“That’s about right.” You can tell Martin Schmutterer, the store manager, is pleased when he says this. “It’s a busy street.”
Until recently, Garrison Keillor’s bookstore lived below Nina’s Café on Selby and Western, not far from Moscow on the Hill. As reported in the Star Tribune late last year, they’d outgrown their space. All jokes about Saint Paul aside, Selby and Western is a great location for a literary enterprise, especially with Nina’s just upstairs, where any hour of any day you’re guaranteed to see at least two writers at work. The new location, however, on Snelling and Grand Avenues, goes beyond that. After an interview with Enyeart and Schmutterer on a Thursday evening, four days before the store’s opening, MCB can vouch for that. In forty-five minutes, MCB lost count of the curious passers-by. Even those not brave enough to step into the store and ask if it was closed for the evening felt no shame in cupping their hands around their eyes to peek through the windows. With those tens of thousands of cars, not to mention Macalester College directly across the street, as well as five other major colleges or universities within walking distance, 38 Snelling Avenue South promises to be a superb location.
“There’s going to be a neon sign out front,” Enyeart said. “Two feet by eight feet. ‘Books’.” MCB hopes MCB readers will share a common reaction with MCB when driving by a sign like that, but must remind you to continue to obey all traffic laws. It’s a safety thing.
The store, while still a work in progress (complete with a sawdust smell and boxes upon boxes of books), promises a new level of Twin City bibliophilia. Already, the window ledges are peppered with typewriters. The windows themselves, Enyeart said, will eventually have graphics and stenciling, like bookstores of old. All the shelves are new and have a uniform display shelf right at eye-level, running through the whole store. The first thing a patron will see, aside from tables of new releases, is a case of books on writing—essays on craft, marketplace volumes, etc. A seven-foot shelf runs down the center of the store, forming a wall of art books on one side and bestsellers on the other. In the front window is the store’s magazine selection, which, when it comes to the literary arts, is easily the best in the city1. The store’s south wall is fiction and poetry from end to end, and while it comes nowhere near the size of the fiction sections at other bookstores, the selection is outstanding. Enyeart elaborated on the selection.
“You can be a very large bookstore,” he said, “and that can work well, but a smaller store works more like a farmer’s market. We don’t have every book, but every book we have is worth looking at. Our smaller size allows us to curate the stock.”
In that way, Common Good Books, like the best bookstores, is an art exhibit. After a quick jaunt through the fiction section, MCB is happy to have such phenomenal curators working in this city. This is a store run by book lovers for book lovers. What sets CGB, M&Q, Micawber’s, and other independent booksellers apart is that element of passion, as well the staff itself. While a nineteen-year-old making $7.25/hr will happily lead you to the café at the back of the store, as well as order the Eugenides novel you’ve been looking for (“Uh, could you spell that?”), it’s safe to say the odds of him recommending what you should read after you’ve exhausted Beckett are quite slim2. Book lovers seek out these curators because we trust them. When MCB goes to a store, MCB wants to know whether or not Zone One is all it’s cracked up to be, and MCB can only know something if the bookstore employee knows it too. Common Good Books is tapping the last good blood vessel of bookselling, which, in its arterial magnitude, is the only blood vessel we’ve had from the beginning. Bookselling is a skill, and $7.25/hr is not skilled labor. You wouldn’t pay a lawyer or a carpenter minimum wage, nor would you pay a reader minimum wage to help guide you down a new, astonishing reading adventure. Fuck the algorithms and fuck the “store picks” tables. Talk to a reader, if for no other reason than you’d want a reader to talk to you.
Fortunately, the blood of bookselling is still flowing. If nothing else, pretend you know nothing of this store’s move. Pretend you’re walking down Snelling Avenue, maybe fresh out of a lecture or on your way to the cheese shop around the corner. Pretend you see this storefront—the covered sign, the ladder outside—and pretend you put your face up to the window and block out the sunlight. How would you react, in 2012—a point at which e-books outrank print in sales and over 2/3 of independent bookstores have closed since 1990—if you saw a group of people in their jeans and t-shirts unpacking books, arranging them on shelves, and filling displays? You could pretend, doubtlessly, that bookselling was as strong as ever, but you could believe, assuredly, that everything about the book that’s always mattered still does, and always will.
Common Good Books opens at its new location on Monday, April 9th, at 9:00 a.m. The store celebrates its grand opening on May 1st with an evening hosted by storeowner Garrison Keillor. In addition to its own event space with several readings on the calendar, the store will partner with Macalester for larger events. Visit their website for more details.
Photos by Michael O’Laughlin.
1: Really. If you need a literary magazine, go here before you go anywhere else.
2: If such a thing exists. Really, Beckett should be followed with a week of 30 Rock or simply watching Arrested Development all over again, just to prevent any unnecessary suicides.