Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Visit to Common Good Books of St. Paul.

Once upon a time there was a bookstore called Common Good Books of St. Paul. It opened in 2006 in the lower level of the Blair Arcade Building of St. Paul. Earlier this year, it moved to the intersection of Snelling and Grand Avenues, closer to the Macalester College Campus, where it will also be the textbook store for Macalester. In the old space, Subtext has opened, partnered by the old manager of Common Good and the owner of the popular restaurant, Nina’s Coffee Cafe upstairs. Running the events is the old owner of Hungry Mind (and then Ruminator), which was connected to Macalester. And the current manager of Common Good once worked at another St. Paul bookstore, Bound to be Read. St. Paul has sure had a lot of bookstores. And just to fit another old St. Paul bookstore into the paragraph, let me just say Odegard Books, though I don’t know how they fit into the story.

I hope I got all that right. It’s all in this story in Finance and Commerce  and this Star Tribune story. I’m staying out of it. And alas, we ran out of time and were not able to visit not just Subtext, but The University of Minnesota Bookstore, Red Balloon of St. Paul, Uncle Hugo's/Uncle Edgar's or Birchbark Books and Native Arts*. Hey, I need reasons to return. But I did visit Common Good, and that’s what this blog post is about.

It’s almost like being home, as the store is next to a Breadsmith. I just bought a loaf of honey oat at the Downer Avenue location on the next block a few days ago. Have I mentioned how much I love Tuesday’s granola bread? I think I might have to get some right now. Oh, but I am losing my place here. The store is clean and bright, with literary quotes festooning the walls. It’s said to be about a thousand square feet bigger than their old location. I had guessed the store was as large as 3500 square feet, but a little research corrected my impression that it’s only 3000. Hey, that’s a nice impressive use of space.  It looked like there were a lot of movable fixtures, which allowed for some rearrangement for readings. I see they are having Molly Ringwald on September 17, in conversation with John Reimringer. Her new book is called When it Happens to You: A Novel in Nine Stories (It Books), and I suspect they will need to utilize their entire store for this crowd. I don't know much about this book, set in L.A. with lots of interconnected plotlines, but it has nice advance quotes from Eleanor Henderson and Lauren Groff.

There were a few touches that reminded me of the old Downer Avenue Schwartz, including a window to the office, and a wall of books between the cash/wrap/info desk and the rest of the store. I asked one of our reps about this and sold a lot of books. It’s quite beautiful, but I was concerned about booksellers being able to see customers. I guess time will tell if that’s a problem. Kirk mentioned that it reminded him of Ann Arbor’s Shaman Drum, and after he mentioned it, though it’s perhaps a bit more whimsical compared to Shaman Drum’s cathedral to the book ambience. Both certainly celebrate the physical book, and that rack, which highlights face out single copies, reinforces that message.

There were several great section names, including “lives” for the biography and memoir section, and “funny” for the humor books, which is a nice touch for a store where Garrison Keillor is the proprietor. I guess the old store had a very clever section header for the mass market paperbacks, but I don’t think that made the move over. I did think it would have been a nice homage to name the mystery section either "noir" or "private eye novels", as an reference to Keillor's character Guy Noir. Come to think of it, maybe they did that and I just didn't notice. Don't you hate when you second guess yourself?

I wondered if they’d also wind up expanding their kids’ section in the future. They had obviously seen one of the dreamy salespeople at Blue Orange Games, as there was a large assortment of their product on display. They seem to be as efficient as Hooters waitresses at sales, at least from what I’ve seen at various bookstores.

Common Good also has a very enjoyable blog, which has included an interview with Dave Eggers, a question-and-answer piece with Danielle Sosin, and this meditation on mysteries which features The Dead Do Not Improve (Hogarth), by Jay Caspian Kang. Our story starts when a MFA grad student Philip Kim is awakened by a spray of bullets, one of which kills his neighbor. It turns out that he becomes the target of an investigation, pursued by detectives Sid Finch and Jim Kim. Obviously you should not pigeon-hole this as a mystery, not when Rivka Galchen states ". If Joseph Heller and Raymond Chandler had once battled over who could write more like Tolstoy, then maybe there’d be something with which to compare this magnificent book.”

There’s a good amount of talk in the blog about printing domestically. One doesn’t usually think about it, but it’s pretty rare for full-color books to be printed anywhere but China nowadays. Black and white doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue, but apparently it was enough of one that it’s worth mentioning that A Hologram for the King was printed at Thomson-Shore in Dexter, Michigan.

*Posts about Micawber's and The Book Case are forthcoming. I've already written about Magers and Quinn and Wild Rumpus.

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