Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

Common Good Books: Underground, Above Average

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Martin Schmutterer is the assistant manager of Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books, an indie (the best kind) bookstore tucked underground on St. Paul’s Selby Ave. The store opened in 2006 to fill a void. Killed off by owner debt and owner sell-out, two of St. Paul’s best bookstores, The Ruminator and Bound To Be Read, had shuttered within a year of each other. “It was terrible,” says Schmutterer, a BTBR transplant. Bound To Be Read was replaced by a Best Buy-owned health and fitness store that’s since closed, The Ruminator by an outdoor clothing outlet.

St. Paulies were left, then, with only Borders and Barnes & Noble as replacements. Both are perfectly good, serviceable bookstores, but feeling you’re contributing to your community is difficult when you buy a 40% off bestseller from a chain store. Thankfully, local hero Garrison Keillor (Prairie Home Companion, plus various novels) stepped in and rescued SP from literary oblivion. I talked to Schmutterer in mid-March about the origins of Common Good Books, plus but also monkeys with toolbelts, local small presses, the value of intellectual and not-so-intellectual bookstore conversation, Stephenie Meyer, and Steve Jobs.

— Patrick Stephenson
Photos contributed by Martin Schmutterer

What’s the story behind the opening of Common Good Books?

keillorGarrison Keillor wanted to open a bookstore—that was his life’s dream—and he had seen the closing of Odegaard’s, of the Hungry Mind, of Bound To Be Read. He thought this area needed a bookstore, and he was at a point in his life where…he could start one. Part of that was taking Louise Erdrich’s example, seeing that she was able to have a decent bookstore—not a huge one, but a nice one that serves the neighborhood. And here we are. He put it together very quickly. It couldn’t have been more than about two months. We got into the space in October 2006, and we were open by November 1.

Beyond being the owner, what function does GK serve for Common Good Books now? Does he ever stop by or give readings?

Garrison certainly shops here. He’ll occasionally host events. He’s a relatively hands-off boss, and we talk to him once every quarter about how the store’s doing. He’s great.

What sort of influence has he had on the content of the store? Any influence on the sections? Or on which books you sell?

It’s not so much individual titles. He’s set the direction for our poetry section. There aren’t many bookstores of our size that would have poetry as a dominant category. We have a strong local focus with our books. A lot of our events are centered around local authors or books that are about the area.

Are there any particular local authors you’d recommend?

There are an awful lot I would. Charles Baxter is one. Patricia Hampl has been a very good friend to the store. Monkey with a Toolbelt, by Chris Monroe, is a series I like to read with my son. In the first one, he [the monkey with a toolbelt] gets kidnapped by a circus organ-grinder and has to escape using his tools. There is a second one, too, that involves…I don’t wanna give too much away. (laughs)

No spoilers. Do you have any favorite local publishers?

Graywolf Press has been unbelievable this year. It’s pretty amazing. It’s like they can do no wrong. I like Milkweed, too, though I prefer Graywolf Press’ books. Coffee House Press—it seems like they want to make publishing a little more avant garde and dangerous. They’re all strong presses, and they’re certainly not the only ones, but they’re the most prominent. At one point, the Twin Cities had the most small publishers of any city in the country. Which is incredible. But every once in a while, we’ll get in a self-published book that’s really good, too. These are the riches of the Twin Cities.

So you don’t have that aversion to self-published books that, say, some book critics do?

I have a personal aversion, but the store carries quite a few…we’re more careful than we used to be about what we bring in. We do, occasionally, find real gems, like The Unusual Mind of Vincent Shadow, by Tim Kehoe. He came in one day—he works just down the block—with this book about a creative kid who sits in his basement and does science experiments. Largely because of our store manager, that book was brought to the attention of sales reps. The buzz about that book helped get him a deal at Little, Brown. It’s really amazing. And he works right down the block and lives in the area, too.

Why was the Blair Arcade chosen for the location? I know there’s some heavy local history around here. Al Capone and John Dillinger lived or hung around nearby, etc. (Ed: Also, Molly Fitzgerald, F. Scott’s mom, lived at the Blair when it was still The Angus Hotel.)

I don’t know if there was any real forethought about that, but this is such a gorgeous building. [We were encouraged] to create a bookstore in this space, because an art store had just closed and it had obvious potential. And it’s close enough to where Garrison lives that he can walk to it.

Can you describe the unique features of the space itself? Right now we’re sitting in an alcove with this sort of cool, white, rough-textured wall, and there’s a skylight through which you can see people walking by on the street above. It’s very cozy and nice.

The skylights are what a lot of people notice first about the store. Sometimes, people walking by don’t even notice there’s a store here. But this is surprisingly well-lighted space even though we’re below ground. Um, and then we have this back area with the GOD, Adventure and Travel sections. The nook is what we’re in now. It’s very intimate. We have people come in here and hold meetings. I’ve never had to break up people making out, though.

