The academic world’s loss is the publishing universe’s gain. When Bob Dobrow, who holds a PhD in mathematical sciences from Johns Hopkins, retired from teaching mathematics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., he and his wife, Angel Dobrow, moved almost 200 miles north to Duluth to open a used bookstore. Nearly five years later, Zenith Bookstore sells both new and used books, and has become a community hub in a part of the city where residents never expected to have a bookstore.

Like many booklovers, Dobrow dreamed for years of opening his own bookstore. “It was just one of these fantasies—you’d talk about it, but you’d never do anything,” he said, recalling the days when he and Angel were newlyweds living in New York City and spent hours browsing the shelves of bookstores. “Neither of us had any type of business experience at all. We both got ‘real’ jobs. We raised a family.”

After his retirement, Dobrow and Angel spent time discussing his next options, because, he said, he is not the kind of person who wants to spend his golden years relaxing or on the golf course. “When the bookstore idea came up,” he explained, “it literally was like a bolt of lightning. Everything fell into place. It so felt like this was the right thing to do.”

Describing Northfield as a small college town with a homogeneous population, Dobrow said that he and Angel decided to leave there for a more diverse community. He described himself as a “city mouse” and Angel as a “country mouse.” Duluth, a city of 86,000 surrounded by water and wilderness, appealed to both, though they had no ties there and knew little about the community.

Confessing that the couple had “no idea” how to operate a bookstore, Dobrow said they started talking to booksellers, including Anita Zager, who owned Northern Lights Books & Gifts in Duluth from 1992 to 2010, and Judith Kissner, owner of Scout & Morgan Books in Cambridge, Minn. Dobrow said he spent an entire day “interning” with Kissner at her store in spring 2017.

“It sounds hokey, and weird, but it was like the universe came together; every decision we made was the right decision,” Dobrow said. “We were amazingly lucky.” After purchasing a 120-year-old building in West Duluth that previously housed a liquor store, the Dobrows built out the interior and commissioned a local artist to paint a mural of gigantic books on the front exterior.

From the beginning, Dobrow has had no problem hiring highly qualified employees with previous bookselling experience, and he ascribes much of the store’s success to its “amazing and wonderful staff.” His five employees have a collective 52 years of bookselling experience, ranging from a Barnes & Noble refugee to store manager Sarah Brown, who has worked over the past 20 years for indies in Arizona, Michigan, and Missouri.

Zenith Bookstore opened its doors on July 1, 2017, with a stock made up of 80% used books and 20% new. Nowadays, the mix stands at 65% used and 35% new. “It’s not really a planned transition,” Dobrow noted. “I love being a used bookstore and would not want to be an all-new store. Quality literature for affordable prices is very important to us. At the same time, the store has evolved. We’re in West Duluth, a much more working-class and lower-middle-class area. But completely unexpectedly, we’ve also become a destination for people from the Twin Cities. Lots of people visit Zenith whenever they come up north. And then of course there’s people coming in from the east side of town, where there’s money. The percentages we have now work really nicely.”

One marketing technique that has worked well is piling incoming used books on a red cart at the front of the store and posting pictures of it weekly on social media. This has proved so effective that Dobrow said he’ll occasionally take a book that has been languishing on the shelf and place it on the cart—“and it’ll sell right away.”

The store’s point-of-sale system was upgraded in 2019 so that it could be completely integrated with the website—enabling customers to search online for specific used books in stock as well as new. The upgrade was well timed and helped Zenith experience a surge in online sales during the pandemic. “We went from selling a few books a week online to selling 50 books a day online,” Dobrow said. “Another thing we got lucky with.”

While the children’s and YA category is the store’s strongest in terms of sales, a bookcase dedicated to local authors such as Leif Enger, Chris Monroe, Margi Preus, and Barton Sutter has also proved popular, as is the store’s Native American literature section, which has been expanded from “two or three shelves to a full case,” Dobrow said. To his surprise, poetry is also strong, moving from two or three shelves to one and a half cases.

“We reside in a vibrant literary area,” Dobrow noted. “There are some great authors living here, and some very strong poetry traditions. I love these customers who defy stereotypes, like the husky trucker-looking guy with a Carhartt coat and work boots coming in and asking where the poetry books are.”

After being closed to customer traffic while offering curbside pickup during most of 2020 and into 2021, Zenith has gradually reopened. Initially, hours were restricted; after-hours customers “had the store to themselves” in 30-minute slots by appointment. For the past several months, Zenith has been fully open with regular hours—though capacity remains limited and customers are still required to mask up.

Despite a recent rise in Covid cases in the region, Dobrow remains optimistic about the holiday season, as sales are up 30% this year to date over the same period last year, and 2020 was up 35% from 2019. As far as he is concerned, the holiday season unofficially kicked off on October 14, when Zenith sold 100 copies at the book launch for Gichigami Hearts: Stories and Histories from the Misaabekong, Linda LeGarde Grover’s mash-up of memoir and Ojibwe mythology and history.

“We just placed an order for another 100 copies,” Dobrow said. “This book and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer are our top sellers right now.”

Zenith also kicked off its annual Jólabókaflód holiday tradition on November 1, a month earlier than usual. As part of the promotion, book purchases are wrapped in brown paper and a piece of artisan chocolate is taped to the package. It’s the store’s take on an Icelandic Christmas Eve tradition of people exchanging books and then reading them while sipping hot chocolate.

“It’s always such a hit—people love it,” Dobrow said, noting that Zenith purchased 1,000 pieces of organic chocolate this year from Terroir Chocolate in Fergus Falls, Minn. The store launched the promotion during its first year in business, and Dobrow laughed as he recalled producing a promotional video featuring prominent Duluthians trying to pronounce Jólabókaflód. “The mayor, Margi Preus, and other local authors took part—it was a hoot.”