Keillor prepares to sell books (after he learns the till)

Garrison Keillor says opening an independent bookstore wasn’t the smartest move.

“I lost an obscene amount of money, but it’s all fine. It’s all good,” he said, standing in the large, empty space a couple of days before the arrival of the shelves for his new bookstore at the corner of Snelling and Grand in St Paul.

“It was a choice in between going into the bookstore business or having a party in the parking lot burning $20 bills. Bales of them. It would have been fun but wouldn’t have lasted long.”

At least he got a few years out of his first store.


Keillor was in the new store to chat about the upcoming opening. He said the first Common Good Books in Cathedral Hill wasn’t right: too small, in the basement and invisible.

“I sort of opened it and walked away from it,” Keillor said. But he’s ready to give it another go.

“If you are an author and grew up in the stacks of the Anoka Public Library you owe it to the people to try one more time,” he said.

The new store will be double the size of the first store and, much to the delight of the staff, has large windows. Keillor, who has been helping with the ordering of new stock (some John McPhee and Updike, along with books on Midwestern architecture), expects to expand the number of titles by about a third, although he says the numbers aren’t crucial.


“This sort of store can’t be a bookstore of record,” he said, rolling the leg of his eyeglasses round and back. “You want to have a representative, interesting collection,” he continued. “Books that Macalester students and faculty deserve to know about.”

Keillor says he has insisted on a long shelf to allow for the display of as many as 200 books laid flat so customers can see their front covers.

“Even with e-books, they are still designing book jackets,” Keillor said. “They are very compelling.”

He also wants to have many tables, and maybe even a desk where he can work. He says he intends to spend more time in the store, although there is the problem that he has been unable to master working the till.

The new Common Good Books will have a soft opening on Monday, April 9, but will celebrate in a grand style for three evenings beginning May 1. That night, a “Spring Poetry Free-for-all” in the Macalester chapel will let members of the public select poems to perform at the open mike, with a jazz trio as backing.

On May 2, in the space adjacent to the new store, Keillor will be joined by Prairie Home Companion regulars Sue Scott and Tim Russell for a dramatic reading of Keillor’s new book, “Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny.”

Finally, on May 3, Keillor will invite people to join him on stage and tell him a story. Then, he says, he gets to ask some questions. “Like a little master class,” he said. He wants to guide them to the interesting part.

All three events will start at 7 p.m.

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Keillor said after the Guy Noir novel he thinks he may be done with writing fiction.

“People don’t want that anymore,” he said, staring out into the traffic on Snelling. He says he’s been writing essays instead. He talked about an essay on cheerfulness, which started as a newspaper column and somehow was now around 11,000 words.

“My people were cheerful people at heart,” he said. “And I have misrepresented them in the News from Lake Wobegon.”

He mentioned his mother, who is 96 and has always made a point of trying to be cheerful, unlike his own generation and those that have followed. He’s not sure where these essays might be published, however. He says he needs a magazine for which to write, noting that he hasn’t written for the New Yorker since Tina Brown became editor, and while she has now moved on, he’s inclined to let it lie.

He has been rewriting the screenplay for his Lake Wobegon movie. He says it got too dark, and he needed to lighten it up. “People don’t want to pay to go see a Lake Wobegon movie and get bummed out,” he shrugged.

But in the meantime there is a bookstore to open. Keillor seems pleased by the idea.

“It’s important for people to hold books in their hands,” he said. “Who knows what will happen to books in the next 20 years?”

(All photos are MPR images by Euan Kerr)