Photo by Gilbertson Photography
People who don’t know me well often ask about the books I read, expecting great suggestions. They’re surprised to find I mostly read magazines and newspapers. I’ll occasionally buy a new hardcover (the Nelson Rockefeller bio sounds great), but it will sit on the shelf.
But I’m a big bookstore guy. I love them as I’m sure many of you do. I spent two years after college working at Hungry Mind in St. Paul for Twin Cities cultural icon David Unowsky. It was an interesting gig, and I met some great people there.
David used to have a big handwritten sign above the entryway documenting where patrons’ book-buying dollars went. It was a stark reminder—even in the good years of the ’70s and ’80s—that bookselling was not a lucrative business and operated on painfully thin margins.
The Twin Cities had tremendous full-service independent bookstores back then—Hungry Mind, Odegard, Baxter’s, and more. Their competition was the sad B. Dalton and Waldenbooks outlets at malls. I worried when Barnes & Noble and Borders opened superstores in town, but what killed the independents was not B&N or TV, but Amazon.com, a business that priced below cost, didn’t charge sales tax, and had a selection no brick-and-mortar store could match.
A decade-plus later, the closings continue. The Bookcase in Wayzata died last fall and Barnes & Noble in Highland Park is going soon.
What remains are a handful of plucky independents and niche players. Magers & Quinn in Uptown thrives offering a mix of used and new. Legendary authors own two others: Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark Books in Kenwood and Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books in Macalester-Groveland. Two stores fronted by ex-Hungry Minders remain as well: Subtext Books in Cathedral Hill (which David Unowsky calls home) and Micawber’s in St. Anthony Park, owned by Tom Bielenberg, who managed Hungry Mind for decades for Unowsky.
Marginally profitable affairs to be sure, most of these stores have had to go to their customers and neighborhoods for help to stay afloat. Birchbark did when the coffee shop next door closed and cost it lots of daily traffic. SubText has been crowdfunding and the Star Tribune recently covered struggles at Micawber’s.
Tom Bielenberg, whom I haven’t seen in years, is one of the nicest people I’ve worked with in my life. I have wonderful memories of coming to Hungry Mind every December seeking his help in finding the right gift for my erudite grandfather. According to the newspaper, Micawber’s has turned to its appreciative neighborhood to help ideate and market.
It’s a difficult time for anyone who loves books and more expansively, the published word.
I am glad to see Amazon now charging sales tax and mounting unimaginable losses. They are not a partner for publishers but a symbiotic predator, if you will. When they are all we have left we will be sorry indeed.
Why not push that day deeper into the future by buying a book from a local bookseller this holiday season. (Even B&N would do, as long as it’s in person.) My old friends Tom and David will make you feel welcome and appreciated in a way no website ever could.
Adam Platt is the executive editor of Twin Cities Business Magazine and formerly held the same post at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. City Centered is his monthly column in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine that examines the cultural climate of the Twin Cities.