Though it would be a nice space for that.

(laughs) And the fiction area is sort of a tunnel around the store. I’ve always liked that, too.

You mentioned the GOD section. That’s a unique idea for a section name.

Yes, Garrison named the sections. GOD encompasses a lot of different views. It’s all about religious issues, or beliefs. We’ve had people make…someone said, “Why is it not plural?”

True. But I notice it’s not strictly theistic. It seems like all sorts of different viewpoints are represented. There’s a book up there, Letter to a Christian Nation, which is written by an atheist…

…and the Christopher Hitchens book, God Is Not Great. But there’s also, you know, Reinhold Niebuhr. (laughs)

What’s the biggest strength of the store?

The biggest strength is our people. We’re always willing to give you our opinion, (laughs) whether you agree with it or not. That’s your choice. We like to have conversations with people. That’s one thing you don’t get at the big-box bookstores, because they don’t have time to talk to customers individually, and the management frowns on it. But that’s what we’re about. We like the interaction. We like to meet new people.

And what are your goals for the future? Do you hope to expand or open another store?

It would be fun to open a second store. I don’t know if that’s a possibility, even though other areas of St. Paul could certainly use a good bookstore. Right now, we’d like more people to find out about us. Really, we’re kind of a hidden gem—if I can say that myself—because people walk by us all the time. And this corner in particular could be served by more people realizing how great it is. We have Nina’s upstairs, which has great coffee and a great place to come sit and do your homework. We have great restaurants, whether it’s W.A. Frost, Moscow, or Cheeky Monkey down the block. This is a great area, and it’s a shame so many people miss it. It’s not a destination corner, because there’s still a prejudice against Selby Ave, which was a rundown area for a long time. It certainly isn’t that way anymore—when you can spend $500,000 on a condo. (laughs)

Definitely not. So, how would you describe the state of indie bookstores in the Twin Cities? What role does Common Good Books play?

There are small, functioning bookstores, like Micawber’s, the Birch Bark. Out in Wayzata, there’s the Bookcase. And I think all of us are doing relatively well. No one’s doing fantastic in this economy. Then you have Magers & Quinn, which has used and new books. There’s still room for something else. Especially once, depending on what happens to Borders as a company—who knows what’s going to happen? It’s going to be bad for publishing in general if Borders closes and goes into bankruptcy.

What’s it like, running Common Good Books, to be in competition with Borders and Barnes & Noble? How heavily do you feel that?

Up to a point, we do. On the other hand, they’re mostly not our customer base. Our customers, really, are from the neighborhood—75 percent are from within about two miles—and they shop here for a reason. They shop here because our staff is knowledgeable, because we’ll put things together in a way that Barnes & Noble wouldn’t, and there’s also a trust you wouldn’t have with the bigger store. There are reasons people shop at those, though: price, convenience. We’re less than 2,000 square feet. Frankly, we don’t have the space for 100,000 titles. We don’t carry computer books or, you know, The Secret. (laughs) But we’ll always order things for people.

How has the recession affected your business? We follow each other on Twitter, and one night you told me, “If you come in for a book tonight, you can pretend we’ve closed for you to shop privately like Michael Jackson.” Was it just the weather that night (very cold, snowy), or was that slowness recession-related?

It was a little bit of both, I think. I’ve been noticing the way people are buying, and even though November was a really strong month for us, December was not. People were realizing, “Let’s not use our credit cards. Let’s pay with cash.” And that changes the way people shop. We still did okay. We could’ve done better. I do encourage people to spend [at stores they like]. It’s not just us. If you don’t want these independent businesses, or any businesses, to go away, you have to support them. It’s the way the world works. I’ve talked to a number of business owners in the area, and everybody’s facing some hardship. No one’s on the verge of collapse, but it’s hard [to hear about layoffs].

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One of the best parts about indie bookstores is that, you know, while the big bookstores may have a larger selection, they’re all the same. There’s the corner for employee picks, but otherwise, everything is the same and generic from store to store. But indie bookstores, because they’re usually guided by an owner’s unique vision, add to a neighborhood. They give a neighborhood character, or flavor. Question, then: Do you…agree?

I agree! (laughs) I agree 100 percent! We are definitely not generic. I don’t even know how to become generic. Probably that goes for everyone on staff. We have a lot of give-and-take within the store. We all have our own sense of what belongs where, and from shift to shift, things move. Some titles will come forward. Someone will write a shelf-talker up. Someone else will write a capsule review of a book, and all of a sudden it’ll start flying off the shelf. A book like Elegance of a Hedgehog [by French author Muriel Barbery], which came out of nowhere to be one of our best-selling books of the last month and a half, two months. I actually haven’t read it, but (laughs) I’ve been assured it’s a great book.

Which books do you recommend to the customers you talk to? What are your favorite books?

