In the old days, Garrison Keillor used to browse the stacks at Hungry Mind Bookstore on Grand Avenue. Now he'll be selling books just around the corner from there when his own store, Common Good Books, moves in April to Snelling and Grand.
The new location will be the ground floor of the Lampert Building at 38 S. Snelling Av. in St. Paul, just downstairs from Macalester College's textbook store and next to Breadsmith bakery. It will have more retail space, better accommodations for author events, and a partnership with the college.
"We'll have access to Macalester's space," said bookstore manager Martin Schmutterer. "And we'll be able to host larger in-store events, as well. Macalester is really welcoming us in an important way. This is not just a matter of us wanting to be there, but of them wanting us there."
The Grand Avenue neighborhood is home to the Red Balloon, a bookstore for children, and Sixth Chamber, a used-book store. But it has been without a general interest independent bookstore since Hungry Mind (then called Ruminator Books) closed in 2004.
"We've been missing a bookstore on campus for a long time," said Macalester's Tom Welna. "And it's not just the trade books, but it's also all that comes with it -- the interaction between students and authors. It enriches the cultural fabric of the campus. And to have an independent bookstore to partner with is a wonderful thing."
A store too small
Common Good Books opened in November 2006 in the Blair Arcade at 165 Western Av. in St. Paul's Cathedral Hill neighborhood, downstairs from Nina's Coffee Cafe. At garden level and just about 1,800 square feet, it was a little cramped and had no room to grow.
Author events were held outside the store -- in the hallway grotto, or upstairs in the coffee shop.
"We've struggled to find a place to hold 40-60 people," Schmutterer said. "I think the real issue for us is that even though it's an architecturally unique space, it's been hard for customers to find, and it's hard to get people downstairs."
Still, Keillor loves the Cathedral Hill neighborhood, and the Blair Arcade spot might not go vacant.
"We are kicking around ideas for what to do with that space," Schmutterer said. "It has not been decided. It might turn into a very similar retail model which would serve a different mix of books. Or it could turn into something very different."
The Snelling Avenue building was built in 1923 and has housed a number of businesses -- dentists, doctors and restaurants, including the Spoon, a diner that was popular with Macalester students in the 1970s.
"We'll be just behind my favorite bakery and around the corner from a terrific cheese shop," Keillor said in a news release. "And a few blocks east of the old Hungry Mind, where I used to buy all my books."
A Macalester connection
A partnership between Keillor and Macalester was a natural, said Keillor's spokesman, David O'Neill. "Garrison did the very first show of 'A Prairie Home Companion' there in July 1974," he said. "There's always been some sort of relationship between them."
Keillor approached Macalester last summer, Welna said. "He said he wanted to keep his store in St. Paul, but there was no way to expand in the current space. You could tell he really loves the current store but he wants it to be able to grow over time. I gave him a couple of choices and we did a tour in July and have had several meetings since then."
At some point, Welna said, the campus textbook store and Common Good might be combined. "But we haven't made any final decisions about where or when."
The bookstore is expected to open in April. At 3,000 square feet, it will be more spacious than the current location. "We'll have library tables, we'll have roughly the same number of books that we have now," Schmutterer said. "It'll be a much more friendly environment to come in, look through the books and take your time."
Macalester is refurbishing the building to the tune of about $1.2 million -- not just the bookstore space, but other retail (as yet to be named), a loading dock and basement storage.
"I'm really excited about this," Schmutterer said. "I think this is going to be a good thing for the literary community. I think we will help raise the profile of bookselling in the Midwest."
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor.