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Ian Connell, left, and John Campisi, owner of J. O’Donoghue Books, adjusted a sign stand in Heritage Square at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Despite having closed its doors a year and a half ago in Anoka, J. O’Donoghue Books remains open for business for 12 days a year on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.

Marisa Wojcik, Special to the Star Tribune

State Fair keeps writing the final chapter for this book store

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY
  • Star Tribune
  • August 21, 2012 - 11:12 PM

The wood floors weren't level. Dust was visible on the shelves. A cat named Friday would follow customers as they browsed through the store.

And no one seemed to mind.

J. O'Donoghue Books, an old-fashioned bookstore and Anoka treasure for 40 years, closed its doors forever last year. Yet it keeps revisiting its final chapter at the Minnesota State Fair.

A longtime cornerstone at the fair's Heritage Square, J. O'Donoghue lives on at the fair, where book lovers put down their trays of cheese curds or deep-fried candy bars long enough to page through a yellowed, cloth-bound hardcover or a faded paperback.

"Owning the bookstore in Anoka was the best job in the world," said John Campisi. "You get to talk to people who love books as much as you do.

"I love the look, the feel, the smell, everything about a book," he said. "There is nothing like finding that special book on a shelf."

And there is nothing like the Minnesota State Fair, said Jean O'Donoghue, the founder and former owner of the store that bears her name. (She called the store J. O'Donoghue because it sounded better than calling it "Ye Ol' Booky Shoppe," which is what every other store selling old books was being called in those days," she said.)

O'Donoghue opened the store in 1972, selling gems -- many of them having sat in someone's attic or basement for decades -- and ultimately sold it to Campisi and his business partner, Ani Sorenson, six years ago.

"I was ready to retire," said O'Donoghue, now 71 and still an Anoka resident.

State Fair love affair

But O'Donoghue never tired of books or of her exhaustive love affair with the State Fair. There J. O'Donoghue had a presence for 18 years before she decided she'd had enough.

She started with a small booth because another bookseller told her that he'd sold a lot of books there.

"I loved the fair," she said. "Why not try it?"

She and three sons packed about 6,000 books into 125 boxes, rented a truck, hauled the books from Anoka to St. Paul, unloaded them and then, one by one, placed them on designated shelves. Two daughters helped her run the booth, which did very nicely. They sold about 100 books per day, O'Donoghue recalled.

But a bookseller's life at the State Fair could be a thriller one day, a mystery another. There was no novel approach to overseeing a booth that leaked in the rain if not covered.

Stolen memories

O'Donoghue once had her purse stolen at her State Fair shop -- car keys and all.

"I couldn't drive home, so I called a locksmith who told me, 'There's no way we are going to the State Fair,'" she said. "But you can always find somebody who can hot-wire a car at the State Fair."

Some years, O'Donoghue worked every hour that her booth was open. And when it was over, she and her family would pack up the books and take them back to Anoka, where they would again be alphabetized and scrutinized -- leaving her somewhat traumatized.

"The State Fair lasts only 12 days, but this was a month-long project," she said.

They weren't run-of-the-mill paperbacks and trashy novels, either -- well, maybe a few were. But most of her books were special. Some of these pages were centuries old -- like the two-volume 18th-century set that contained engravings of the era's forts and commerce.

From the attic

O'Donoghue recalls going to Hutchinson, Minn., and buying a collection of 6,000 science-fiction paperbacks that the owner had stored in an attic above a kitchen. Within the collection were comic books. One was the second-ever Batman comic. There were some original Wonder Woman comics.

"I just about flipped," O'Donoghue said.

Still, 18 years of the State Fair was enough. Thirty-six years of owning the bookstore was plenty. O'Donoghue was ready to sell the store and retire.

Enter Campisi and Sorenson, who bought the store and its 45,000 books in 2006 and re-established the store's presence at the fair in 2007-- the year a major storm turned the place that savors everything on a stick into splinters.

"We were building from the ground up," said Campisi. "We didn't have power at Heritage Square. We were using a generator to run our air compressor, our air nailer."

But Campisi, who grew up in Mendota Heights, understood the mystique and power of the fair. And his wife, Jeanna, would be there every day, "whether I was there or not," he said.

There have been some "good years" and others, like last year, which Campisi says was "a little down."

Kindle and Nook fans have different needs -- as the dwindling book industry reflects. Around the time J. O'Donoghue was closing its doors in Anoka, Cummings Books in Dinkytown and Northern Lights Books & Gifts in Duluth were calling it quits, too.

"I think the electronic book has impacted sales of books across the board," Campisi said. "A lot of the rural customers we get have gone for years without a bookstore. They come to our store and have not seen so many books other than in a library."

O'Donoghue anticipates she'll visit the State Fair at least once over the next 12 days.

"There's a nut roll place I like, and the cream puff place, a nice clothing shop at Heritage Square ... and books," she said. "Yes, books.

"What better place to meet and talk to people than a bookstore, or the State Fair?" O'Donoghue asked. "Yes, I'm still a book person. My house is filled with books. I read 10 books at a time. I don't even have the Internet. There are too many books to read."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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