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.
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.