It’s understandable that the folks in St. Anthony Park who love Micawber’s Books experienced a surge of panic a couple weeks back. Someone had papered over the windows of their beloved bookstore and put up “For Lease” signs.
After all, one of the Twin Cities’ last independent bookstores has had its fortunes wane against online and big-box competitors. A year and a half ago, the neighborhood stepped in, rallying to support owner Tom Bielenberg by hosting wine and cheese parties and other in-store gatherings designed to boost sales and keep Micawber’s afloat.
It turns out, there’s no need to despair. Micawber’s hasn’t closed. It’s just moved a few feet away from the space it had occupied since 1972 into a smaller, less expensive lower-level shop that should be kinder to Bielenberg’s bottom line. And, he hopes, more promising for his long-term prospects.
“I decided that it was too expensive and couldn’t control the costs,” said Bielenberg, who has owned the bookstore since 2003. “Also, I didn’t need all the space I had.”
So, in late February, Bielenberg and about 20 loyal friends of the shop started carting boxes of books from the former Micawber’s to a shop that opens onto the courtyard of the Milton Square shops. A customer with carpentry skills even built a new front counter for the smaller but cozier relocated shop.
“I feel really well-supported,” Bielenberg said of customers who have repeatedly risen to his assistance.
Austin Johnson, who owns the Little Wine Shoppe a few doors away, knows what it is like to rely on a passionate neighborhood clientele to keep a tiny shop open. The two stores have even partnered in the past, with Johnson supplying the wine and cheese for book readings.
Johnson said he considers small stores like his to be an antidote for people put off by the large scale of Surdyk’s and Total Wine. He keeps a box of dog biscuits within reach for a loyal customer who often shops for wine while walking his pooch.
“Everything here is community supported. It has to be,” said Johnson, who has owned his shop for four years. “That’s the only thing that keeps this viable.”
About the Micawber’s move, he added: “I think it’s really positive for him. I think he was paying too much rent over there.”
Jon Schumacher, executive director of the St. Anthony Park Community Foundation, credits Milton Square owner Heather O’Malley for helping keep Micawber’s in the neighborhood by offering the smaller space. O’Malley said she’s been working for several years to find a better space for Micawber’s — she remembers getting her first books at the store as a child.
Schumacher also credits the store’s fiercely loyal customers for Micawber’s survival.
“It’s an industry, it’s a business, that’s trying to find its way. But if that kind of business plan can work in St. Paul, this is the one,” Schumacher said. “This is a very literate neighborhood — we used to have the most visitors, per capita, to the library — and books are very important to this community.”
Passionate readers have found a kindred spirit in Bielenberg, he said.
While Bielenberg’s gregarious former business partner, Hans Weyandt, was a natural at the front of the store, Schumacher said, Bielenberg is quieter. More reserved. Still, his passion resonates.
“Tom has devoted his life to books and is passionate about it,” Schumacher said. “And the store reflects his personality.”
Bielenberg’s main worry now is being seen. His shop doesn’t face the street.
“There’s always the question of people finding me,” he said, pointing to the store’s old sign, freshly repainted by a customer. “But I’m really encouraged.”