Will readers take the bookstore challenge?

Garrison Keillor has sold his bookstore, MPR’s Euan Kerr reports, and if you’re at all like me, your first reaction is likely, “why would someone buy a dinosaur like a bookstore?”

Nicholas Ballas, 58, doesn’t exactly answer the question of how he’s going to make money in what is reportedly a dying industry, thanks to Amazon.

“I started looking at the business and ended up liking what I saw and then buying the bookstore,” said Ballas, whose background suggests he may have a few bucks to risk on the venture.

The Pioneer Press says business at the store has declined since Keillor stopped spending much time in the place.

The challenge seems to be clear to literary-minded folks: Support local bookstores or watch them die and, oh by the way, don’t bother lamenting something you helped cause.

This morning on Twitter, a bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas provided a glimpse of just how ruthless the online booksellers are.

Sure, a local bookstore is a business, but when an owner — especially a new owner — shovels sand against the economic tide, it stands as a challenge to the rest of us: are we willing to do anything to keep local businesses and industries in our community and if so, what?

Ballas says he’s keeping all the employees, changing the name of the place to Next Chapter, and considering selling books online.

  • MrE85

    My favorite independent bookstore is Valley Bookseller in Stillwater. I walk out with a new book (or three) every visit.

    • Brian Simon

      Being frugal, this is a struggle for me. I like Half Price books, and Magers & Quinn.

      • Jerry

        I like the used bookstores because they have the widest selection of books. Independents have the best curated selection. Barnes & Noble has the most copies of the bestsellers.

    • J Allen

      Valley Bookseller is one of my favorite stops too, and has a very nice Local authors selection.

  • Mike

    The reason people shop online is because it’s easy and efficient. You get exactly what you want, delivered to your door within a reasonable amount of time. For those of us who work full-time, it saves gas and time spent running around at rush hour or on weekends. Why would I spend time and money going to a local shop that might or might not have what I want? Yes, browsing is great when I’m inclined to do so, but that’s not often. Besides, I can browse at the library.

    If brick and mortar is going to compete meaningfully, they’re going to have to find an edge that can’t be found online. No amount of guilt-tripping people is going to work, nor should it.

    • Brian Simon

      “they’re going to have to find an edge that can’t be found online.”

      Indeed. What do consumers get for their dollars? The twitter rant, above, may help people realize what they are choosing when they choose cheap & convenient over supporting local businesses.

      I agree that the guilt trip is unlikely to be a viable business model. But slinging coffee isn’t going to work for every local business trying to eke out a living either.

    • I don’t think any of that is in dispute or, really, an issue.

      The question posed is what, if anything, are we willing to do to preserve local industry and business?

      As the bookstore in Kansas points out, all of those features you find convenient do come with a cost.

      As any abandoned Main Street in almost any Minnesota town attests.

      • Mike

        The question you pose implies that the public has some higher responsibility toward a business simply because it’s local. That’s what I’m disputing.

        Ultimately a bookstore is a business, a for-profit enterprise that will either prosper or not, based on whether the public finds value in what it offers.

        Various local stores, restaurants, bars, etc., that I have patronized over the years have gone out of business for a whole host of reasons. It’s not my problem that they went out of business.

        • RBHolb

          “The question you pose implies that the public has some higher responsibility toward a business simply because it’s local.”

          Disagree. I think that the portion of the public that bemoans the death of small, locally-owned retail of any kind (or even of big, locally-owned retail that became a local institution) needs to look at its own buying habits. If your go-to place to buy a book is Amazon, don’t cry because there aren’t any more “real bookstores in town. If your idea of dining out is the Olive Garden, don’t complain when your local bistro closes due to lack of business.

          • Mike

            I don’t disagree with that. It’s dumb for people to bemoan the loss of businesses they don’t patronize. My point is that no one has an obligation to support something just because it’s local.

          • RBHolb

            I don’t call it an obligation, but it’s more of a strong preference.

      • Jeff C.

        ” what, if anything, are we willing to do to preserve local industry and business?”

        Short simple answer: Support them. It isn’t hard. I go to St. Paul Corner Drug instead of ordering things online or going to big box stores. When I need something they don’t carry, I ask them to special-order it for me and it is in the store the next day. I go to Frattallone’s Ace Hardware for tons of stuff. I go to Wet Paint instead of Target for school supplies. I go to Mississippi Market instead of Cosco. And I’m willing to spend more to get more. I value local businesses and know that they make my life better, so if Advil costs 50 cents more at St. Paul Corner Drug, but I also know that I can run in and buy it in less time than it takes to order it online, I do that. It is like public radio — if you don’t listen, you don’t have to give money. But if you think you’d feel sad or a sense of loss if you woke up one morning and found that MPR was off the air, you should support it with a donation. If you think you’d be sad to loose local industry and businesses, you should support them before they disappear.

    • If brick and mortar is going to compete meaningfully, they’re going to have to find an edge that can’t be found online.

      The “edge that can’t be found online” was summed up in the Tweet:

      Bringing your favorite authors to town so you can meet them and get your books signed.

      Partnering with cultural organizations in your town to enrich the arts.

      Working to support the local authors where you live.

      Hosting open mics etc. so emerging artists have a platform.

      Paying taxes.

      • Mike

        It isn’t an edge if it doesn’t help the profitability of the business. All of those things together might be enough, or they might not. The balance sheet will tell the tale.

        • Yet that is what sets them apart from the online booksellers.

          It’s literally what differentiates the two business models.

          As already mentioned, online “bookstores” are using physical books as a type of “loss leader” to get people to their site.

          • Barton

            it is what hooked me on Amazon, to be sure. Nothing like getting a hard cover book the day it is published for half cost.

    • QuietBlue

      The area where I live has never had independent local bookstores aside from a few Christian bookstores and comic book stores. It was always chains; B. Dalton and Waldenbooks when I was young, then B&N later on. So it’s hard for me to miss something that never existed in my area.

  • jon

    I like bookstores.
    But I also like digital media.

    I don’t always prefer a kindle book or audible book to a dead tree.
    But when a book is in excess of 500 pages, it sure is nice to hold the kindle up rather than a several pound tome.

    But the browsing experience in a good bookstore can’t be matched by amazon…
    The “staff picks” in a store where a staff member shares your likes and dislikes seem to beat amazon’s algorithms in my experience.
    I’ve even found a few Guerrilla signed book in some stores (not from authors I was previously familiar with but the books looked fun and they are in my “too read” shelf).

    In a perfect world I’d like for small bookstores to have access to sell e-books (even with their markup) or digital audio books, and the clerk at the check out ask “would you like to have any of these books in a digital format?” and be able to set me up right then and there with something other than the dead tree version of the books.

    • Barton

      The author Neil Gaiman always visits book stores in the towns he visits and signs his books that are on the shelf. I’ve taken especially to going to bookstores in airports to see if I can find any he has signed. So far, I’ve gotten two: once in MSP and once in MKE (helps that he lives part time in Wisconsin)

      • Jerry

        When I worked at Border’s, I was very proud of getting the climber Conrad Anker to sign his book on Everest when happened to recognize him as customer.

    • RBHolb

      Some small bookstores are selling e-books. One of my locals, Moon Palace Books, sells Kobo e-books. I’m told they work on other companies’ e-readers.

    • wjc

      I have gotten to the point where I really don’t want to read a physical book. I’ve gone over to the digital 100%. I still have some of my legacy books at home, but we are moving a lot of those out too. Local bookstores have become a showroom for what I want to buy digitally or borrow digitally from the library.

      • RBHolb

        I have a lot of digital books, too, for various reasons (reading on the train is high on that list). There are some digital books that just don’t work. I have a hard time using digital cookbooks when I’m actually cooking, and digital art books just aren’t the same.

        • wjc

          Totally agree. Cookbooks are the biggest category of physical books that still enter our house.

