The pandemic, along with the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in May 2020, has transformed the Twin Cities bookselling scene. Describing that transformation, Midwest Independent Booksellers Association executive director Carrie Obry said, “We’ve taken that whole Midwestern ethos of helping one another out, relying on one’s neighbors, and we’re building it into our long-term strategic planning.”
Plans include creating more detailed directories, so that MIBA’s 170 bookstore members can better communicate with one another. The goal, Obry said, is to make booksellers comfortable asking one another for advice, sharing tips, or just checking in to see how things are going. Given the events of the past 20 months, it comes as no surprise that MIBA—which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year—is placing an emphasis on building a stronger community.
Two bookstores, Words and Open Book, had significant obstacles to overcome during the past two years. Both stores, located at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport, completely shut down in spring 2020 as air travel ground to a halt, and they remained closed for months. Open Book has since returned to a full 14-hour daily schedule; Words still maintains limited hours.
Revenues are 15%–20% below 2019 levels, said Deborah Cotterman, who owns the bookstores in partnership with several other Twin Cities residents and Delaware North Corp. Sales of books that appeal to business travelers remain down, while sales of coloring books, journals, and activity books for both adults and children have spiked.
No MIBA member bookstore has gone out of business due to the pandemic. Obry calls it “extraordinary” that, other than those two airport stores, “it doesn’t seem to be slowing anybody down.” In fact, MIBA gained 30 new members this past year. While 14 of the new members are bookstores that were already established, 16 of them launched during the pandemic.
Black-owned bookstores flourish
One of those 16 new bookstores is Black Garnet Books, which has been operating as a pop-up and online shop in Minneapolis for the past year. In spring 2022, Black Garnet will become a bricks-and-mortar bookstore after moving into an 1,800-square-foot commercial space in St. Paul’s Midway area. The store specializes in books for adults and young adults by BIPOC authors.
Black Garnet owner Dionne Sims said she quit her corporate job to sell books after Floyd’s murder. “I realized that I do not want to be working in tech,” she said. “I wanted to do work that was connected to my community, and I feel passionate about books.” She described Black Garnet as being modeled on Chicago’s Semicolon Bookstore.
Black Garnet is the Twin Cities’ second Black-owned bookstore: Zsamé Morgan has been selling books online and via her Babycake’s Book Stack bookmobile since spring 2019. Though the bookmobile’s operations were suspended in 2020, they resumed earlier this year, and Morgan has begun hosting events once again.
Since September, Morgan has also sold books at the Babycake’s micro-bookstore, housed in an art gallery in Northeast Minneapolis. Babycake’s primarily sells children’s and YA titles, though it does have a small selection of adult books in its 2,500-title inventory.
And, as of mid-October, there’s a third bookstore owned by a Black woman in the Twin Cities: Strive Bookstore, located inside Sistah Co-op, a Black women’s retail cooperative in downtown Minneapolis. The micro-store, launched by Strive Publishing founder and CEO Mary Taris, specializes in books for adults and children written by Black Minnesotan authors. “It’s a step in building a foundation to lift Black authors and Black literary arts in the cities,” Taris said. “The point is to center Black voices. We need a space where Black people can tell their stories.”
Some stores still reeling
With a few exceptions, Twin Cities bookstores have reopened to in-person traffic, and some are once again holding in-store events. Several indies, however, are still dealing with the aftermath of the turmoil that rocked Minneapolis after Floyd’s murder.
Don Blyly owns Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore and Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore, two adjacent shops in South Minneapolis that were torched in May 2020. He said that he has been operating a mail-order bookselling business out of his home while he looks for a commercial building to purchase—or rent, if need be. Noting that he would prefer to move the Uncles to an inner-ring suburb or else “the part of St. Paul nearest to Minneapolis,” Blyly said that, considering that he is operating solo, business has been good, with sales at approximately 50% of what they had been before the fire. But, he added, “lots of people are disappointed not to get the same kind of service you can get at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore.”
Less than two miles due east of the Uncles, Moon Palace sits across the parking lot from a Minneapolis police station that became the epicenter of BLM protests after Floyd’s murder. The owners received national media attention for their vocal support of the protests.
Co-owner Angela Schwesnedl said that Moon Palace, which has been closed to in-store traffic since March 2020, will allow customers inside once it finishes hiring more staff to deal with the holiday rush. Moon Palace has been rearranged to retain a window installed during the pandemic to accommodate curbside pickup. Its café will be open only for takeout, and no in-person author events will be held through the winter.
“We’re about as busy as we can handle,” Schwesnedl said. She reported that sales are “good,” though supply chain disruptions are having an impact—a problem she expects to persist through the holidays.
Obry is not surprised that Moon Palace has prevailed, despite the extensive property damage inflicted upon its block. “There was a swell of support that came out of the uprising,” she noted. “The Schwesnedls received awards. I think the book-loving public sees that and recognizes that and supports them and goes out its way to buy books from them. While it’s challenging to be closed or to be boarded up, I think people really care. People want to support them and make sure they survive.”