Local bookstores build community


To avoid verbal abuse, don’t ask Tom Sand how many books he has in his backyard “book house” (library) at his Wendell home in west-central Minnesota.  “If you know that,” he gruffly explains, “you have books; you don’t have a library.” 

Make no mistake. Sand has a library. When the former government worker was getting ready to retire to his country home, he had local boat house builders construct a free standing building in his backyard to house his spillover books from his Twin Cities apartment.

In recent years, that backyard library has taken on an almost public role as community members and friends, visiting Minnesota authors, community leaders, and an eclectic and bipartisan group of politically connected people from Minnesota and North Dakota routinely stop by to visit or attend impromptu meetings.

The Sand library sheds light on the symbiotic relationship between quality of life and economics – a relationship that should be understood as Minnesota seeks to rebuild from severe recession.

Most communities aren’t fortunate enough to have an individual with Sand’s collection or open-door policy; therefore, local bookstores take on the role of gathering spot and enrichment gallery for citizens.

While local book stores certainly build community, it is almost impossible to determine how much revenue they produce internally or for surrounding businesses.

Kati Gallagher, assistant director of the Midwest Booksellers Association based in Minneapolis, said events built around bookstores, such as author appearances, “drive traffic” into a neighborhood or community. People who read are likely to eat, or go shopping elsewhere nearby when they attend these events.

This clearly occurs in Minneapolis’s Uptown area, for instance, when out of the neighborhood people stop by for events at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, she said. It happens along Grand Avenue in St. Paul when customers descend on Red Balloon Bookshop for events and to purchase special children’s books for children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Bookselling also ties in nicely with tourism in the lakes and woods regions of Minnesota, Gallagher said.  “We hear from Sister Wolf Books (Dorset) and Beagle Books (Park Rapids), and Northern Lights Books (and Gifts) in Duluth that the tourism industry is important to sales,” she said.

Book selling is a $25 billion to $30 billion industry in the United States. It is fragmented and hard to track because an increasing share of the book trade is being conducted online through groups such as Amazon, and a large segment of the industry is garnered by big box general retailers, supermarkets and pharmacies that are not counted as “booksellers” in tax or other government statistics. The segment of the market clearly identified as bookstores by the Internal Revenue Service had revenue of $16.6 billion last year.

Minnesota’s share of this ill-defined market isn’t known.  But Minnesota is known to be a reading state, and our aging population actually supports bookstores in recent demographic studies of book markets.

Karen Schechner reported May 27 for Bookselling This Week that a new “Survey of Book Buying Behavior” shows 62 million Americans are “avid readers” who buy 10 or more books each year. People between ages 50 and 60 generate about 75 percent of U.S. book sales.

An increase of two books purchased per year would add about $1 billion to independent booksellers catering to that age profile, the study projected.  More importantly, the ‘age of readership’ is compatible with demographic trends in much of rural Minnesota and in various Twin Cities’ neighborhoods.

Many of Minnesota’s independent bookstores, about 80 of which are member firms of the Midwest Booksellers Association, are active in other organizations that promote local development of entrepreneurs though “buy local” campaigns, said the association’s Gallagher.

Amy Baum, event coordinator at Red Balloon in St. Paul, said her store hosts “upwards of 150 events a year” with about three “story time” events each week, usually one or two special events on Saturdays, and occasionally an event on Sundays.

“I can tell you the Bread & Chocolate bakery (nearby) has a rush of business after each of our story times,” she said. Specialty stores such as a special bookstore do bring people to the neighborhood who might not otherwise visit Grand Avenue retailers and eateries.

Wendell’s avid reader, bon vivant and raconteur Tom Sand also hosts themed events.  He once held a memorial service for Saint Honoratus of Amiens, the patron saint of bakers, when it was known some of Wendell’s most revered lefse and bread bakers just happened to be in town.

When Sand knew many of the community’s most prominent conservatives were back from seasonal vacations, he hosted a Conservative Heritage Day celebration. That date in history coincided with issuing patents for the Gatling gun and the cash register, and acknowledged when a Puritan colony approved capital punishment for the crime of heresy.

He couldn’t be categorized as “typical” on any market profile. His book purchases, however, shed light on the economic impact that a bookseller has for communities.

For instance, Sand gets a lot of his new books by Minnesota authors at the Victor Lundin Co. store in Fergus Falls. That retailer features local authors and at the same time offers printing and office supplies for customers on the edge of the Red River Valley.

He slips across the border to Wahpeton, N.D., on occasion to raid used, and mostly out of print books “of importance” from a large used book store. And he loads up on a number of subjects from two bookstores in Alexandria, Minn.

The latter have been helpful for stocking his library’s “Philosophy-Theology” section, which seems a bit top heavy on Nordic myths and legends.  Online purchases from academic publishers have provided some of the volumes, and they have for his huge U.S. history collection as well.

Big-box bookselling chains have supplied diverse reading over the years, and especially fiction from contemporary American authors. Independent booksellers who know their local readers in western Minnesota supply many European mysteries from some of his favorite authors.

Sand was recently finishing a new history of World War II that he picked up on a visit to Rochester. “I’ve got a ways to go, but I’ve read enough so see how it might end,” he said.

Spoiler alert! Armed with Sand’s newfound knowledge from the new book, there will probably be another community observance forthcoming. Probably around Memorial Day weekend next year.