Thursday, January 28, 2010

Minnesota Book Hope

The Twin Cities is one of the places about which book people of a certain age love to get nostalgic.

“The good old days” is an annoying topic because it can’t help but make you feel old, like its sister cliché theme, “kids today.” And the good old days are almost always seen through deeply rose colored glasses. There’s a great old Moms Mabley routine where she takes on “all these people always talking about the good old days. What good old days? When? I was there, where were they at?”

But in truth Minneapolis does have a bookstore history that other cities would envy.

Strong, neighborhood-based family owned bookstores, including Odegaard’s, Gringolet, and the legendary Hungry Mind.

A constellation of specialty shops, including the oldest feminist bookstore in the nation, Amazon. (Yes, they had the name first!)

Excellent bookstores at the numerous area colleges, which seem as ubiquitous as corner groceries.

A quirky national book wholesaler, the Bookmen. When I called on them in the late nineties it felt like stepping onto a set from Barton Fink.

And though it seems quaint to remember that the B. Dalton chain was once feared as a great looming threat to independent booksellers, it was founded here by the Dayton’s Department store (now also long gone).

So yes, there’s reason to feel some book nostalgia in the Twin Cities. But spend a couple days here and even in 2010 there are plenty of reasons for booklovers to feel cheerful and, perish the thought, optimistic. Here are three of them.

To come upon Micawber’s, in the thoroughly charming St Anthony neighborhood of St Paul, on a snowy winter afternoon, is like stumbling into a Dickens novel- and not only because of the store’s namesake. It’s a small, unassuming shop in a gently used building. No flashy signage, though in the summer they set up book stalls out on the sidewalk, giving the corner a European vibe. The two large rooms are toasty warm, and the floors creak in the most authentic way.

The book selection all but screams “hand-picked.” Even the more popular, media driven titles somehow look a little more special on the fine wooden front table, mixed in among the more esoteric picks. This is a shop that doesn’t really need a “staff recommends” section because just about every book feels as if it’s earned a place on the shelf because somebody believes in it.

The shop marries decades of bookselling experience with loads of youthful confident energy in the form of co-owners Tom Bielenberg and Hans Weyandt (I won’t say which is which, because some of each has rubbed off on the other). The Twin Cities book DNA here follows a couple strands: Tom and Hans are Hungry Mind (a/k/a Ruminator) alumni, and they bought the store from Norton Stillman, longtime owner of the Bookmen wholesalers.

Like so many of the remaining independent bookshops across the country, their neighbors will ultimately decide their fate. So far, the support is heartening, with people making a conscious decision to shop local and patronize the store. Naturally, they don’t just wait for business to walk in, and there’s a calendar of outside the store activities.

Over dinner, Tom mused about the challenges of selecting inventory for such a small space, how to balance stocking what the community wants with bringing in books they care about personally. I think they’ve nailed it, but maybe that’s because our tastes match so well. And it made my day to see Amartya Sen’s Idea of Justice being unpacked as we left the store.

It was in Micawber’s a decade ago that I first became aware of the incredible New York Review series of found classics, which at that point only had a couple dozen titles but were displayed together in the shop. I picked up the latest, a new edition of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, on the front table, and have resolved to make Micawber’s my NYRB source.

One of the most beautiful buildings in all of the Twin Cities, the Blair Arcade in the historic Hill district now has a beautiful bookstore to complement it, thanks to Garrison Keillor’s wonderful Common Good Books ("Live local, read large.")

The neighborhood and the building are perfect, but the specifics of the site seem like they came from the “do not” chapter of a bookstore design book- a basement space beneath a busy coffee shop that’s hard to discern from the street (and somewhat tricky to find the entrance to once you do discern it).

But the store is surprisingly bright and cheerful, in part because a fantastic skylight opens the fiction section to the sky. The layout inspires discovery and exploration- nooks and surprise seating areas, interesting fixtures, level changes.

And the books! This is another shop that has decided to stake its claim on a very specific mission rather than attempting to be all things to all people. The commitment here is decidedly literary, with the most expansive section of Midwest Fiction I’ve seen anywhere. There are a good dose of books that promote a sense of community (hint: the store name).

Section headings are whimsical: not “Psychology” but “The Head;” not “Religion” but “God.” A wonderful poetry section is comprehensive but idiosyncratic. There are loads of books for writers, not surprisingly.

Though the shop is owned by Keillor (sorry, Garrison, as everyone in the Cities calls him), the place has proven itself to be way more than some kind of vanity project. This is in large part due to the taste and smarts of manager/buyer Sue Zumberge.

Its fun to work with a buyer who is so confident in her selections- she knows what’s “not for us,” but when she hits a “this is so us!” book her enthusiasm is contagious. (She was so excited that Harvard is publishing a new collection of the poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman that we had to put the appointment on pause while she recited a few.)

One of the sadder changes I’ve seen over the course of my book rep tenure has been the demise of quality university stores. To return to the nostalgia theme, I spent hours and hours- too many, probably- in the University of Wisconsin Bookstore when I was in school there. It was a great store, but not unique. Apparently there was once a notion at universities that having a great bookstore reflected well on the institution and might even be part of its academic mission.

Now, in so many cases, they are simply seen as profit centers (or loss, more likely), and the mark-up on sweatshirts and school crap is better, so who needs books. But there are still a handful of good ones, and the University of Minnesota Bookstore is one of the best.

The shop- in the basement of the new(ish) Coffman Memorial Union, has all the usual non-book trappings. If you enter at one end of the building you are surrounded by gadgets and sports paraphernalia, but if you enter from the other, you find yourself in a really great bookstore.

The refreshing thing about the U Minn store is that they are still committed to what seems like a fading ideal: that an academic store should represent all subject areas, and within them, the best books, both new and what we call core backlist. This is easier said than done from a logistic and space standpoint, though the physical size here is almost luxurious. But it’s also hard to do if the numbers people are demanding unrealistic turn numbers. Sometimes it takes over a year for a book to find its reader. And sometimes, if you are a real bookstore, you have to have it anyway.

Having the support and understanding of higher-ups is a big plus, but I give most of the credit to the two longtime trade book buyers- Amy Potvin and Terry Labandz. With a very full plate, they take the time to carefully cull every new list for books in their strong subject areas, and they’re not afraid to represent something if it’s important to the field even if the sales prospects might be iffy.

What’s especially refreshing is their attitude to backlist- they like it, they keep on top of it, and they sell it. Terry was thrilled to see how well they are still selling “these philosophers I keep thinking of as old”- Debord, Deleuze, Habermas.

To go through this track record of what’s actually selling sets a good tone for moving on to the new books, to the extent that there’s a relationship between what sold and what will. There’s a tag team quality to my meetings with Amy and Terry, and they often disagree about the potential of a book. Terry is sometimes a little over-optimistic, and Amy is sometimes a little skeptical, but the resulting compromise seems to produce more hits than misses.

So my message to anyone feeling despondent about the grim state of the book business is to pay a visit to the Twin Cities before writing the obituary on bookstores. I always leave here feeling a little, well, hopeful?

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