    • Jerry

      I prefer reading paper books, but I have really gone more towards digital versions just for space reasons. It has to be a special book, or one with lots of illustrations and maps, to take up space on my already overflowing bookshelves.

      One way small bookstores, and small independent stores in general, can thrive is through excellent curation of their inventory. Moon Palace in Minneapolis is a an example that is perfectly curated for my interests. Nakomis Shoe is the same when it comes to clothing.

      • jon

        Again, good reasons for both.

        My kindle has a backlight and can be read in low light conditions…
        A paper back never has a dead battery, and you don’t have to turn it off during take off and landing on a plane.

        If I take a paperback on a trip to the BWCA and drop it in a lake on accident, I’m out a paperback ~$10.
        If I take my kindle on a trip I can carry 100’s of books in the same space as a small paperback.

        On recent vacations with my wife, I take my kindle with me, and I usually end up buying a paperback somewhere along the line (we usually walk past a small book store and we usually go in) so I usually have at least one of each.

        • Jerry

          I once hauled a trade paperback copy of Ulysses halfway up a mountain in Austria. A kindle would have been appreciated there. Even better would have been not trying to read Ulysses.

          • RBHolb

            “Even better would have been not trying to read Ulysses.”

            But the head coach wants no sissies!

  • Jeff C.

    The other night my daughter and I started to read a paperback copy of “Where the Red Fern Grows”. Before we started reading, she said, “Wait!”, grabbed the book from me, put the book up to her nose, fanned the pages, and, with her eyes closed and a smile on her face, said, “Mmmmmm…the smell of an old book.” It was a wonderful way to start the reading.

  • Rob

    I’d like to say I feel bad about not spending any money on books, either locally or via Amazon, but I don’t. As long as there are libraries around, from which I can borrow dead tree items or obtain digital books, I feel no guilt.

  • MarkUp

    Maggers and Quinn on Hennepin Ave ran a charity during the holidays where you could buy a book for the children’s hospital. They should add “partnering with local charities” to Raven Bookstores list.

  • Barton

    This discussion could apply to most everything these days. I am trying to buy more locally (and I mean local businesses, mainly small, not just my local branch of a national big box chain). That said, recently I needed something particular from a hardware store: I visited five hardware stores, then both a Home Depot and a Lowe’s before finally just ordering the item online. It wasn’t even an obscure item, it was just considered “out of season.” Sometimes it just pays to save money and time by shopping online……

    • QuietBlue

      Plus, sometimes I don’t necessarily *want* people with whom I interact on a regular basis to know what I’m buying. “Oh, did you see how so-and-so bought a book about such-and-such?”

      Sometimes disconnection is a good thing.

      • RBHolb

        Sometimes, interaction can be welcome. Back in the 80s (an otherwise idiotic decade), bookstores were hot places for singles to meet. Gringolet Books in St. Anthony Main was especially popular. A lot of conversations started with “I see you’re looking at . . .”

        I liked Gringolet, too, but mostly for its extensive stock of P.G. Wodehouse.

        • QuietBlue

          I thought pretty much everything in St. Anthony Main back then was designed for singles to meet. I didn’t go there in its prime, but read about it.

          I do think the possibility for interaction is good, but I also see the value in being able to have privacy as well.

          • RBHolb

            Yes and no. Reading e-books while I commute has deprived me of random conversations with strangers about what we were reading.

            On the other hand, there weren’t that many of them.

    • It is also a boon for seniors who may not want to drive, especially in the winter.

    • X.A. Smith

      I remember one of my first online purchases was a book that my local independent bookseller did not have in stock. I asked about it at the desk, and they said they didn’t have it. They didn’t offer to order it for me. They didn’t offer me any help, in fact. So I ordered it online. The bookstore closed a year later.

  • Gary F

    Since I’m hard to buy for, people give me books for Christmas and my birthday. My niece works at an indy book store so some of those books are small store sourced. So I get stocked up twice a year.

    Then I use the library.

  • Gary F

    If small indies would carry Thomas Sowell and David Horowitz, I would buy them there.

    • Rob

      Sorry, not playing. If your favorite indie bookstore doesn’t have these authors on the shelves, I’m sure they’d be glad to order them for you.

      • Gary F

        My niece ends up ordering them for me. Her boss won’t let her stock center right stuff even though people ask for it.

    • Jeff C.

      Good news! Common Good Books can order David Horowitz! https://www.commongoodbooks.com/search/site/David%2520Horowitz

      • Gary F

        But they wouldn’t dare put in on the shelf for people to see.

        • Jeff C.

          That’s strange. I wonder why. They stock “The Case For Trump” by Victor Hanson.

        • RBHolb

          Are you interested in buying the book, or do you just want to see it?

  • A slightly different take on this is the way we are building internet dependency into everything. What were once completely independent and unique experiences are now rolled into the smartphones in our pockets. Shopping, photography, ham radio, reading, listening to broadcasts, movies… There is nothing that hasn’t been overtaken. Gone is my darkroom along with the chemicals, photo paper, and the smells of the chemicals. That experience isn’t coming back because the “takeover” by digital photography is complete. That hasn’t yet happened with books and reading, but it’s an uneasy standoff at best. A new Barnes & Noble is opening next month here in Woodbury, so we’ll be patrons – but we’ll also keep using the Kindle.

  • AL287

    One or two gentle cats (from the local shelter of course) definitely gives the store a leg up on Amazon and a coffee/tea bar with insulated carafes to keep the beverages hot would help them compete with Barnes and Noble. A free will donation for coffee/tea of 0.50 to a $1.00 would help defray the cost of supplies and a lot cheaper than the coffee houses down the street.

    A local ceramic artist or even a fine arts student from Macalester could design coffee mugs and tea cups for sale.

    We keep bemoaning the loss of face to face interaction and a book store is a great place to meet people and have intelligent conversation.

    The challenge is to keep it fresh and vibrant.

    I hope he makes a go of it despite the rising tide of brainless apps like Twitter and Instagram.

    • Jerry

      Those apps are only as brainless as how you use them. Instagram especially has exposed me to some great photographers.

  • J Allen

    One of my favorite independent bookstores, Subtext Books, is located in downtown St. Paul and is always a good place to visit.


    • Huh. I had no idea there was a bookstore so close by. I’ll stop in today.

      thanks for this.

      • J Allen

        You’re welcome. I didn’t know myself that the owner used to work for Odegard Books, which I still remember and miss.

        • Kate Gustafson Sanderson

          Sue was a the former manager of Common Good Books. A real smart manager.

      • Mark Snyder

        Subtext has been a big supporter of Nora McInerny’s books. She signed one of my copies of her first book at a reading she did there and they ran a pre-order of signed copies of her second one. They’re pretty great!

  • Credit Warrior

    Over my lifetime I probably have read 1000+ books. I have never bought a book online. I own less that 100 books. I have borrowed the majority books I have read from the library. The books that I buy I have bought at second hand book stores. There are many used bookstores in the Minneapolis/St Cloud area. My favorite is Sojourner’s Station on the north side of St Cloud. It is a century old barn that is converted into a used book store. The owner doesn’t have a website but there are maps/phone number online to find it. The small bookstore featuring new books may be dying but there still are many used local bookstores that are open because of their love of books.

  • Jerry

    All this talk of bookstores makes me think how much I would have appreciated having access to “What’s on MPR News” back when I worked at one. The most common question we received, after “Where is the latest Harry Potter?”, was “Do you have that book that Kerri Miller/Terry Gross talked about?” The customers never remembered the title or author, but somehow expected us to know what they were talking about. Now we could just look it up.

    • Also, the member/listener services hotline could have helped you immediately also.

      • Jerry

        I’m not sure we had access to that back in 2001. Or at least we were never trained to use it.

        • It was old school… just call the number and a nice person looks it up for you. Like a library. Nice folks. They get a lot of gruff from callers, though. Or at least they used to. Most people send email now instead of call.