This summer, when Hamline University’s new bookstore opened in a renovated building on Snelling Avenue, manager Melanie Farley felt she was on hallowed ground. The bookstore, she discovered, was where the Purple Onion Pizza Parlor once stood — and where a young Bob Dylan used to perform and sleep in a backroom.
In his honor, she launched the Purple Onion Book Club, which started in October with a couple of books by one Minnesota-born author: Bob Dylan.
“I was really struck by the history,” said Farley, 32, a history buff and bass guitar player. “I’m a music lover, particularly music of the ’60s and ’70s.”
When she first set foot in the building, at 772 Snelling Av. in St. Paul, construction workers had uncovered remnants of the old pizza parlor, and someone told her about its history. Looking at the exposed wood floor, “you could see where the bar was. You could see where the bar stools were,” she said. “I thought — that was so cool.”
In his autobiography, she said, Dylan wrote about his experiences at the Purple Onion, where he played folk songs such as “Man of Constant Sorrow” for $5 a night — or just pizza — in 1959 and 1960. Farley, who calls Dylan “an amazing poet,” decided to preserve a little of that history.
In October, about half a dozen people showed up for the debut of the Purple Onion Book Club to discuss two Dylan books, “Chronicles” and “Tarantula.” The club meets across the street at Ginkgo Coffeehouse, because the bookstore would be “a bit cramped,” she explained.
“So far, we’ve had mostly students,” she said, but it’s open to anyone. Reading for pleasure can be a hard sell to college students, she admits, but she’s hoping the book club will gain steam. In November, it featured “A Million Heavens,” a novel by Hamline Prof. John Brandon, who made a surprise appearance and autographed some books.
After a winter hiatus, Farley plans to resume the book club in March, and ideally focus on local authors. “For now, we’re just trying to get the ball rolling and keep that history alive.”