Sue Zumberge, manager of Common Good Books in St. Paul, is the rare bookstore person who majored in history rather than English.
That perspective helps as she leads the independent shop through sweeping changes in publishing, from the rise of digital books and eReaders to the demise of big box stores and the swelling tide of self-published titles.
"My favorite era is the 1800s and the Industrial Revolution," Zumberge said. "I thought how exciting it would be to live in an era when things were changing so dramatically and rapidly. But that's what we're living in now. If you stand there and say, 'I'm not going to change,' you're going to be run over."
So Common Good Books will continue to evolve, Zumberge said, as it has since it opened in 2006 under owner Garrison Keillor. (Yes, that Garrison Keillor, who suggests titles, shops in the store and occasionally unpacks boxes and signs his own works there.)
In keeping with the digital trend, the shop sells Google eBooks on its website, said Zumberge, who has been in the business since she opened a bookstore in the 1970s in Montana.
Common Good Books now has more mainstream best-sellers — Dan Brown is no longer off limits — with many chain stores closing. It also has more collectible books, from The Library of America and Everyman's Library, with greater shelf and gift appeal, Zumberge said, than digital rivals.
The shop carries one of her favorite formats, audio books on CDs, and takes selected self-published books on consignment.
Three and out with Sue Zumberge
- How often do you have events with authors?
We have at least one a week, generally on Wednesday nights. There are a lot of books coming out for the summer season so we'll do many more events. We do two big events every spring and fall at the Fitzgerald Theater. In June we're doing one with Bill Moyers.
- What sells best?
I love to tell people that our fourth largest-selling section is poetry. That is probably attributable to our owner because he's such a booster of poetry. But it also indicates the number of people who read and love poetry in this city. Fiction is our best seller. Behind that is biography, and then our history section, then poetry, then non-fiction.
- What makes reading a physical book better than reading one on a screen?
You have aesthetic people who want to hold that book, who love the feeling of opening a book, cracking its binding for the first time. Marking it up, turning a page down, writing in the margins. If you're not tuned into that, it would be very hard to make that argument. (The good thing is people are into that).
Three more and out with Zumberge
- What kind of following has the store developed in the five years since it opened?
It's primarily neighborhood. We have lots of apartments and colleges. We're a destination store. We carry ("Prairie Home Companion") T-shirts and mugs but it's not real visible because Garrison doesn't want it to be a Lake Wobegon store.
- What is one book everyone should read?
I'm a firm believer in (novel, later movie) "High Fidelity." I tend to put things in lists of five. One book that never leaves my five list is "The Book of Ebenezer Le Page." G.B. Edwards wrote it in the voice of an irascible man who makes terrible choices. I've read it three times and it has never disappointed me.
- Your favorite reads now?
"Please Look After Mom," by a South Korean author. It speaks to the universality of being a mother. William Kent Krueger's new book ("Northwest Angle," out later this year). He's one of the best writers around. "The Long-Shining Waters," (due next month) about Lake Superior. It concerns three women: a barkeeper in 2000, a woman married to a herring fisherman in 1902 and an Indian woman in 1600.