Our Town

People and places that define Orlando

Rethinking Urban Think

The indie bookstore in Thornton Park closes as a literary center—but not as a community space. By Mike Boslet

It was with the best intentions that developer Craig Ustler opened Urban Think in 2001. To Ustler, the tiny bookstore in the Thornton Park Central mixed-use building he built would be a community amenity for the urbanites moving into the fledgling Thornton Park-Lake Eola neighborhood.

To lawyer Bruce Harris, whose love for independent bookstores led him to take over Urban Think as principal owner in 2005, the space would be a literary center, a place for voracious readers like himself to sit and talk about books and even meet the authors who wrote them.

Urban Think  did all of that, but what it couldn’t be was a bookstore with an inventory that could satisfy readers with incredibly diverse interests. It had a little of this and that, and nothing of a lot.

Meanwhile, a Barnes & Noble, located just a mile away on Colonial Drive, has a giant selection and an equally expansive parking lot to pull into. Not that you have to drive anywhere to buy books nowadays.

Ustler and Harris say profit was never their motivation for running Urban Think, but watching the bookstore go into the red every year was motivation enough to revise their visions of its purpose in the community.

So, they penciled in March 31 as the closing date for one of the few indie book retailers in Central Florida. But the store’s demise opens the next chapter for the Urban Think Foundation, a charitable group they formed in 2008. Ustler and Harris’ plans for the 2,400-square-foot space include providing communal workspaces for freelancers like graphic artists, with room for a summer reading camp led by Julia Young, who runs a free after-school reading program in Orlando. Young is the executive director of the foundation.

“It just became apparent that if there was a way we could promote the bookstore, I just couldn’t figure it out,” says Harris, 42. He tried book signings and readings and even held a storytelling evening with a beat poet who hung with Jack Kerouac. The events drew decent crowds but made little money. “There just has never been enough buyers of books,” Harris laments.

Ustler, 41, finds a bit of irony in the bookstore’s demise. “Seismic shifts came along,” he says by way of explaining the loss of thos who were thought to be Urban Think’s most loyal customer base—the iPod generation. “The person who owns a Kindle is an urban dweller.”


After-Dinner Book

Supper talks led a former resident and Helen Thomas to team up on a guide for presidents. Jay Boyar

When Craig Crawford, who grew up in Orlando, came home for a visit from Washington, D.C., he brought along Helen Thomas, who, at 89, is the dean of the White House press corps. The journalists have co-written a new guidebook for presidents.

Crawford, 53, covered Washington for the Orlando Sentinel from 1989 to 1997. Today, he’s a columnist for Congressional Quarterly’s CQ Politics and a blogger at craigcrawford.com.

He and Thomas got to know each other at dinners with mutual friends, during which they discussed politics, especially the presidential variety. Those discussions led to their recently published book, Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do (Scribner, $24).

On their visit to Orlando in February, Crawford and Thomas spoke at a luncheon meeting of Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida. Here are their remarks from that meeting and just before it.

Crawford on: Growing up here: “I remember when the most exciting thing in Orlando was to go watch the colors change on the fountain in Lake Eola. It really was!”

The new book: “It’s sort of like My Dinner With Andre. They made a movie about a dinner conversation. We made a book about one.”

Helen Thomas: “She really doesn’t have hobbies. Even in social settings, she wants to talk about history and politics and current events.”

Thomas on: Barack Obama: “He needs more courage. He needs to face the issues and forget his political advisers.”

Sarah Palin: “I’m still waiting to be interested in her.”

Dick Cheney: “He’s a bad man. …We had never been known for torture, and now we are.”

Herself: “I walk in where angels fear to tread, and I think that’s why I have such a bad reputation.”

Craig Crawford: “He’s in demand by liberal commentators and the ultra-right, which I think is a good testimony.”


Scout’s Honor

Jeff Cox needed an Eagle Scout project. He ended up giving Windermere a permanent piece of 9/11 history. By Megan VanWaus

It could be four more years before the Sept. 11 memorial is completed in New York, at a cost of over $1 billion. The monument will cover eight acres where the World Trade Center stood, with reflecting pools, waterfalls and parapets bearing the names of more than 3,000 victims.

Meanwhile, 1,100 miles south of the Big Apple in the town of Windermere, a 3-by-4-foot chunk of rusted steel stands as a pointed reminder of the horror and sacrifices of 9/11. It took Boy Scout Jeff Cox just nine months to get it placed there.

