Brian Baxter was a self-described problem kid, a social outcast with severe dyslexia who compensated for his shattered self-esteem by carrying an armload of books as a prop.
It was Hollywood, after all, and, being from a family of actors, he had learned a trick or two.
But the pretense became a passionate longing, and the longing became a lifelong profession. Baxter, 61, will retire this Saturday as manager of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis after persevering for about 40 years in the volatile book business.
"There's something that he brings to bookselling," said store owner Louise Erdrich last week as she dolefully prepared for the transition. "He has depth of knowledge, but he also has a quirkiness -- he connects with all sorts of people. He reads to people. That's the thing that surprised me from the beginning. I began to notice that people were coming in just to be around Brian -- to be around someone who has his knowledge and sense of humor and heart."
His five-year tenure at Birchbark Books, Baxter said, is a sweet coda to his career, which got its start in 1968 at Pickwick Books on Hollywood Boulevard.
As a boy, he passed the store each day on the way to school. Inside, he noticed a man at a desk in the middle of the store. "Everybody came to him," Baxter said, "and asked him where everything was and what was coming and if it was any good. I watched this guy, and what I wanted more than anything else was for people to come and ask me if anything was any good and where was it or when would it be coming.
"Ten years after I first saw that place, I had that desk and I had that job."
His feelings of having arrived, however, soon were interrupted by a whipsaw of acquisitions and unloadings: B. Dalton bought up Pickwick, Dayton Hudson sold off B. Dalton, Barnes & Noble bought up B. Dalton, and so on. The chain reactions landed Baxter in Minnesota at a B. Dalton warehouse in Bloomington in 1973, where he toiled somewhat happily until being laid off in the mid-1980s.
"I took my winnings, such as they were, and decided to build my own store," he said. Baxter's Books was born in 1988, at 6th St. and 2nd Av. S. in downtown Minneapolis, and its owner built a loyal clientele with his personalized brand of salesmanship, which is all about reading the customer: "Do you want to laugh? Do you want to cry? Do you want to hide? Do you want to be found? The best book is not the book I like the best," Baxter said. "The best book is the book that takes you where you want to go."
Baxter had invested 10 years at the store, when his landlord tripled the rent. "My wife said, 'Just don't lose the house.' So we paid all our bills and moved on."
After closing the store, Baxter tried an Internet business that sold used books to schools and libraries. But that didn't come close to paying the bills.
Then came a call from Erdrich, who was in the market for a manager for her cozy 800-square-foot store, across the street from Kenwood Elementary in Minneapolis.
The two didn't exactly start off on the same page.
"Kids can do anything here they want," she told him.
"No, they can't," he said.
"Yes, they can," she said.
Baxter acquiesced, and a partnership was born, one that has curtailed financial losses ("to near breaking even") and improved inventory at the same time it has built community and raised a new generation of book lovers and sellers.
"He does something called random parenting," Erdrich said. "There are kids who come in, and he teaches them what it is to have a life in books and to be a reader. ... He's a natural mentor. A great teacher never lets you feel that you're ignorant; he only excites your curiosity."
The kids are what he'll miss the most, Baxter said while working the floor last week. But time is running out. He has a novel to write, some biking to do.
He grabbed a copy of Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" and thrust it into the hands of Skye Russell, a seventh-grader visiting from Boston for the holidays. "This is the story of every human being on the planet," he told her, "trying to find a place to fit in."
Sarah T. Williams is the Star Tribune's Books editor.