Bookselling in the Twin Cities6 min read

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When it comes to bookstores, Minneapolis and Saint Paul’s 3.5 million residents are well served. Of the American Booksellers Association’s 65 Minnesota members, 37, or more than half, are located in the Twin Cities metro area, which is also home to 13 Barnes & Noble outlets, including one of the retailer’s new concept stores, and seven Half Price Books locations.

Booksellers attribute the vibrance of the area’s indie scene to much more than a national trend that has seen the channel become revitalized in recent years. Booksellers see local indies’ vitality rather as an outgrowth of the area’s long-held tradition of philanthropy and civic engagement. Together with the state’s 96% adult literacy rate—among the highest in the nation—the Twin Cities has created a culture in which government, foundations, and citizens don’t just value books and reading. They also support literary nonprofit organizations with their dollars.

“There’s just a lot happening here that brings attention to books and authors. We’re fortunate to live in a community where literacy is a priority,” says Holly Weinkauf, owner of Saint Paul’s 32-year-old Red Balloon Bookshop. At the 2016 Minnesota Book Awards gala, the bookstore sold $10,000 worth of books.

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“There are all these organizations being successful promoting books, literacy, and reading. All that together makes for a healthy book community,” says David Enyeart, events manager of Saint Paul’s Common Good Books, which Garrison Keillor opened in 2006. Since moving five years ago from an 1,800-sq.-ft. basement on affluent Cathedral Hill into a 3,000-sq.-ft. storefront across the street from Macalester College, sales at Common Good have risen a total of 20%. The bookstore recently sold $13,000 worth of books at the Opus & Olives annual library fund-raiser, plus another $13,000 in presales. “There are a lot of people here who understand what books will do for them, the importance in their lives. It helps us sell them books,” Enyeart says.

The Twin Cities’ vibrant literary culture attracts some of the country’s biggest authors, and bookstore calendars are always packed. Twenty-year-old Excelsior Bay Books in Excelsior, Minn., takes full advantage of the opportunity to book touring authors. Since the summer of 2015, the bookstore has held a monthly Literature Lovers’ Night Out to give readers a chance to interact with nationally and internationally well-known writers. September’s event, which included William Kent Krueger (Manitou Canyon) and Michael Perry (Roughneck Grace) drew a record 140 people and had to be moved to a nearby church. “Tickets sold out in 20 minutes. It was overwhelming,” says Excelsior Bay’s events coordinator Pamela Klinger-Horn. “We always sell a couple thousand dollars worth of books at these events, [and] there is a trickle effect even after the programs.”

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A map created by Minneapolis’s Moon Palace Books for National Bookstore Day 2015 showcases the sheer number of indies in the area. The map features 20 new and used indie bookstores inside the Minneapolis city limits and another eight in Saint Paul. In the intervening year and a half since the map was created, new bookstores have continued to open and grow. In July, Moon Palace moved from the back of its building into the front area, doubling in size to 1,700 sq. ft. Despite ongoing construction outside the store, co-owner Angela Schwesnedl reports that sales have risen 30% since the expansion.

In September, Milkweed Books opened in Minneapolis’s Open Book building complex, which is dedicated to the literary arts. Affiliated with Milkweed Editions, the 750-sq.-ft. bookstore’s curated inventory of 1,200 titles consists of literary
fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from small presses that don’t typically receive prime placement in chain stores.

Later this spring, new bookseller Zsamé Morgan is planning a soft opening for Babycake’s Book Stack in Saint Paul’s Lowertown. Babycake’s will focus on multicultural and international children’s books. With the addition of Babycake’s, the Twin Cities will arguably become the nation’s hub for children’s bookselling. In addition to the Red Balloon and Minneapolis’s Wild Rumpus, the area also has eight Creative Kidstuff stores, which sell children’s books and educational toys and games. Saint Paul also boasts the only bookstore that specializes in young adult literature, Addendum. The bookstore opened five years ago inside a larger bookstore, Subtext. After moving into a standalone storefront in 2015, Addendum added crossover adult books, which further pumped up sales.

Travelers flying into the Twin Cities don’t even have to leave the airport to shop at a local bookstore. Of five new bookstores scheduled to open later this year in Minnesota, two will be located inside the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport’s main terminal: Words and Open Book.

Bookstore Diversity

Milkweed Books manager Hans Weyandt, who began his bookselling career at Saint Paul’s now closed the Hungry Mind (later known as Ruminator Books) and who was a co-owner of Micawber’s, says that the health of the local indie bookstore scene can be attributed in large part to its diversity. Although uptown Minneapolis boasts a large general bookstore, 18,000-sq.-ft. Magers and Quinn, which stocks 120,000 new and used titles, the area also contains a number of smaller specialized bookstores.

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Small bookstores fill underserved niches. Among these bookstores is one founded by bestselling author Louise Erdrich that Weyandt describes as “truly singular.” Founded more than 15 years ago, Birchbark Books & Native Arts is an 800-sq.-ft. general bookstore that features an outsize collection of literature by Native American authors for both children and adults, published in English as well as in Native languages.

On the other side of a chain of lakes from Birchbark, another 800-sq.-ft. store, Once Upon a Crime, has specialized in mysteries for three decades. It was purchased by Dennis Abraham and Meg King-Abraham on April 1 last year, the bookstore’s 29th anniversary.

In Saint Paul, Hmong ABC, which bills itself as the first and only Hmong bookstore in the world, has operated for more than two decades. And Daybreak Press Global Bookshop, which specializes in books from around the world on faith, social justice, and feminism, has moved across the river to the University of Minnesota area a year after launching in Saint Paul in 2014. Not only are Saint Paulites still crossing the river to visit the store, but owner Tamara Gray reports that heavier foot traffic at the new location is pushing up sales.

One of the few remaining black bookstores in the country, Ancestry Books specializes in literature by and about indigenous peoples and people of color. The bookstore closed in August 2015 after a little over a year in business. But founder Chaun Webster reopened it last winter as a recurring weekend pop-up outlet at Juxtaposition Arts, a local arts organization.

With so many different types of bookstores catering to readers, Moon Palace’s Schwesnedl says that the metro area’s indie scene has reached “a critical mass,” which means that physical bookstores should continue to do well. “Minnesotans are cranky and independent,” Schwesnedl adds. “They’ll shop at a local store over Amazon any day. There’s a reason that the Twin Cities never make it onto Amazon’s annual list of the 20 most-well-read cities in the U.S.”

A version of this article appeared in the 01/16/2017 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline:

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