The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts from Nina’s, a cozy coffee shop on the corner of Selby and Western in St. Paul. People mill about on their way to work or stop by the shops on this tree-lined St. Paul neighborhood. Gold lettering on the building’s exterior advertises general fiction, good poetry, and “Quality Trash.” An arrow with the word “downstairs” points to a dim stairwell where bookstore patrons descend underground to a dark brick entryway. It is not the entrance to a subterranean cave, but to Common Good Books.
This is a bookstore with St. Paul flair, partly because its owner is St. Paul resident Garrison Keillor. The bookstore just celebrated its two-year anniversary–a testament to the little bookstore’s importance to the larger St. Paul community. Sue Zumberge, Manager of Common Good Books, emphasized that Common Good Books supports other independent businesses in the neighborhood. In fact local independent businesses sold their wares at the recent anniversary sale, which Zumberge said was “a tremendous success.”
The bookstore attracts book-lovers who appreciate a warm and knowledgeable staff, and an eclectic mixture of reading materials. Zumberge explained that chain bookstores are often pressured to stock only best selling books, which means local authors are frequently overlooked. Independent bookstores, by contrast, can supply books that satisfy their respective communities. Zumberge says Common Good Books “has a quick response time to the community.” According to Zumberge this allows the store to “reflect the community, and makes community ties closer.” They also frequently host intellectuals and authors, including upcoming book signings by Curt Brown and David Lanegran.
For these reasons, Common Good Books has developed a loyal customer base. “We always say that a good bookstore is like a good bar. You get to know people, hear their stories,” Zumberge said with a chuckle. Also, customers enjoy trusted book recommendations from the staff since employees all have impressive experience in the field. “They are all booksellers,” explained Zumberge. In other words, they know their books.
Common Good Books interaction with other neighborhood businesses is most apparent in the bookstore’s relationship with Nina’s Café, which is directly above the bookstore. Zumberge spoke of her relationship with the owner of Nina’s. “June and I find ways to work together,” said Zumberge. “We share business, and we recently ran a coupon together.” Common Good Books and Nina’s coexist in a unified, community-oriented space.
The first two years of business have been successful, but it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. “We have had pretty steady success,” said Zumberge, though she explained that like any small business, it can be tough to navigate uncertain economic times. Zumberge is more upbeat about the anniversary sale, though. “The sales aren’t just for us… maybe someone can buy a book that they couldn’t previously,” she said. Zumberge went on to emphasize the role of patrons in the success of the business; “Our biggest success has been our faithful customers,” she said.
It doesn’t take much searching to find a loyal customer of Common Good Books. Karin Loch, a student at nearby Macalester College, frequents the bookstore and praised its selection. “Even though it’s a small store, I’ve never had trouble finding what I want. I also like that it’s close to campus, and you can grab a cookie at Nina’s.” It seems that Common Good Books is a sanctuary for St. Paul bibliophiles.