Twin Cities rich in second-hand bookstores


As every Minnesotan knows
You crave a good read when it snows
Forget the Kindle and the Nook
Stay warm instead with a pre-read book.

The good news is that Minnesotans have near infinite options for second-hand books. There are used book chains, thrifts stores, garage sales, friends’ hand-me-downs and, best of all, a magnificent mix of committed independent booksellers who know and love their books and their customers with equal passion.   A bibliophile’s dream would be to visit each, to spend time with the shopkeeper, and to stay in contact.  I know folks who pretty much do just that.

Though time and weather limited the possibilities to meet and browse, the Twin Cities Daily Planet nudge to write about independent second-hand book stores opened doors through which I hope to pass soon and often.  

Inevitably, the virtual tour ignited a yearning to visit the shops, meet the dealers, talk about the issues of the day and the challenges of tomorrow.  Fortunately, my friend Suzanne, frequenter of used book stores, was willing to tackle the snow banks for a brief but delightful day of exploration.  Because time was short and travel was well nigh impossible, our horizons were curtailed a bit.

Virtually everyone who heard about the proposed tour had a cherished favorite and passionate defense of the preference.  Folks know their second-hand book dealers – and with good reason, we soon learned.   Bowing to the reality of Winter 2010 we opted for proximity, variety, and accessibility – and we lucked out on every score.   Each stop on our exploratory mission introduced us to a unique facet of reading options available to Minnesota bibliophiles of individual predilection. By day’s end we knew, when we dig out next spring,  we will expand our pilgrimage to independent used booksellers that dot the map of Minnesota.


The story behind the story
by Mary Turck
A reader tip alerted TCDP to the closing of Biermaier’s Books, the largest used book dealer in Minnesota. The Dinkytown bookstore has a 50 percent off sale going through January 29, with even lower prices for bulk purchases of more than 100 books. The PiPress also noted going-out-of-business sales at Cummings Books in Minneapolis and J. O’Donoghue Books in Anoka. We listed the tip as a story possibility, both in weekly emails to our writers and in “It’s Your Planet” in column 3.

Intrepid bibliophile Mary Treacy decided we had the wrong end of the story:

“The tumult started when the media tolled the death knell of used book stores, a report that brings to mind Mark Twain’s comment when,  hearing the report of his own death,  he dismissed the rumor as ‘an exaggeration.’  A quick check of the web proved that readers can exhale.  With a few painful exceptions their much beloved treasure troves of reading pleasure are standing tall and creating new ways of sharing their wares.”

We’re glad she dug deeper and brought back the good news about indie second-hand bookstores! If you have a story idea that you’d like to write about, or a story idea that you’d like us to pursue, send it to

Stop Number One was at Sixth Chamber Used Books on Grand Avenue, near Hamline in the Mac Groveland area of St. Paul.  There James Williams proudly shared his collection and, with equal enthusiasm, the ways in which he and his co-owner and spouse Heather are harnessing today’s technology to improve service.  Their wish list is phenomenal – a friend just got a notice of a book she had requested four years ago.  The shop is beautifully organized, the shopkeepers know their stock and their customers, and, like other independent book dealers, they welcome appropriate titles to add to their massive collection.

Our second stop was at Once Upon a Time Crime Bookstore, a delicious subterranean treasure in South Minneapolis, on 26th Street South, just East of Lyndale, owned and operated by husband and wife team Pat Frovarp and Gary Shulze.  Pat, who was tending the shop when we visited, appears to know every chapter, verse, author and publisher represented in the rich stock of new and used books in the shop and in the adjacent annex where used books wait to be adopted.   The shelves teem with signed copies, by Minnesota authors and national authors on tour – and the schedule of author readings is staggering.  Pat and Gary have just learned that the Once Upon a Crime bookstore is being honored with a 2011 Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America, which they will receive at the Edgar Awards Banquet in New York City on Thursday, April 28, 2011.

With considerable effort we extricated ourselves from Once Upon a Crime and headed for North St. Paul where we checked out Paperbacks Plus, an inviting haven on 7th Avenue, the mainstreet in North St Paul.  Unfortunately the store owner, Katherine Harris, was off that day – probably home reading the latest paperback.  That didn’t stop us from relishing the tens of thousands of paperbacks neatly arranged on what seemed like miles of shelves.  It would have been just too easy to grab a good read and sink into one of the plush stuffed chairs tucked into inviting nooks throughout the shop.

The final stop of our tour was at The Bookshop in Roseville, on Lexington North of Larpenteur.  Though the shop at this site is of relatively recent vintage, owner Melissa Olson explained that it had lived at HarMar for 24 years – no wonder it felt so familiar.  The Bookshop has an open feel, with well stocked shelves of general interest, most often recent, paperbacks, audiobooks and an inviting mix of children’s materials.  Melissa Olson, a woman with ideas, spoke of the costs she faces as an indie – space is the major cost, of course, but advertising costs are staggering.  Booksellers who depend on scanners and online transactions succeed in the business by avoiding overhead costs.

