On Monday night, a group of book lovers — more specifically, Micawber's Books lovers — gathered at their favorite St Paul bookstore to sip wine, eat cheese and buy books. "A lot of books," said owner Tom Bielenberg.
The gathering was a little bit of marketing and a whole lot of love for a struggling neighbor. And it was the first step in what folks in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood hope will prevent a longtime independent bookseller from closing up shop.
In an age of online competition, e-books and big-box retailers, that's no easy fight.
The Bookcase in Wayzata, the Twin Cities' oldest independent bookstore, closed Oct. 18. Several other Twin Cities independent bookstores have closed in recent years, including the Hungry Mind near Macalester College, and Baxter's Books. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookstores in the United States — about 2,000 — is about half the total from 20 years ago.
Even the big-box stores are not immune to bookselling challenges. Barnes & Noble's Highland Park and downtown Rochester stores are slated to close.
"It seems that it's hard to make money for the independent stores," said Norton Stillman, who founded Micawber's more than 40 years ago and sold it in 2003. "Most of the stores that survive are the ones that aren't needed for their owners' livelihood."
Stillman said he isn't surprised to hear that Micawber's has hit on lean times. While other independent stores, such as Garrison Keillor's Common Good Books in St. Paul and Magers & Quinn on Hennepin Avenue S. in Minneapolis, have a loyal following, many smaller shops have disappeared, he said.
Stillman said he hopes such a fate won't befall Micawber's. "I would feel bad about that," he said. "I loved that store. But I didn't make money on it."
A survival plan?
Micawber's, which smells like old wood and looks like it belongs in a Thomas Hardy novel, has been on Carter Avenue just off Como Avenue since 1972. Stillman, a local publisher and book wholesaler who chose the location — "an English-looking area" of St. Anthony Park — later sold it to Bielenberg and Hans Weyandt, who both had worked for years at the long-closed Hungry Mind.
Weyandt, the gregarious face of the shop, stopped working at the store about nine months ago and declined to comment about the state of the store or its future.
Bielenberg, a quiet guy once content to work behind the scenes, now is charged with finding a way to attract a larger customer base.
"The challenges for independent bookstores aren't going away," he said. "I don't know that the answer is anything glitzy. The answer is good customer service. I am the owner and I am there every day. When people come in, they see the owner sitting there."
Still, Bielenberg acknowledged he needs help. So he recently reached out to the St. Anthony Park Community Foundation for ideas.
"Tom called and said, 'You know, things are challenging right now. I'm trying to get through the big season coming up,' " said Jon Schumacher, executive director of the foundation.
In response, neighbors and customers formed an ad hoc group to brainstorm marketing and social media strategies, Schumacher said. One idea: Monday night social gatherings in the shop, where attendees are encouraged to chat, nibble, sip — and buy a book or two or more. The first was last Monday; the second is next week. People have already volunteered to host more, Bielenberg said.
"Nobody wants a story about his bookstore going down the tubes," Schumacher said. "This really is about a community finding ways to support an independent business that is much loved."
He said there is hope that the group's work and a dedicated cadre of customers can make a difference. A recent online fundraising campaign by Subtext Bookstore in St. Paul's Cathedral Hill neighborhood raised more than $14,000, according to its Indiegogo website. The two-year-old bookstore, which moved into the space that Garrison Keillor's shop once occupied beneath Nina's Coffee Cafe, will use the money to gain financial independence, said assistant manager Matt Keliher. Nina's has been helping Subtext pay its rent for the past two years.
"It's given us some funds, and some great publicity," Keliher said of the campaign.
Bielenberg wouldn't address whether Micawber's is struggling to pay its rent. But the store has no shortage of friends, it seems. Pam Johnson owns the Little Wine Shoppe next door. Last month, she hosted a wine-tasting in Micawber's.
"It's a beautiful little bookstore," she said. "I buy all my books there."
Lalee Simeso's family recently bought Lady Elegant's Tea Room and Gift Shop a few doors down. They brought scones and tea to a recent bookstore gathering.
"This is very much a neighborhood of small businesses working together," she said.
Bielenberg acknowledged his shelves are sparse compared to bigger stores. The children's book section seems especially barren. And it's been hard to buy new books to sell because of unpaid bills to publishers, he admitted. But the store has continued buying new books, he said. Thanks to revenue from recent events, more are coming. Several boxes of books were in the store Tuesday, waiting to be put on tables and shelves.
"Somebody who was in there this summer and comes in over the next couple of weeks is going to see a big difference," Bielenberg said of the recently stocked shelves and more customer traffic. "I really do believe that we have turned the corner."