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Bound to be broke? Independent BirchBark Books carries on in an age of crippling competition

Louise Erdrich and Brian Baxter
MinnPost photo by Daniel Corrigan
Author Louise Erdrich, left, and others donned hats last Saturday to honor retiring manager Brian Baxter, right, at BirchBark Books in Minneapolis.

Most writers believe in independent bookstores. But is a belief in past worlds enough to bring them back to life? The answer is yes, if author and store owner Louise Erdrich has anything to say about it.

The renowned author of “Love Medicine” and “Beet Queen” opened BirchBark Books in 2001, while independent booksellers everywhere were closing. The 800-square-foot shop, on a quiet street in Minneapolis’ Kenwood neighborhood, is a proper book lover’s hideaway, with reading spaces, a knowledgeable staff and a lovingly handpicked inventory.

Naturally, it has been losing money since the day it opened.

“Are we losing that much? I suppose we are, more or less. But sometimes much less,” said departing manager Brian Baxter. For years, a little note at the register indicated the amount was about $5,000 a month, but no one seems to know what happened to that sign.

With a mind to improving profits, Erdrich hired Baxter in 2002. But the bookseller, who brought more than 40 years of experience to BirchBark and a wise-old-owl personality that customers find amusing, is retiring.

His efforts improved sales at the store by 86 percent, and he will spend the rest of January mentoring employees Susan White and Persia Erdrich (Louise’s daughter) to take over his role. The store will carry on without him, and even slightly change; White says the women’s and spirituality sections will expand.

Best wishes for BirchBark aside, however, Baxter is not optimistic about the future for independent bookstores. “We are a nation of mourners. We love to mourn the corner hardware store, the small grocer, the independent bookseller, the lost wilderness,” he says. “We recognize that these places have great meaning and offer a unique experience. And yet, people aren’t making the conscious choices that will keep these places alive. They are too focused on convenience. They buy their books at Target and Costco.”

Crush of competition
Baxter’s own store, Baxter’s Books in downtown Minneapolis, was part of the first wave of independents to be crushed by Barnes and Noble, along with Odegaard’s and Gringolet Books. Holdouts like Ruminator Books (formerly the Hungry Mind), Bound to Be Read and Orr Books have been shuttered since BirchBark opened.

Yet Erdrich serenely carries on at 2115 W. 21st St., hosting author readings and even launching a small press, as if the horse carrying the news that such things just aren’t done anymore is still on its way. The writer is notoriously unmoved by modern times, and eschews computers — and even that new-fangled typewriter contraption — preferring to write her novels by hand, in notebooks. She also handwrites blog entries for the store’s website, which are later typed in by an employee. The author declined to be interviewed for this story, though she acquiesced to having her photo taken Saturday during Brian Baxter Day at the store.

Brian Baxter
MinnPost photo by Daniel Corrigan
Baxter laments that consumers “aren’t making the conscious choices that will keep these places (independent merchants) alive.”

An expert in bygone worlds, Erdrich’s stories are populated by spirits, directed by curses and guided by burning love. Practical concerns are less than literary. But $5,000 a month?

“Maybe she can afford to lose it,” says David Unowsky, who closed Ruminator Books in 2004, bankrupt after 34 years in business. “But most people, no matter how rich they are — and she’s not even hugely rich — don’t like to lose money.”

Two other local independent bookstores are propped up by wealthier owners: Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books in St. Paul and real estate mogul Peggy Burnett’s Bookcase of Wayzata. “I’m all for more bookstores, and if the store serves the community, more power to them,” says Unowsky. “But the bottom line is, if people value independent bookstores, they’re going to have to go there and buy from them. If there are going to be good independent bookstores, they’ll need to be financially stable to last.”

Keillor’s Common Good Books is defying the fates and breaking even, possibly even approaching a modest profit.

“We’re doing well above what we were expected to,” says assistant manager Martin Schmutterer, who has also spent time behind the counter at Ruminator, Bound to Be Read, and Barnes and Noble. “Part of it is that we have really low rent. I think Louise is paying too much for her space. We pay maybe one-tenth for this place what Bound to Be Read paid for theirs, and maybe one-third what Ruminator’s space cost. That makes a big difference.”

Another difference may be that Keillor courts publicity for his store and can often be spotted there or upstairs at Nina’s Coffee Café. Erdrich, on the other hand, maintains extreme privacy and shuns attention, although her handwritten book recommendations paper the store.

A native niche
“Louise is committed to her store,” Baxter says firmly. “She wants a place where good books are sold, where native books are sold, that serves the native community, and the really good fiction community. Her vision is to have a place she likes to be. She made a place [a loft and hobbit hole filled with toys] where kids can play. Someone else would have made that a place where you could sell music or diet books. No. Kids play, kids play.”

