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Why go local? Independent bookstores offer personalized hospitality, handwritten advice

The personalization factor is a hallmark of independent bookstores across the board.

Barnes & Noble offers its customers a table of recommended reading; an independent bookstore includes handwritten notes tucked into books, signed by staff members justifying their picks.
Photo by Rita Kovtun

Here in the Twin Cities, we belong to a fairly locally and liberally minded population. In the realm of food, we’ve taken the commonly heard slogan “buy local” to heart; the Twin Cities is said to have the greatest concentration of food co-ops in the country. But as we finish up our holiday shopping, perhaps some of us without venturing beyond our computer screens, I want to remind my fellow Twin Citians about the wealth of independent bookstores in Minneapolis and St. Paul and why buying books, as well as food, through local sellers is worth it.

Rita Kovtun

When Boulder, Colo., experienced massive flooding in September, I was concerned about injured citizens and flooded homes, but I also fought to quash mental images of the tiny, independent beat book shop submerged, waterlogged books and pages floating underwater. (Fortunately, it seems it survived). When I had stopped into the Pearl Street shop only weeks before, I could immediately tell the meticulously organized and preserved books reflected the bookstore’s personality, which was inextricable from that of its owner – Tom Peters – who opened the used book and record store 23 years ago.

This personalization factor is a hallmark of independent bookstores across the board. Barnes & Noble offers its customers a table of recommended reading; an independent bookstore includes handwritten notes tucked into books, signed by staff members justifying their picks. There’s only so much of a book you can view on an online preview, whereas a trip to the bookstore allows for browsing the shelves and flipping through pages yourself. In my experience, when looking for the perfect literary gift, local bookstore staff has always been happy to take keywords like “music” and “science” and translate them into tailored book recommendations.

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And independent bookstores build community by hosting events and readings. Discovering new work becomes easier than ever when you can attend readings to hear pieces from the authors themselves. Bonus: If you like what you hear, you can snatch up a copy without waiting or paying for shipping, and more often than not, get it signed then and there.

Remember how hard Meg Ryan’s character Kathleen Kelly fought in “You’ve Got Mail” for The Shop Around the Corner, threatened by big chain Fox Books, only to see it go under? Not all pushed-out-of-business bookstore owners find their Tom Hanks consolation prize, and the sad truth is Biermaier’s Books, Cummings Books and True Colors Bookstore are just a few of Twin Cities indie bookstores to close up shop in recent years.

But the tangible reasons to complement the feeling good of shopping local can help prevent future closures – an effort made all the more valiant in light of the ever-growing monopoly bookseller Amazon acquiring recommendation-based website Goodreads this past year.

The tangibles

According to IndieBound, a community-oriented movement begun by the independent bookseller members of the American Booksellers Association, spending $100 at a local business keeps $68 of that in your community, whereas spending the same $100 at a national chain leaves only $43.

Yes, shopping for a book at your local independent bookstore is oftentimes more expensive than finding it online, but buying local allows the money to stay where you spend it — creating more jobs, reinvesting taxes in the community, eliminating transportation and carbon footprint and bolstering a unique and thriving community.

I spent a semester abroad last fall in Paris, France (a country putting up a laudable fight against Amazon), a time marked by frequent trips to Shakespeare & Company, where I perused the upstairs library, attended concerts and readings, and took part in Sunday afternoon tea parties. When I returned to Minnesota, I desperately sought to recreate this experience. So I picked an evening Magers & Quinn was holding a reading and set out on my first-ever trip to what I knew to be the largest independent bookstore in the Twin Cities. I discovered a kind staff, free refreshments and a sizable crowd gathered to hear the two featured authors. The experience reawakened feelings of community and camaraderie I thought I had left behind in Paris.

Independents on the upswing

The good news here is the Twin Cities independent bookstore scene is holding up in recent years. Nationally, Small Business Saturday happened its fourth year on Nov. 30, but this year author Sherman Alexie wrote an open letter prompting all “gorgeous book nerds” to the initiative Indies First, encouraging them to become booksellers at local bookstores; six Twin Cities shops out of 400 nationwide answered the call. Additionally, the Twin Cities consistently appears on Central Connecticut State University’s list of the top 10 most literate cities, an annual study incorporating six criteria, one being the number of bookstores per capita. In 2012, Minneapolis ranked third and St. Paul sixth. These things support the fact that independent bookselling is currently on the upswing, though ebook use doesn’t show signs of slowing much in coming years. Indeed, PwC’s “Global entertainment and media outlook” projects that ebooks will make up 38 percent of all book sales by 2017, compared to 16 percent today.

So take a look at this close-to-comprehensive list of Twin Cities independent bookstores: in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books & Native Arts , Boneshaker Books, Booksmart, Magers & Quinn, Moon Palace Books, Once Upon A Crime, Wild Rumpus and Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction and Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstores; in St. Paul, Common Good Books, Micawber’s Books, Midway Bookstore, The Red Balloon Bookshop, Sixth Chamber Used Books and Subtext: A Bookstore.

Check them out online, or better yet, pick a new one off the list and go see it for yourself.

Each is a mini-world to enter into, carrying different kinds of books, but surely staffed with people who will greet you with the same warm enthusiasm, happy that you stopped in to browse their shelves instead of just clicking through titles online.

Rita Kovtun, a journalism student at the University of St. Thomas, is a HECUA intern at MinnPost.


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