to smell it. Between that and the Lebanese music they had cranked, it felt like we had been transported to the Middle East.

We had some mezze samplers, which were delicious. But the highlight of the meal for me is that I offered Elise $20 to eat veal brains and she actually did it. She wasn’t at all grossed out by them once they came, and ate most of a platter of them. We have the most adventurous seven-year-old I know. (She also happily put away a dish of liver.)

While eating the veal brains, she joked that she was eating “cow memories.” Hahaha.

At the restaurant, I learned about Arak, a Levantine liqueur. It tastes like licorice and runs about 100 proof. It’s made from grapes and aniseed, and seems very similar to absinthe. The name comes from the Arabic word for “perspiration.” (Here’s a fun piece on how Arak is made.) I also tried some wine from the West Bank, which I can only assume is an acquired taste.

We will definitely be going back to this restaurant, but there are many Middle Eastern restaurants in the vicinity. (Incidentally, Jacksonville has the country’s 10th largest Arab-American community. Arabs have been relocating to Jacksonville for well over a century, with the first Arab immigrant settling in the area in 1890.)

After the restaurant, we went to the Beirut Grocery, which is a couple doors down from the restaurant. We make it a habit to visit international grocery stores wherever we go. Partly that is for the joy of filling our pantry with ingredients from all over the world, but it is a great way to discover new things in general. In our own town, we shop at the Latino, Portuguese, and Asian grocery stores on a regular basis. (They also usually have some of the best cuts of meat.)

Elise loved the Beirut Grocery seemingly more than all other grocery stores because they not only carried Turkish Delight (the real stuff) but HAD AN ENTIRE WALL OF DELIGHTS in all kinds of flavors. I could not resist a bag of fig delights myself (y’all know how much I love figs). They also had dried mandarin orange segments and dried kiwis in bags.

Turkish Delight – so good, it’s sinful.

I also bought some rooibos and cinnamon tea and some soaps. I had no idea that olive oil is used in making soaps.

Another thing I learned at the Lebanese grocery store is that truffles grow in the desert. I saw some tins of truffles (terfeziaceae) from North Africa. They are expensive, but not as expensive as the ones that grow in the forests of Europe. I was tempted to buy one just to see what they taste like.

All in all, it was an amazing day. I love Jacksonville, there is so much to do there.

Holiday fun and a year of gardening aggressively

Rodney’s parents came down to Florida for Christmas, which was delightful, and stayed long enough to watch some bowl games. We were all very happy to see Clemson win, and are looking forward to the Baylor – Georgia game on New Year’s. (Sic ’em, Bears!)

I know Elise loved spending days on nature walks and feeding the turtles in one of our neighborhood ponds with her Mimi. She went fishing with her Papa, and caught a couple bluegill.

She has also decided Papa is the best babysitter. We left them alone while we ran some errands, and came back to discover Papa let Elise ride her boogie board down the stairs.

“You were supposed to be watching her!” Rodney said.

“I was watching her,” Papa replied coolly. “I looked like a lot of fun.”

And we sent Mimi back to Georgia with a lot of plants, including a cool air plant that sits in a swing.

Which brings me to gardening. I gave up on trying to remove the last bit of vines and fallen trees from what will become our fern dell (see our trip to Washington Oaks Gardens State Park for reference). I had to call in professional help, our most extraordinary gardener, Mr. Perez. Mr. Perez knows everything about Florida trees, and was able to help us clear the rest of the debris, including ridding our 40-foot oak trees of all of the vines that have been tormenting them for many years.

Mr. Perez also brought his daughter along to play with Elise all day. Watching her run around catching lizards and building forts with Elise reminded me of when I would tag along with my contractor father to job sites on the days I was out of school. Except I was older and would park myself on a pile of lumber with a volume of Immanuel Kant. (Catching lizards is indisputably a better use of one’s time than reading Kant.)

The only problem with all of this is that the fern dell now has a lot of sunshine that it did not have before we disrupted its canopy. This means only part of the area can be ferns. We decided to turn the area into a massive tropical garden instead.

