Photo by Tad Simons
This past weekend was a great one for the city of St. Paul. A lot of work by a lot of people is now starting to pay off big time in terms of the city’s cultural footprint. For years, whenever St. Paul topped some national poll on livability and quality of life, residents would shake their head and mutter, “Maybe, but it’s not like things couldn’t be better.” Now, actual residents of St. Paul (like me) are beginning to recognize that, sure, there’s room for improvement, but things aren’t half bad at the moment. In fact, can be surprisingly good.
The Twin Cities Jazz Festival took over the city last weekend in a way it never has before. Boasting twice as many venues (12 stages and growing), it seemed like music was pouring out of every restaurant, bar, and park in town. On Friday night, I had every intention of getting down to Mears Park to see saxophonist Chris Potter play—but I never made it, because there was so much other music to catch.
In Rice Park, Beasley’s Big Band had the crowd dancing; inside the St. Paul Hotel, Joanne Funk played everything from Nat King Cole to Norah Jones; and after popping into the Amsterdam Bar to catch a seriously smoking set by the BZ3 Organ Trio (Brian Ziamniak on organ, Troy Norton on guitar, Kevin Washington on drums), I was all music-ed out. I didn’t feel the need to battle the crowds at Mears Park. But if I’d wanted to, I could have caught half a dozen other acts—at Bedlam Theater, the Hat Trick Lounge, Heartland Restaurant, 7th Street Social, Vieux Carré, The Black Dog Coffee Shop—all within walking distance of each other.
On Saturday, of course, Dr. John and his Nite Trippers played a jaunty show in the afternoon at the new St. Paul Saints stadium, and Francisco Mela’s Crash Trio (Mela is the festival’s first artistic director, and considered one of the finest drummers in jazz) capped the festival off with a blistering set playing with Grammy-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton, whose writing is as incendiary as his playing. (Payton is black, for example, but argues that removing the Confederate flag is a meaningless gesture, because all American flags are inherently racist “no matter how many stars or what direction the stripes are in.”)
As if the music wasn’t enough, last weekend was also the grand opening of the new Subtext bookstore, downtown St. Paul’s one and only bookshop. Will wonders never cease? In a city regularly voted one of the most literate in the country, it’s now actually possible to buy a book downtown. Imagine.
Subtext used to be located in the old Common Good Books space across from W. A. Frost on Cathedral Hill, but is now located on the floor level of the St. Paul Building on Fifth Street, across the street from Dunn Brothers.
“I always wanted a bookstore downtown,” Subtext owner Sue Zumberge told me, “and now it’s great to be that bookstore.”
Zumberge runs the shop with her daughter Lilly and longtime local book evangelist David Unowski, whose Hungry Mind Bookstore was for decades the intellectual epicenter of the Twin Cities. Like the old Hungry Mind, Subtext is one of those old-school bookstores that carries an eclectic range of titles, has a surprisingly robust poetry section, and is arranged to encourage browsing—which, before the Internet, was how people who read used to bump into books and writers they’d never heard of before. There are lots of comfy used chairs and a couch to plop down on and read or chat, and hanging out for the heck of it is strongly encouraged. I caught readings by poets Thomas Smith and Timothy Young, both of whom use the Midwest as a verbal canvas.
Subtext will soon have a full slate of readings and events, so check out the website for a current schedule. If you’re a book lover, make the pilgrimage—you won’t be sorry.