“Too many people think this place is a satanic bookstore.” 46-year-old owner, James Williams said. He added, laughing, “I would rethink the name if I started over.” Opened in 1995, Sixth Chamber is named for poet William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”
50-cent clearance books stand at the entrance of Sixth Chamber Used Books in St. Paul. Inside, books are neatly stacked onto shelves and carts, organized into categories. A toy snake drapes over the shelves of the children’s section. At a glance, this appears to be just another used bookstore on the block.
Williams began the used-books venture with a seedstock of 10,000 books and a dream of being an independent bookstore owner. He had collected books everywhere from estate sales to Salvation Armies, meticulously cataloguing every single one. After this pragmatic prelude, people rushed in to sell and donate grocery stacks of books. Today, Sixth Chamber has over 65,000 books, all catalogued, timestamped, and listed on the website so that customers can purchase books online.
“There is merit in the dusty gem and treasure of typical used bookstores,” Williams said. “But I wanted my ‘used’ to be in the feel of the ‘new.’ Not just chaos, but order amidst chaos.” This logic is manifested in the bookstore’s cataloguing, computerization, and website management. Such systemization is still pretty rare for a used bookstore in the Twin Cities, although Williams pointed out that Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis is similarly organized.
While making money is not Williams’s absolute objective, it is a critical one. The business must have a solid financial foundation in order for the ‘gem & treasure’ ideals of used bookstores to flourish.
“There used to be a used bookstore near here, and the lady in charge provided a nice place to hang out,” Williams said. “But when people came in looking for specific authors like Stephen King, all she had were poetry sessions and couches. She did not have the pragmatism required of small businesses like us, and soon went out of business.”
This kind of bureaucratic imprecision is the weakness of many small businesses, and is often a liability in an increasingly globalized economy. In the world of Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores, local and used bookstores have a difficult time surviving. Williams compared his own neighborhood in his native Chicago when he was growing up to its current state. “When I was a kid in Chicago, there were all these corner shops and little age-old stores,” Williams said. Now, Williams says Starbucks and Burger King now replace those independent stores.
“It’s independent businesses that color the city, that make the city,” he added. “And not only are they more personal, many of them are more environmentally friendly compared to the large corporations. Today, there is not only a financial, but ethical reason for small businesses like us to be realistic, and have a solid, pragmatic base.”
With a realistic foundation, Sixth Chamber flourishes. It interacts with other bookstores, trades books and articles with Minnesota Women’s Press, and occasionally provides documents of historical value to organizations, as in the case of the African-American Center 10 years ago.
But first and foremost, it emphasizes local customers.
Sixth Chamber has a mixed demographic of customers, including children, college students, young families, and the elderly. Children read in the kids’ section while they keep track of their own store credit and learn to husband books and resources. The bookstore recently hired an 18-year-old who has been shopping here since he was five. The elderly come and go, and when old customers pass away, Sixth Chamber re-buys their books.
“Once, there was a man who wanted me to hold a $7.99 Greek New Testament,” Williams reminisced. “Some time later, he brought his wife to the store, who insisted that the book was useless for her, as she did not know Greek. When she opened the book, and saw the scribbles all over its pages, she burst into tears. It had been her father’s.”
Visit Sixth Chamber Used Books at www.sixthchamber.com or 1332 Grand Avenue, St. Paul.