These Independent Bookstores Are Going Strong

Once Upon a Crime

Uptown’s Once Upon a Crime indie mystery bookshop might have closed last year if Devin Abraham and her parents hadn’t taken it over.

“It’s not the most profitable thing in the world,” Devin says of owning a bookshop. But her father, Dennis, wanted to open a small business and had frequented the mystery seller to pick up Craig Johnson novels. Hearing of its imminent closure, he and his wife asked lifelong reader Devin whether she would run it if they purchased it.

“Uptown has always had small local businesses, and people don’t want these big chains moving in and taking over the place,” Devin says.

She cites Minneapolis’ reputation for high literacy—based on surveys conducted over the past few years—as reason that its 15 independent bookstores stay strong.
If you ask Devin to see the annex, with the twist of a key she’ll bring you someplace irresistible to any bookworm: a den cloyed with the must of old novels—signed, out of print or otherwise rare. It’s a go-to sensory argument for paper over e-books.

Magers & Quinn

A few years ago, someone called up Denny Magers to offer him 200 books about pinball machines. Magers is curious. He likes to know about stuff; that’s why he loves books, especially nonfiction, and part of why he founded independent bookstore Magers & Quinn. He bought the 200 books. His store’s new pinball section sold out.

For 23 years, Magers & Quinn has offered both one-of-a-kind finds and mainstream titles on Hennepin Avenue in Uptown, operating out of an old Chevrolet dealership. The big display windows out front give a misleading glimpse inside. Mid-store, the bookcases squeeze into a hobbit-tight warren before opening on all sides into a cavernous chamber crannied with books.

“You know you’ve been here a while when you can find the heraldry and chivalry section,” says retail manager Jessi Blackstock.

Independent bookstores have had their challenges. Chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble came along, the internet let you shop from bed and e-books threatened to wipe out all paper with words on it. And yet, aside from selling online, Magers & Quinn hasn’t changed much.

The store stayed open across from a since-closed Borders because of its inimitable selection and frequent readings from local authors. Magers’ connections—for example, people who are downsizing, or whose relatives have passed away—net him thousands of potential books every week. “Someone’s grandfather had 3,000 books on horses,” Magers says. “I thought I’d seen every book that could possibly be, but there’s always something new.”

Birchbark Books & Native Arts

At Birchbark Books & Native Arts in Kenwood, a wooden confessional sits, a reference to owner and author Louise Erdrich’s fascination with Catholicism. Native American art and iconography adorn its rich, dark insides. The rest of the bookstore, too, bears paintings and beadwork from regional Native artists.

Along with books by indigenous authors, the store sells wild-rice products, including pancake mix, and soaps from Native-run companies in Minnesota. And Birchbark’s long-running reading series invites local authors, often Native, to read from their work in the Bockley Gallery a couple doors down.

After readings (two occurring this fall) the writer returns to the bookstore—underneath a suspended canoe, surrounded by bookshelves tagged with staff recommendations—for a meet-and-greet.

“We try to create a space where people who don’t normally get a chance to be heard are getting heard, which is of value to everyone,” says Michael Kiesow Moore, reading series founder. “It gives you the opportunity to develop greater empathy.”

Wild Rumpus

Within Wild Rumpus’s front door is a smaller door that opens separately—kid-size and lavender. Just inside awaits a sentient, silky black lump that moves in ticks. Someone whispers, “What is that thing?” It’s a hen named Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It minds its business among the many other animals living at the Linden Hills independent bookstore.

Founder Collette Morgan thought of Anne Mazer’s children’s book The Salamander Room when conceptualizing the space. In the book, a boy brings home an orange salamander. His mother challenges him: How will you accommodate an amphibian? The boy patches his floor with leaves; he lets in bugs for food; he lifts off the ceiling so trees can grow up around his bed. Similarly, Morgan might have wondered: How will a bookstore attract internet-consumed people, including kids? She brought in the animals, for one—tailless Manx cats, a tarantula named Thomas Jefferson, ferrets—partially to surround herself with two loves, books and animals, while working 80-hour weeks upon opening the store 25 years ago.

Secondly, she handpicks books for quality, usually choosing about 20 of the 200 titles a publisher might offer. Third, she remembers the allure of “elsewhere.” As a 9-year-old off to the hospital for a knee injury, she packed a suitcase full of books. “Maybe I couldn’t go backpacking through Europe, but I could sure read about it,” she says.

Wild Rumpus is elsewhere: A few feet through the Alice door, the ceiling splits down the middle, like a bolt through a frozen pond, cracking open farther in to expose broad washes of painted sky or water. The store becomes the salamander room. Beside a stony nook where author events are held, a haunted shed houses mystery-horror stories and a couple rats. A glass panel exposes skeletons beneath.

In the basement, the staff stores props as needed, depending on what stocks the many sections—from mermaids and unicorns to Aesop’s fables, from GLBT themes to death and grieving. After the election, Morgan set up a section on immigration, refugees and social justice at the front of the store.