And thus the planting begins. Here are all the plants we picked up for the new garden:

  • 2 Celia Hibiscus
  • 6 Mamay Croton
  • 6 large, white Birds of Paradise
  • 6 Hope Philodendrons
  • 3 Persian Shields
  • 5 Macho Ferns
  • 6 Kimberly Queen Ferns
  • 5 Foxtail Ferns
  • 2 Silver Buttonwood Trees
  • 3 Petra Crotons
  • 2 Ficus Trees
  • 3 Begonias
  • 42 Impatiens
  • 20 Elephant Ears

I am hoping to add some plumeria once Jungle Jack’s nursery in California is back to shipping them (presumably after the “cold” months in other states are over).

Croton gets its name from the Greek word for “tick,” as its seeds resemble ticks. It is a brilliant plant, with many bright colors, and is ubiquitous in the Caribbean and Florida. We bought two kinds of crotons, the mamay, whose leaves are long and twist in colorful strips that look like dreadlocks, and the petra, with broad leaves. Crotons are houseplants elsewhere in the world, but here they can grow to be several feet tall.

I already had one white bird of paradise, which was slightly mangled during our recent tornado-producing storm, but seems to be recovering nicely. When we cleared out the vines, our property lost some of its privacy, as there is a hiking trail that runs along that side of the property to the Intracoastal Waterway. I was vacillating between planting a large orange tree in that spot or planting a patch of birds of paradise. Unlike their orange counterparts, these white birds of paradise are massive and can easily grow 30 feet tall.

Philodendron is another plant with a Greek name, meaning “loving tree.” It’s such a strange category of plant, taking many forms, which include both aerial and subterranean roots (not unlike orchids). Folks have been cultivating them since at least the 17th century. I saw a house while we were walking the esplanade along the ICW that had large drifts of philodendron plants and decided to attempt to replicate that. They give a space a very jungle-like feel.

These are Persian shields. I thought they might provide a nice contrast to the avenue of ferns. These plants are actually native to Myanmar. The purple really starts to show if you plant them in the shade; too much light and the color will fade. I’m kind of curious how they got the name, so if anyone knows, please do tell me.

I am going to attempt to plant hibiscus in an area away from the house and pray that the deer do not notice that it exists. In my experience, there are three plants deer cannot resist – fragrant roses (which they will chew to the ground, thorns and all), phlox, and hibiscus. I planted two salmon-colored hibiscus near our entryway, but I had to pull them out because I dumped fish fertilizer on them and they quadrupled in size within a few months, blocking off our front door. There was much weeping involved, much like there will be if the deer find the new garden.

This is silver buttonwood. This is a plant you want to pet. I’m not kidding. It has soft, felt-like leaves, much like lamb’s ears. You can’t stop touching them.

Another typical houseplant that you can plant outdoors here are rubber trees or ficus trees. I am planning on surrounding it with a bed of bright red impatiens.

Totally unrelated to any of this, I found my dream garden hose. Now, I know this is a silly thing to carry on about, but if you love gardening, water hoses are kind of important. My biggest pet peeve in the world are hoses that squish the plants around them or get tangled up. We just had a couple move in next to us from New Jersey, and they had one of these installed. Once I saw it, I had to have it. It comes from Frontgate. You mount it on a pillar and the hose container rotates in a half circle around it. As the hose is elevated, it does not squish your plants! Genius! It also comes with a nozzle with a minimalist look that does all kinds of things (not pictured here).

Democrat working on Trump impeachment was impeached and convicted himself as a federal judge

It never gets less funny seeing Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings working on the rules for the Articles of Impeachment against President Trump. Hastings himself was impeached and convicted on bribery and perjury charges when he was a federal judge in the 1980s. The kicker? He was removed from office by Democrats, who controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate then. He avoided prison time because his co-conspirator refused to testify, and then was pardoned by President Bill Clinton during the last hours of his presidency.

He is now a congressman because Broward County is batshit and he’s in a leadership position in Democrats’ impeachment fever dream because Democrats are batshit.

