After George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, five days of violence across the Twin Cities followed, impacting a number of indie bookstores but none more than Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore and Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore, which sat side-by-side on Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis. The two stores, owned by Don Blyly and known as "the Uncles," were burned to the ground by arsonists on the nights of May 29 and 30.

“We were one of the last places hit,” Blyly noted. Approximately 200 businesses were damaged or destroyed by arson during that week of mayhem. Two miles east of the Uncles, Moon Palace Books was also impacted, due to its location near the Third Precinct police station where Chauvin worked. About 20 buildings around Moon Palace were destroyed, though the store itself remained unscathed.

While some affected businesses never re-opened, others have—including the Uncles. While Blyly could not afford to rebuild in the Chicago Avenue location, he admitted that he wasn’t sure at the time that he wanted to return to the neighborhood, which is near a large liquor store and a gun store.

In 2022, Blyly bought a 1920s-era building half a block from Moon Palace with his $400,000 insurance payout and resumed selling new and used SFF, mysteries, and thrillers that August. The 100,000 books in the Uncles’ inventory are 30% new and 70% used; jigsaw puzzles recently were added to the mix.

It’s been a momentous time, and not just because Blyly was able to relocate and re-open: this year marks Blyly’s 50th anniversary as a bookstore owner: Blyly launched Uncle Hugo’s, selling primarily used SFF books, in 1974 as a first-year law student at the University of Minnesota. After receiving his J.D., he says, he realized that he would be “very unhappy working as an attorney" because he "enjoyed selling books." He continued his graduate studies, "living on student loans while running the bookstore in a very small space,” which included a basement where bongs were manufactured by other young entrepreneurs.

Eventually, Blyly moved into a larger space on Franklin Avenue, where customer demand for mysteries and thrillers motivated him to open Uncle Edgar’s in 1980, at which point he was working on his MBA degree. The two stores moved into the building on Chicago Avenue in 1984, the same year Blyly was kicked out of the University of Minnesota’s business school.

“The floors were on different levels, and people had to come in from different entrances to get to the two stores," Blyly said of the Franklin Avenue location, "so we kept them separate." Although the two bookstores are now housed in a 4,000 square-foot common retail area with one check-out counter, the business is still called Uncle Hugo’s and Uncle Edgar’s. Blyly explained that “each store has a loyal following and it helps people realize what it’s about.”

Blyly gave PW a tour that included a visit to a 5,000-square-foot basement filled with books waiting to be processed and then shelved on the main floor. (The stores' inventories were not computerized until 2000, which presented a learning curve for Blyly, though he says he is "used to it now.”) In the Chicago Avenue location, due to the building’s layout, both stores had dedicated staff monitoring the 5,000 square-foot total retail areas, plus two checkout counters. “We had to have more people than could be supported by the amount of business,” Blyly recalled. The Uncles currently employ four people part-time and one full-time, down from six or seven employees before the pandemic.

While the charred remains of the Third Precinct station remain a blight upon a neighborhood that is still rebuilding, with some businesses continuing to struggle, Blyly and Angela Schwesnedl, co-owner of Moon Palace, both report that their stores are thriving, although Schwesnedl noted that while sidelines are up, book sales are down. Both say that they benefit from each other’s proximity, as well as the Hennepin County Public Library branch a block away. And Babycake’s Book Stack mobile bookstore makes seasonal weekly stops in Moon Palace’s parking lot to sell multicultural children’s books, which only adds to the bookish energy. It has worked out so well, Blyly and Schwesnedl say, that Independent Bookstore Day this year was their best IBD yet.

“Independent Bookstore Day was our busiest day ever,” Schwesnedl said. “Everyone went a little nuts buying books [and] you could get to three bookstores in one location [Moon Palace, the Uncles, and Babycake’s]. I wish there was a third bookstore right here, walking distance, all year. I think that would really make it a destination. My fantasy is that some of the rebuild of this neighborhood would be a bookstore.”

Schwesnedl noted that Moon Palace, which opened its doors in 2012 and moved less than half a mile north to its current 3,000-square-foot building in 2015, stocks 30,000 titles, but there’s little overlap between her general bookstore’s inventory of primarily new books and sidelines and that of the Uncles. She appreciates that the Uncles have such a large inventory because customers who are interested in the backlist of authors writing genre fiction and nonfiction can often find what they are looking for at the Uncles. “It’s nice,” she said. “[The Uncles] can go deep in a way that we can’t. We can’t carry every book in a 30-book series.”

Even though the Uncles are now located on a side street, instead of a major thoroughfare, Blyly maintains that one reason sales are up is that “we see primarily people who are interested in what we’re selling,” rather than “people walking in who could not even figure out it was a bookstore; they came in to cause problems or to use the restroom.” There is also a lot of cross-pollination among the different bookstores’ customer bases. “A lot of people who are into sci-fi and fantasy and a lot of other things automatically go to both stores when they are in the neighborhood,” Blyly said. “And we’re selling a lot more kids books than in the old location; there are more families here. Two things I’m not happy about: it takes me longer to get here from my home, and there’s no good Chinese carryout nearby. Other than that, everything else is better.”