Independent booksellers fight chains with community and character

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The right to buy what you want from where you want to buy it is as American as apple pie, baseball and reality television. As the retail landscape becomes dominated by the uniform outlines of strip malls, outlet stores, big box chains and global conglomerates, there is a longing for the quaint storefront of the neighborhood Mom and Pop shop. The private movie house, the barbershop, and the corner coffeehouse are endangered species in a dying ecosystem. The last vestiges of independent American business are on the run. The most at risk of them all is arguably one of the most important: the independent book store.

For decades, the struggle independent bookstores have faced competing against corporate booksellers—and more recently, online merchants—has been an arduous, uphill battle against a resilient opponent with seemingly endless resources. Midway through our current holiday season, this year is looking to be no different. In fact, the retail challenge looks to be worse than ever for our hometown proprietors.

Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com dominate the market offering sweeping discounts, multimedia merchandise, coffee, snacks and other non-literary goods. Just as shopping malls have threatened main street storefronts, the corporate booksellers may soon render our beloved independents obsolete.

The going has been extremely tough for independent book stores all over the country. Along both coasts, well known independents have folded, unable to maintain a large enough market share to keep their doors open. Here in the Twin Cities, the prognosis is no different, though there are a few indies looking to give the big guys a run for their money.

If you’re looking for an alternative to the corporate chains—or if you just want to support the local stores in and around your neighborhood—here are some of the independent bookstores in the Twin Cities area.

Amazon Bookstore Cooperative
(612) 821-9630
4755 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis

BirchBark Books
(612) 374-4023
2115 West 21st Street, Minneapolis

Common Good Books
(651) 690-6920
165 Western Avenue North, St. Paul

DreamHaven Books, Comics, & Art
912 West Lake Street, Minneapolis

Magers & Quinn
(612) 822-4611
3038 Hennepin Avenue South, Minneapolis

Once Upon a Crime
(612) 870-3785
604 West 26th Street, Minneapolis

Micawber’s Books
(651) 646-5506
2238 Carter Avenue, St. Paul

Paperback Exchange
(612) 929-8801
2227 West 50th Street, Minneapolis

Present Moment Herbs & Books
(612) 824-3157
3546 Grand Avenue, Minneapolis

The Red Balloon Bookshop
(651) 224-8320
891 Grand Avenue, St. Paul

Uncle Hugo’s and Uncle Edgar’s Bookstores
(612) 824-6347
2864 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis

Wild Rumpus
(612) 920-5005
2720 West 43rd Street, Minneapolis

For more information about these and other independent bookstores, contact the American Booksellers Association—a 100-year-old, not-for-profit, national trade association that protects and promotes the interests of independently owned bookstores. For those who prefer online shopping, check out Book Sense, the e-commerce arm of the American Booksellers Association.


Having opened its doors nearly forty years ago, Amazon Bookstore Cooperative is the oldest independent feminist bookstore in North America. In the 1990s, the Amazon Bookstore Cooperative filed a suit against Amazon.com for trademark infringement. The outcome of the case saw the indie shop—which had been in business for thirty years—signing over the rights to their own name, then licensing it back from the corporate website.

Megan Kocher, co-owner and buyer for the Amazon Bookstore Cooperative, is cheerful and optimistic about the current state of the market. When asked about the impact this holiday season is having on smaller shops like hers, Megan diplomatically replied, “It’s hard to say how directly, but we certainly do feel it.” Like many other independent shops, the Amazon Bookstore Cooperative has incentives that are often hard to find at the chain stores—such as supplying hard-to-find niche materials and a truly personal shopping experience.

On the other side of the river, in the Summit-University neighborhood, Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books has been fairly successful in its first year of business. The store has carved out quite a following, offering titles by local authors as well as titles by those who regularly top bestseller lists.

At Common Good Books, the holiday shopping environment was warm and social. It seemed as if people filled every inch of the space, browsing the shelves and selecting gifts for friends and family. When asked why they picked Common Good instead of Borders or Barnes & Noble, patrons’ answers were always the same: customer service that is well above average, a unique selection, and a neighborhood focus. Not a single customer mentioned the celebrity of the owner.

One-stop shopping is great in terms of consolidating our increasingly hectic downtime, in which what is supposed to be a time to relax and regroup is most often a time of constant running. However, we cannot blame the large chains for the downfall of the independent store. A company is only as strong as its consumer base and we, the local patrons, have neglected our local shops. The Amazon Bookstore Cooperative has been around for almost half a century, continuing the tradition pioneered by the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in bohemian Paris and the City Lights Bookstore of Beat-Generation San Francisco. Is there any doubt that our culture has been enriched by the works of D.H. Lawrence, Sylvia Beach, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg? All of them owe their careers to the independent book store.

In this age of instant information and quick results, practically everything is available with the touch of a button. But as retail chains grow larger, and neighborhoods become shopping districts, it is more than just the Mom and Pop shops that feel it. When we sacrifice quality for speed and community for convenience, it affects us all. In order to keep local shops in business, the solution is simple: patronize them.

Taylor Cisco, III (tciscoiii@gmail.com) is a newswriter, producer, and political essayist. A Chicago native, he currently resides in St. Louis Park with his wife Kara and their cat Zelda.

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