Here is some history for you:

In 1981, Hastings was charged with accepting a $150,000 bribe in exchange for a lenient sentence and a return of seized assets for 21 counts of racketeering by Frank and Thomas Romano, and of perjury in his testimony about the case. In 1983, Hastings was acquitted by a jury after his alleged co-conspirator, William Borders, refused to testify in court, resulting in a jail sentence for Borders.[5]

In 1988, the Democratic-controlled United States House of Representatives took up the case, and Hastings was impeached for bribery and perjury by a vote of 413–3. He was then convicted on October 20, 1989, by the United States Senate, becoming the sixth federal judge in the history of the United States to be removed from office by the Senate. The Senate, in two hours of roll calls, voted on 11 of the 17 articles of impeachment. It convicted Hastings of eight of the 11 articles. The vote on the first article was 69 for and 26 opposed.[1]

Alleged co-conspirator attorney William Borders went to jail again for refusing to testify in the impeachment proceedings, but was later given a full pardon by President Bill Clinton on his last day in office.[6]

Apart from people in Florida laughing at what a cesspool of corruption South Florida is, you don’t really see facts like this being pointed out in the press. You’d think they’d be having a field day with a factoid like this, but they are all liberal political operatives themselves.

You have to love how bad actors can survive for decades in Washington DC, such that Americans get continually tag-teamed by the same incestuous group of people. The Trump gotcha garbage started off with a dossier of Russian disinformation paid for and circulated to the press (and Obama’s Justice Department, per the FISA report) by representatives of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. One of the big people involved in this impeachment process was impeached, convicted, and had an associate pardoned by Clinton’s husband. The same fucking crowd of losers, and they never go away across decades. Pretty soon they’ll all have their offspring running for office to kept the gravy train going. In fact, Chuck and Nancy themselves have had their asses parked in DC for so long they can remember these precise events. They are probably proud of their roles in them.

Your tax dollars at work!

Oh, and for the record, Hastings was nominated to the federal bench by Jimmy Carter, one of the most incompetent presidents in American history. He nominated a guy who would financially broker sentences for prison time.

The ghost of Mrs. Whaley and tropical fruit trees

Charleston socialite Emily Whaley, referring to the time and expense of maintaining her property, once quipped that some women own racehorses but she prefers gardening. Mrs. Whaley passed on to her great reward many years ago, but I share a chuckle with her spirit from time to time, as I imagine I am now also in “could have bought a racehorse” territory when it comes to gardening.

(Incidentally, Rodney and I did consider investing in a racing syndicate back when we lived in Lexington. Between that and having a kid who loves to ride hunter-jumper, I think we’d be Zuckerberg-rich if we had a nickel every time someone offered to sell us a horse.)

I’ve spent about thirty hours working in the garden since Saturday, pulling vines, removing spent vegetation, and laying hundreds of feet of fresh mulch. It was great to be out in the sunshine again. I know the winter solstice is still several days away, but it feels like the days are getting longer. (Maybe because we’ve moved closer to the equator? Or maybe it’s just me getting excited for longer days.) I am one of those people who sink into a mild depression with shorter/colder days, so this is wonderful change for me.

I have been hoarding newspapers to make a thick layer of paper under the mulch in places. I’ve been in a never-ending battle with baby oak under one tree, and I am hoping that if I starve it of light it might go away. I am evangelical about organic gardening, and was happy to discover that the only physical newspaper we subscribe to anymore (the Wall Street Journal) uses soy ink and thus won’t hurt the soil. So it could safely be used as an organic alternative to the plastic sheeting some people use.

(Digression: Endless passersby ask me what fertilizer I use and how I keep weeds away. I primarily use kelp and fish fertilizers on plants, soaking the soil at their base, but they are so rich that you do not need to use them often. If you start using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, you will melt the ecosystem of your garden. This is why people who use them are in this constant cycle of dumping crap on their plants. The best way to keep weeds away is to pull them on a regular basis and keep a heavy layer of mulch on the beds, which has the added benefit of reducing the volume of water you need. Things like plastic sheeting will destroy your soil structure over time, and it prevents water from reaching both your flowers and trees. You do not want anything that prevents air from getting down into the soil or compacts it unnecessarily. There’s no laborless way of maintaining a beautiful garden.)

Anyway, it was surreal unfolding layer after layer of newspaper to cover the ground. Your eyes wander over all the headlines, at it sort of overwhelms you how downright toxic the news is. We say this all the time about the nastiness and pettiness of politicians and the chattering class, and I know a ton of people who have now opted out of consuming the news altogether for the sake of their mental health. (When Dorian was approaching Florida, I spoke to several people who did not know there was a major hurricane because they had stopped watching the news altogether. Ditto with our recent tornado. They heard the crazy sound of the tornado as it rolled by, but they had no idea what it was. They also had no idea that anyone in town had had their property destroyed by the storm because they choose not to watch the news. And these are hardly stupid or illiterate people. Just nice people who want to remain nice.) But laying out hundreds of pages of newspaper and seeing the cumulative nastiness of the news, it just looked like intellectual poison.

