Who goes to bookstores anymore? More to the point, who even reads actual books anymore?
OK, let’s set aside the obligatory hand-wringing over the devaluation of the printed word and the notion that physical publishing, as a business model, is rapidly approaching the realm of sheer vanity.
For those of us who just can’t fathom feeling comfort while curling up by the fireplace with a good Nook or Kindle, there will always be bookstores.
That said, the reality of the marketplace means that now, more than ever, your corner independent book dealer needs your business. So much so that while I was going around town scouting contenders for this very list, I was repeatedly asked, “There actually are more than ten independent bookstores in the Cities?!”
Indeed, there are. There are so many, in fact, that I had to make a few arbitrary rules for the list to make it easier for me to pare down.
First, I limited myself to just bookstores in Minneapolis and St. Paul; perhaps sometime down the line, I’ll do an expansion list covering the outer ring.
Second, I disqualified comic book stores from the running; again, maybe someday we’ll find another way to give props to Big Brain, Dreamhaven and the rest.
So the next time you feel like scouring Amazon.com’s selection of three-cent used paperbacks (which will bounce right back up in price once shipping charges are added to the equation), remember this collection of hometown gems and consider giving them a visit. These ten selections are presented in alphabetical order.
Birchbark Books & Native Arts
2115 West 21st Street
Minneapolis, Minn. 55405
Tucked away near the north side of Lake of the Isles and by Kenwood, Birchbark Books is owned by Minnesota author Louise Erdrich, who has infused her bookstore with an intimate charm and a palpable sense of Native pride. (Erdrich is an enrolled Turtle Mountain Chippewa.) In addition to hard-to-find books, the store also boasts Native artwork, jewelry, quilts, prayer sticks and, of course, camaraderie. Birchbark isn’t just a place to buy books; it’s a place to talk about them, discuss them, share the reading experience. It’s also a great place to enjoy the company of the employees’ beloved dogs. On the day that I visited, the very photogenic Dharma happily posed for a few shots for me.
2914 Hennepin Avenue
Minneapolis, Minn. 55408
One of the two venerable used booksellers along Hennepin Avenue in Uptown Minneapolis (see also: Magers & Quinn), Booksmart contains more books than can be held on one floor. Indeed, one of the store’s most tangible pleasures is in scaling down that staircase into what seems like a bootlegger’s den, only one stocked with comics and Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality while the more palatable literature sees the light of day above.
Common Good Books
165 Western Avenue North
St. Paul, Minn. 55102
Common Good’s Website
Garrison Keillor’s sparkling, subterranean corner, which has been in business for four years now, invites bookworms to dig a little deeper as they peruse, with incongruously naturally lit tunnels lined with as many books as one could possibly want. Located near Western and Selby avenues in St. Paul, it’s nearly as quaint and secluded-feeling as Lake Wobegon. To borrow the name of one of that town’s sleepy businesses, you’ll find it hard not to want to Curl Up (with a book) and Dye (happily) down here.
Magers & Quinn
3038 Hennepin Avenue South
Minneapolis, Minn. 55408
Magers & Quinn’s Website
Magers & Quinn is to Hennepin south of Lake Street what Booksmart is to the north side. Two blocks apart and you feel as though you could lose an entire day between the two. M&Q has been an Uptown staple for the better part of two decades, and specializes in, well, everything. New, used, rare, collectible. They’re all covered. In fact, one of the store’s most aged acquisitions dates back to the 1600s. Better still, their selection of new books usually comes with a nice, chunky discount.
2238 Carter Avenue
St. Paul, Minn. 55108
Micawber’s is one of the most beloved shops in northwest St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park-Como neighborhoods. A cozy little jewel with no shortage of brainy offerings, they have been offering the latest bestsellers since 1972. While they’ve got something for everyone, I have to point out that any place which prominently displays a kiosk filled with titles from the Oxford University Press’s unimpeachable A Very Short introduction series (which range from topics as far-reaching as atheism and Islam to pre-Socratic philosophy and the Marquis de Sade) is doing something right by me.
Once Upon A Crime
604 West 26th Street
Minneapolis, Minn. 55405
Once Upon A Crime’s Website
Mystery junkies everywhere can rejoice in this shady Twin Cities establishment. (I mean that as a compliment.) Once Upon a Crime claims to be one of the longest-running “full-service mystery bookstores” in the country. But even if they’d only opened a few months ago, they’d have earned their stripes by this point thanks to their criminally generous number of opportunities to meet and greet mystery authors (including some former WCCO staffers who have parlayed their experience into new careers, such as Julie Kramer and Ron Handberg). Sneak down the back hallway and you’ll find a private stash of rarities.
The Red Balloon Bookshop
891 Grand Avenue
St. Paul, Minn. 55105
The Red Balloon’s Website
The employees at Grand Avenue’s beloved Red Balloon say that one of the biggest thrills they get is when customers bringing their children in for a new book or to attend one of the store’s many storytime sessions enthuse about how they used to love coming to the bookstore back when they were children. Generations in, generations out. Sunrise, sunset. There’s no question the store itself is filled with anything a literate child could ever want, but the Red Balloon goes one better by making sure that no child is left wanting for knowledge. They organize book fairs around town and help support the community via their “Be an Angel” program, which sends donated books to homeless and battered women’s shelters.
Sixth Chamber Used Books
1332 Grand Avenue
St. Paul, Minn. 55105
Sixth Chamber’s Website
As the saying goes, the three most important things are always: location, location and location. And when it comes to used bookstores, there are certainly predictable benefits to be had from existing within the proximity of multiple colleges. St. Paul’s Sixth Chamber (which is within earshot of Macalester, St. Thomas, St. Kate’s and Concordia University) is the pudding in which can be found the proof. For 15 years now, Sixth Chamber has offered some of the best selection Twin Cities used bookstores have to offer. (Another august contender in this category is Book House in Dinkytown.)
True Colors Bookstore
4755 Chicago Avenue South
Minneapolis, Minn. 55407
True Colors’ Website
It’s True Colors now, thanks to a well-publicized “David vs. Goliath”-style turf war, but to many in the Twin Cities, it will always been known as the Amazon Bookstore. Having existed in various locations throughout Minneapolis for the last 40 years, True Colors/Amazon is called the longest continually running feminist bookstore in the country by owner Ruta Skujins. The quaint store is filled with not only books, but other gay-friendly items like bumper stickers and greeting cards. And there are drum circles, astrology readings and lesbian movie nights. Feminists and members of the LGBT community should rightly feel proud and fortunate to have such a well-established gem.
2720 West 43rd Street
Minneapolis, Minn. 55410
Wild Rumpus’s Website
If there’s a Reading Rainbow in real-life, I bet the Wild Rumpus exists at the end of it. Snuggled along the west side of Lake Harriet, this family favorite (which has been in operation for 18 years; just long enough for its earliest customers to vote in this November’s elections) is part bookstore, part barnyard. According to employees, wandering among the (incredibly well-stocked) aisles are four cats, three cockatiels, three chickens, two ferrets, two doves, two rats, two chinchillas, one lizard, one tarantula, numerous fish and a partridge in a pear tree. (OK, all but the last one.)
Eric Henderson is a web producer at WCCO.COM.