The challenge of the day of exploration was to refrain from buying, hoarding and finding time to read the tempting tomes.  Still, the task at hand was to extrapolate the essence and find words to express the wisdom of the book dealers with whom we had visited.   Like all small business owners these entrepreneurs think and worry about the future, at the same time they keep an ear to the ground to spot trends, threats, options and opportunities.  Though every indie would have added a unique perspective to the conversation the ideas expressed by this small sample no doubt reflects the thoughts of many.    Some themes emerge – more lie just beneath the surface:

  • Without question the common theme is customer service – whether it is reserving titles, notifying purchasers, tracking purchasers’ interests, selecting the best titles on the market, describing, organizing and displaying the merchandise, the customer calls the shots.  The extent to which these book dealers and their independent colleagues will go is awesome.
  • Technology in all its manifestations is a prime mover of change in the used book business.  The profound impact of technology is ubiquitous – online book databases such as Alibris and ABE (Advance Book Exchange), Print on Demand publishing, Project Gutenberg, audio books, e-books and an irresistible invention hyped on the market every week.
  • Though the media are inclined to point a finger at e-books and online shopping the booksellers spoke more often of pricing policies that cut out the independents.
  • Independent book dealers are passionate people, especially when it comes to the future of the book as book.  They waste little time bemoaning the reading options of the day, concentrating instead on the content of a good read.  They laud the ways in which technology can remove barriers for some readers while they are confident that writers will continue to commit their words and ideas to print on paper.
  • Publishing conglomerates are reshaping the book business.  The big guys are baying at the lucrative reader market.  A personal story from today’s e-mail illustrates the situation in which indies find themselves.  A cheery note from Amazon invited me to sell back, at low-ball prices, the books I had purchased for friends and family holiday giving.  Most of the books are not only un-read, they are not yet delivered to the readers!  Still, Amazon has a deal for me.  The mega-bookstore should know that I don’t read that fast and that my pre-holiday book buying spurt probably has more to do with gifting and a miserable Minnesota winter than it has to do with commitment to Amazon …
  • The indies’ analysis of their customers and their book stock is meticulous.  In this age of information glut someone has to separate the wheat from the chaff.   Readers depend heavily on their indie to provide this indispensable service.
  • Independent bookstore owners recognize and applaud the unique niche of each individual shop and shopkeeper.
  • Indies are to be found in unexpected places.  Peripatetic bibliophiles might want to start, but not end, here.  Serious shoppers and collectors are prone to check the shelves at local thrift shops that probably don’t meet generally accepted definitions of the trade.
  • Necessity being the mother of invention, indie second hand booksellers are exploring a host of options.   A recent example is an article by Alyssa Ford in the December 27 Strib.  “Shopping for e-books goes local via indie sellers” describes a partnership between Google and the American Booksellers Association whereby ABA member bookshops will sell Google e-books from their own websites and “claim a piece of the retail pie normally reserved for the big boys of e-book selling.”  Not every indie has signed on to the Google-ABA plan.  Interesting to note, the Strib article describes how this works at the Book Shelf in Winona, a local independent that has also entered the publishing business with publication of Winona: Minnesota on the Mississippi.
  • Though this is one possibility, creative approaches to serving the public and turning a profit are rich – readings, coffee shop cum bookstore, diverse merchandise.   More to the point is a piece by Irwin H. Bush, an intriguing character who opines as a reader turned book acquirer and book collector:  Bush asks, “What if the bookstore as simply a seller of books is entirely too narrow a vision?”  He describes a bookseller in his area who “envisioned a collective. One that not only sells second-hand books, but houses publishers, reading groups, writing classes – a whole spectrum of the reading experience housed under one roof…an opportunity for us to think of a book as not a thing in and of itself, but as part of a larger process.”  In his article on “The Future of Used Bookselling-An Observation,” Bush offers keen insights and some creative options for indies.

Skimming the mere surface of independent used book dealers was as frustrating as it was mind-expanding.  I want to know these people better – I want to chat with their colleagues who know in the depth of their hearts their books, their customers, and their unique niche in the dynamic world of books, reading and collecting.  The commitment of the indies to the profession of sharing books is an inspiration.

Though there are some sad and recent tales of second hand indies closing their doors, the committed booksellers of Minnesota will craft innovative strategies, collaborate in new ways, reach out to appreciative readers.  They won’t get rich in the process.  Still they know that keeping ideas and information flowing will mean that Minnesotans will continue to create information and ideas, even as they settle down with a truly good pre-read that promises to get them through the perils of this wicked winter.  Most of all, independent used book sellers are committed to the noble cause of sharing a good read with all comers.