All the news that’s fit to rot under pine nuggets.

Constructing the fern dell is turning out to be a larger garden project than I anticipated. I cleared out a bunch of the undergrowth in the wooded area immediately behind our house, but I am going to have to get rid of a bunch of serious vines (and evil baby oak) that are all tangled together. Once it is gone, it will help that part of the property have a park-like appearance, but it is eliminating some of our privacy from a public hiking trail that goes out to the Intercoastal Waterway. It’s also going to add a bunch of sunlight, which the ferns will not like.

I have decided that I am going to plant an orange tree and some birds of paradise there to close the area off. But then there began the trouble of finding a place with relatively mature trees that ships to Florida. I understood that Florida has a lot of laws and regulations to protect the state’s crucial agricultural industry, but they seem to be humorously specific. Like you can’t get a navel or cora cora orange tree from out of state, but you can get a clementine. And apparently there are not any restrictions on avocados, which I found somewhat surprising.

I started a banana patch a couple months ago as well (different side of the property) and have a dwarf mango tree from India on the front porch. It’s starting to look like I am building an unintentional tropical orchard.

I am also planning to plant a royal poinciana tree and plumeria out there. The royal poinciana became a mandate after seeing them all over Key West. They are such gorgeous, fern-like trees.

I have a powder puff tree that is fern-like as well. Caring about foliage is a new development for me. In northern southern states, the priority is what color leaves turn when fall arrives. We do not have much of a fall or winter here, so the fun is in finding trees that look primeval.

And that’s the garden update….

We had a tornado here early this morning…

Well, there was no sleeping in for us this morning. Rodney and I both woke up to what sounded like a deafening, on-going explosion. The wind was insane. There was no rain.

We live in a cement house on the Intracoastal Waterway constructed to withstand serious hurricanes. You generally can’t hear anything inside the house. In fact, you can tell when a serious storm is coming in from the east if you actually hear the ocean roaring.

Thus, when we heard the explosion sound, we knew something big was happening nearby. I ran to Elise’s room and pulled her out of bed.

We seemingly do not have tornado sirens here like we did when we lived in Texas and Kentucky. But our phones started blowing up with tornado warnings. After is was over, you could hear emergency vehicles coming from every direction.

I have lived in the South my entire adult life and I have never seen or heard a tornado. As much as people worry about tornadoes, I have had more experience with major earthquakes from my childhood in California. I’ve turned into one of those Southerners who runs outside to watch insane storms rather than hiding away. Now I am kind of surprised anyone ever stays outside long enough to get videos of tornadoes listening to that awful sound that is enough to make you feel physically ill.

The local news reports said the damage was mostly small – some people lost their roofs and it apparently ripped the Florida room off of someone’s house. (Small on a community scale; those are obviously not “small” concerns to the owners.) It damaged some of the restaurants on the beach. Calls related to the tornado were apparently quickly dwarfed by lightning strikes and arcing power lines.

I haven’t had the chance to walk around my gardens to see what the winds from the storm last night did. But I can already see it shredded my ten-foot tall bird of paradise, which had survived Dorian unscathed. I’m a little angry about that.

Anyway, how about that…. a tornado on the coast? Florida is wild.

Low tide, a pod of dolphins, and fishing birds

Our morning walk along the Intracoastal Waterway was at low tide. Combined with serious winds, the water was pushed far away from the banks.

All of the birds were gleefully out fishing. There were several ospreys, cranes, and a blue heron so large that it came up to my neck.

The highlight of our walk, however, was seeing a pod with upwards of ten dolphins making its way southward. Among them was a mother dolphin and a baby who were swimming and leaping perfectly in sync. It reminded me of the research from the Sarasota dolphin project about how dolphins have signature whistles that likely function like names.

I tried my best to get a picture of the dolphins, but they are so hard to catch in motion. This has to be a record number for our dolphin-watching episodes though. I feel so blessed to live in Florida and have creatures like this in our backyard.