Jeff, 15, had been searching for a memorable Eagle Scout project. At a Scout camp last summer, somebody mentioned memorials as a good idea, and Jeff thought of 9/11. A memorial that contained an actual piece of the World Trade Center would be ideal. But how could a sandy-haired kid from a small town in Central Florida pull that off?

Turns out all he had to do was ask. With the support of Windermere’s mayor, Jeff contacted the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and requested a piece of debris. A judge released a 650-pound piece of structural steel that had been saved as evidence from Ground Zero.

Mayor Gary Bruhn helped Jeff decide on the memorial’s location—a secluded setting behind town hall, with benches, trees and a paved walkway leading to a raised concrete ring encircling the monument. Local companies donated help on the design and landscaping, and members of Jeff’s Troop 6 hand-painted dozens of tiles that adorn the ring, some of them images of flags representing the nationalities of 9/11 victims.

In late February, more than 1,000 people attended the dedication of the first World Trade Center memorial in Florida. Jeff Cox was there, of course, bedecked with a sash full of merit badges, eating an ice-cream cone while being interviewed (“I’m speechless and dumbfounded at how big this thing has gotten.’’). Also present were family members of some of the 9/11 victims, and Jeff greeted each of them. They responded with tearful thanks and hugs for his good deed.

Jeff, who was only 6 on Sept. 11, 2001, says he didn’t know anyone personally affected by the attacks but the events of that day still hit home. For one thing, his brother is a Central Florida firefighter. And the fact that, at the World Trade Center, “while people were running out, they [firefighters] were running in’’ makes him admire his brother and firefighters in general all the more.

As Jeff finished his ice cream, he was asked what he would like to do next in his life. “I want to go to the Naval or the Air Force Academy,’’ he said, then stopped suddenly as something suspicious caught his eye—smoke coming from a woman’s hand inside town hall. His “Be Prepared’’ instincts kicking in, the conscientious Scout hurried off, only to return after a few moments. “I saw smoke and wanted to make sure she wasn’t smoking inside,’’ he explained. “It was just some steam from her coffee.’’


Personal Space

As the shuttle program winds down, a last look at a bright but fading light. By Jay Boyar

After nearly three decades of space shuttle launches, it’s understandable that some folks hereabouts may have come to take them for granted. For me, however, they’ve never lost their luster. I continue to find it amazing that—to paraphrase Sarah Palin—I can see the shuttle from my house.

Well, actually, I have to walk northeast a bit to get a decent view. But, hey, close enough.
I mention this because, as you doubtless have heard, the shuttle program is winding down. By the time you read this, there probably will be just three launches left. After that, there’s no telling when NASA will attempt another human spaceflight mission.

So on a recent Monday, I arose at 4 a.m. to watch Endeavor blast off. While that 130th shuttle launch wasn’t the last, it was the last one scheduled in darkness—and those have always been my favorites.

With me was my son, an inveterate science buff who’s intrigued by the technological challenges of these shuttle missions. He’d brought along his high-powered binoculars and, to document this important occasion, his camera. (It somehow added to the experience that it happened just hours after we’d celebrated his 16th birthday with cake and candles.) My wife, meanwhile, recorded the launch on our video camera.

While we all appreciate the launches as both scientific achievements and family activities, what really gets me about them is the sheer spectacle. In any case, this launch didn’t disappoint us, and we didn’t have to wait long to see it.

Almost as soon as we reached our preferred viewing spot, we spied a bright patch in the dark, chilly sky, just above distant rooftops.

A moment later came the familiar bolt of flame, rising ever upward. I suppose it sounds shallow (especially with the loss of jobs that may come when the shuttle program ends) to admit that the sight has always reminded me of something out of a sci-fi movie, or of the Human Torch from the comic books. The spectacle is so, well, fantastic that it almost seems imaginary.

As the fiery streak continued to rise, we stood there in awe, watching through the separation stage and for some time afterward. We didn’t say a lot, only the occasional “Wow!” or “Beautiful!” We were too busy taking it in to do more than that.

It thrilled us, as it always has, but this time we also felt sad. With this final launch in darkness, we knew we’d lost something special—as have all of us here in Central Florida.

Maybe it’s because my son had just had a birthday, but as we headed home, I found myself thinking about birthday cakes. With the end of these nighttime launches, it was as if someone had made a ridiculous rule:

For the foreseeable future, those cakes will no longer have candles.

Categories: Community