Although the store carries a wide range of current fiction and nonfiction, its salvation may actually be its focus on all things native. BirchBark sells native artwork, traditionally harvested wild rice and other native foods and gifts, and maintains one of the country’s choicest selections of books by or about Native Americans.

That expertise draws visitors from around the country — even around the world. Latvian-Minnesotan Amanda Jatniece says that when she brought her Latvian boyfriend to Minnesota this fall for his first U.S. visit, two destinations were on his list: the Mall of America and BirchBark Books. Europeans maintain a fascination with native history and culture, and he wanted to find some books on the topic.

“The book he bought was about [American] Indian spirituality, and he got one for both his mother and brother, who are ministers. His mother has already used a few stories from it in her sermons. Talk about meaningful souvenirs,” Jatniece says. The couple’s visit to the mall was a less memorable experience.

BirchBark has also become the jewel destination in Native American writers’ book tours. Sherman Alexie brought his one-man reading show to a packed house at the BirchBark event, although the popular author, who attracted hundreds of fans, actually read at the nearby Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church. His raucous crowd wouldn’t have fit in the actual store.

Labors of love
“This is a tiny place. We don’t even have a self-help section, or a diet section. We have political books, but we only have room for the left wing. Forgive us — we’re so small,” says Baxter, clearly delighted to be a part of a store that, if not thriving financially, lives up to certain ideals.

“There are people who live in the neighborhood who don’t know we’re here. There are others who go out of their way to buy their books here. They enjoy our store because we are odd people and we interact with them, and talk with them about books,” says Baxter. “When I had my store, I hired a woman who had worked for Barnes and Noble, and she had been told specifically, ‘Do not look the customer in the eye as you cross the store. They will want to talk to you.’ I guess that’s good business. Independents probably aren’t smart enough to do that. We stand around and talk with the customer and joke and terrify the children, if we can.”

On Jan. 31, Baxter will say goodbye to a career surrounded by books—and punctuated by store closings. (Before he opened Baxter’s Books, he worked for 19 years at B. Dalton, which bought out his first employer, Pickwick Books, and he was laid off when Barnes and Noble bought that chain.) BirchBark will carry on without him, until the day Erdrich decides the dream is over.

“It will be very sad, and the world will go on just the same,” Baxter says. “It’s the thing you find out when your father dies: You look out the window and the cars are going on about their business and they don’t even know about it.”

Meanwhile, Erdrich is deep in the midst of editing her latest novel. She has published six books in the six years her store has been open. As long as people consider Costco their local bookstore, she may have to keep up that pace.

Amy Goetzman writes about books, libraries and the literary scene for MinnPost. She can be reached at agoetzman [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Deborah Morse-Kahn on 01/09/2008 - 11:44 am.

    Articles like this are agony for me: all the caring for the effort of the bookseller, and the love of the books, comes singing through…but the articles are seldom penned by folks with a grounded business background and so the many, many critical factors that support the rise, and possible fall, of any retail effort are left out of the equation and the reading public remains in the dark.

    Birchbark Books, a magnificent store, is located so far off the beaten path of auto and foot traffic as to be practically invisible. The choice of location stunned me, and I predicted trouble from the first. When the early articles in the store’s initial year(s) spoke to too few customers, not enough support, I cringed: support comes when the business has done its job by making it easy for the customer to find it. Birchbark was as hidden as you could get and, morever, to Ms. Erdrich’s wish, carried a heavy percentage of First Nation People’s materials, both fiction and non-fiction, and suddenly you had a speciality store in a very special hidden corner. No marketing, no advertising. Just hope that word of mouth and, perhaps, naive assumption that the author’s reputation would draw shoppers was all that was employed in a critical first year.

    Brian Baxter’s closure of his downtown Minneapolis bookstore was NOT due to failure of the buyer to support an independent bookstore–or the appearance of the Big Box goliath some blocks away. Brian chose a corner deep in the business district, and area that became virtually deserted at night and on weekends, prime selling hours for bookstores. Worse, available shoppers were tied to their cube farms and corner offices most of the day, having only a midday hour to shop. What does it add up to? High downtown square-footage overhead, terrible marketing hours, a desperately narrow net margin (bookselling is not a money-earning occupation, you may get a dollar for every $19.95 tome that sells) made up for disaster and I predicted the day Brian opened that he would close within a few years. I hate being right.

    Gringolet was buried in the basement of St. Anthony Main, a complex which suffered for ten years of bad marketing and decreasing foot traffic until the entire complex was put out of its misery and turned over to other use.

    Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books was fabulous but David was a booklover and a bookbuyer but no one’s idea of a businessman and the aftermath reporting of the closure of Ruminator-yikes, what a name!–revealed the terrible administrative mess at the core. Opening a bookshop at the Center for the Book–no parking, no foot-traffic, and a sad assumption by the Loft that the enlightened would surely come to buy–doomed that second effort.

    Odegaards died when Michelle Odegaard
    left both the bookstore and her marriage and took her natural born instincts for bookselling literally down the road to Red Balloon Books for children, where they are doing just fine, thank you.
    Charlie Orr held out a long, long time. But his store was always a niche store, but a niche store needs stability and the Hennepin-Lake corner community saw tremendous change over the period of 25 years that his store held on. I think the world of Charlie Orr but the demise of his store was, in my mind, inevitable. But the charge that he was forced out by the Big Store in Calhoun Square is bunk: Magers and Quinn across the street, which found its feet early by combining new, used and remaindered titles just likes its competitor, made the most of its fabulous environment and is always full of people. I go there a lot when I could order online from Amazon or wander down the road to B&N. I just like being in there…and I can park, get there by bus, whatever. Its visible.

    Birchbark Books is not visible. Brian brought, far too late in my mind, the professional hand that might have advised Ms. Erdrich from the get-go NOT to locate in that exotic corner of Kenwood, and then to be really, really sure that heavy emphasis on Native American materials was the way to go, and that she was financially prepared to underwrite what was, in truth, a private self-expression of what she believed the reading public should want. Well, folks don’t like being guilted, and I felt guilted, and so I–her natural constituent–educated, with money, living in the neighborhood–went only once. And the customer service (pre-Brian) was so gawd-bloody-awful (ignored, than spoken to bluntly) that I walked out and never looked back.

    Now, please excuse me, I need to go over Kristin Eide-Cummings’ marvelous, fantastic, thirty-year success, The Book House, in Dinkytown: I feel the need for a Modern Library edition of David Copperfield coming on.

    Yours in turning the page…Deborah/Linden Hills (one-time senior clerk, B. Dalton’s)

    • Submitted by Peter Fleischhacker on 12/23/2013 - 06:40 am.

      Sad for you

      The above is a choice example of them that don’t really give a darn. A self proclaimed book lover who in one short visit writes off what would be idealized in her own rhetoric. Yes it is sad when we realize we don’t really care about anyone or anything that doesn’t provide a moving envelope of warm air for the very special.

  2. Submitted by Amy Goetzman on 01/17/2008 - 02:08 pm.

    I received the following message from Louise Erdrich, who was unable to talk with me at the time I was writing this story. She asked me to post it here:

    “I was very happy that you covered Brian Baxter Day. He’s given his life to books and the day was filled with people he has affected. Brian is really many people at once, and I’ve been lucky to know the guy who knows the books.

    The day you describe was a celebration, not a day of lament. We have survived because we’ve learned slowly what it means to run a bookstore. Vanity is the last thing it is about. I could get lots more mileage out of, oh, plastic surgery? Hot boots? More Aveda products, definitely.

    I would like to make this clear: Birchbark Books does not lose $5,000 per month. Never did — maybe the sign you mention had an extra zero. Nobody in books can afford that sort of loss. We break even because our staff works hard and likes to sell books.

    One of the good things about our location is the rent — reasonable — which those you interviewed didn’t understand. We also survive because we provide a service which is also a niche, Native Books, children’s books, and traditional language materials. We survive because we sell to schools, because we care about the literary and Native community in Minneapolis, because we love books (thanks for the good words about our general list) and I think, somehow, because we have a good time.

    Our new manager, Susan White, is a lovely and warm person. We’ll carry on. Can you be yourself in this age of big box stores? I think so.

    Thanks again, Louise Erdrich

  3. Submitted by Martin Schmutterer on 01/17/2008 - 07:47 pm.

    I would like to congratulate Brian Baxter on his stellar career as a bookseller. A lifetime helping people find the right book is a noble one.

    I would also like to apologize to Louise, and Birchbark’s staff, for speaking out of turn about the store. In my interview with Ms. Goetzman, I did not give any indication of specific knowledge of the economic situation of the store. I did highlight some of the advantages of our location, including low rent, especially in comparison to what the late lamented were paying on Grand Avenue. I would like to go on record, however, that I did not, and would not, say “I think Louise is paying too much for her space.”

    Finally, I think the article tells only one of the easiest stories of independent bookselling in the Twin Cities–economic failure. The counter-narrative is much more powerful. Stores like Wild Rumpus, Micawbers, and The Red Balloon all carry on without the benefit of a famous owner. While few people get rich bookselling, it’s a mistake to think that a few prominent closings mean the end is nigh.

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