I read all over the place. The last year, I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction, which is… mmm… I dunno. I like Josh Bazell’s book Beat the Reaper [about a “hit man turned medical intern”], and Charlie Huston’s book The Mystic Arts of… the title is too long to remember. [Full title: The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death.] It’s about a team that cleans up after traumas. I go with books I’ve loved. I really love James Hynes, who wrote a trilogy of books: Publish and Perish, Kings of Infinite Space, and The Lecturer’s Tale. They’re wonderful books, academic satires that’ve got this weird sort of 19th century horror novel thing going on. They’re really a lot of fun, and I love ’em. He’s a wonderful writer. His satire is so dead-on.

Do you have many author events? What’s been your most popular event?

During fall and spring, we try for two or three a week. We have a partnership with FIVETWOSIX, an art gallery down the hall, so we have the event down there, or we use the Swedenborgian Church, a bigger venue. The events that are in our sweet spot involve prominent local authors—like Larry Millet or Louise Erdrich. We had a great event recently with Coffee House Press author David Mura (author of Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire). Garrison [sometimes] attends, and that adds another dimension to the events.

As I mentioned, you’re on Twitter (as @commongoodbooks). How has using Twitter helped to promote the store?

I opened the account on the last night of the Republican National Convention. One of our part-time booksellers said, “There’s a lot of stuff going on on Twitter [about the riots].” I couldn’t figure out what I was hearing outside. It turns out it was…the bombs going off.

There was a little war going on in downtown Saint Paul. Tear gas…

Yeah! And I followed it all on Twitter. But I still didn’t know what to do. So I let it lay for a while, and then I picked it up–to see what this is all about and expand our Web marketing a little bit. I realized—I’m explaining this in a very anti-Twitter way, very long-winded—how it helps you connect to people. Different communities. There’s a sort of community of booksellers I interact with. And then, there are… other people, let’s say. Like Nick Cave’s Mustache.

Have you gotten more customers because of your Twitter?

I don’t know that I can measure that. I’ve certainly had customers come in because of Twitter. I’ve had people evangelize about the store using Twitter. Both of which I really appreciate.


What most appeals to you about working at a bookstore, and why do you work at Common Good Books in particular?

Well, because I didn’t wanna go to law school.

I can identify with that.

I’ve worked in bookstores for a long time. There’s something different about the atmosphere in a bookstore. Trust is such an important part of working here. When you are a successful bookseller, it’s based on the way you interact with your customers. And it’s not a cold-hearted customer service issue. It’s about providing accurate answers. It’s information-based, but it’s emotional. I’m not making a lot of sense. Usually, bookstore workers tend to be [pause] a little bit different. What brings you to a bookstore is, you don’t like… you’re not driven by money or a desire to compete and run people into the ground. You’re there because you love what you’re doing. You love books. You love ideas. You love kids’ books. You may love the works of Shakespeare. And you want to share that with people. It’s akin to teaching. Nobody ever gets rich in books.

Except for Stephenie Meyer, or J.K. Rowling. Five people out of billions of writers.

You accept that. You understand that there are a lot of things you can’t quantify that you gain from working at a bookstore.

So it’s more of an intellectual atmosphere.

Intellectual’s probably not the word. Especially if you’ve eavesdropped on any of the conversations in the store. (laughs) There’s certainly the capacity for that. But it’s more that, it’s a little laidback. You wanna talk about things, not the latest gossip from Gawker.

Or the latest episode of Dancing with the Stars. I’m so sick of conversations like that. Enough with your dancing shows.

The people who shop in here probably haven’t heard of that. Or (laugh) they wouldn’t admit to having heard of it.

It’s sort of a weird combination. Reading is a very solitary activity, and yet you describe Common Good Books as being a social place.

Absolutely. Sue, the manager, likes to think of the store as a neighborhood bar. There is that aspect to it. We talk to people about their lives. And sometimes, their lives are full of unhappy events. Sometimes we booksellers have those events as well. And we can all talk about it. Which is great.

Penultimate question! Steve Jobs famously said, when he was asked whether Apple would release an eBook reader, that people don’t read anymore. What do you think of that statement?

I do think people still read. I know people still read. I don’t know what the Kindle will mean for our business. But you can see, with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, that people are still reading. Are they reading what I think they should be reading? I don’t know. People reading Twilight is like people reading V.C. Andrews when I was in college. I hope people continue to read. I hope publishing sticks around.

My last question, then: As a resident of the Twin Cities, what is your favorite cultural hotspot?

That’s a good question, because I have a three-year-old son. For going out to eat, I like Tanpopo. When we have time, we go to the Ordway. I don’t get out to major events very often, but I love Grand Old Day. Every once in a while, I’ll go to the 400 Bar to see a friend perform.

Common Good Books is located at 165 Western Ave N, Suite 14, in the Blair Arcade. You can call ’em at 651-225-8989 or visit their Web site:

Written by patiomensch

April 8, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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