Let’s Bring Our Lazy Sunday Mornings Back!”

Inter­view by Katie Eggers, Pho­tographs by Louisa Podlich

When I sit down with Jay Peter­son, man­ager of Magers & Quinn Book­sellers, I find myself in one of the best-kept secrets in Uptown. Sus­pended from the ceil­ing of the Twin Cities’ largest inde­pen­dent book­store is an incon­spic­u­ous mez­za­nine, serv­ing as part lunch­room, part office, part repos­i­tory of the store’s old­est and most valu­able books. Over the sooth­ing hum of cus­tomers brows­ing the shelves and flip­ping pages, I remark how won­der­ful it must be to work with peo­ple whose life choices are guided by their pas­sion for read­ing. He chuck­les. “Well, we do have some crazy peo­ple here. Most of us have one tick or another. We are book peo­ple after all.” And indeed, he him­self sports quite a few charm­ing idio­syn­crasies. With his love of old-fashioned com­merce, some peo­ple may call him a hope­less roman­tic, oth­ers a stub­born reac­tionary, but the suc­cess of the Twin Cities’ largest inde­pen­dent book­store speaks for itself.

You recently made some sig­nif­i­cant changes in the store. Let me take a wild guess – the new shelves are from Borders.

Yes. I would guess that the major­ity of inde­pen­dent book­stores now own all sorts of odd accou­trements from Bor­ders, includ­ing sig­nage and book­ends. Besides the shelves, we have hired four new employ­ees from them. So, in a num­ber of ways, it’s been a pos­i­tive thing for us.

I am sure you can­not help but feel a sense of schadenfreude.

The party line is that we don’t want to see any book­sellers out on the street. And although we have seen some growth since the bank­ruptcy, I am not sure that it is sub­stan­tial. We have always had a strong hold on this com­mu­nity and have been enjoy­ing the sup­port of local read­ers for a long time. But I like old-fashioned book-selling and old-fashioned com­merce in gen­eral. So if there are fewer big box stores, and more independently-owned busi­nesses, I am cer­tainly in favor of that.

You have been man­ag­ing Magers & Quinn for over ten years. You must have had some sleep­less nights with all the changes in the industry.

No, not really. We haven’t yet had to go into panic mode. Of course, every year there is some­thing. For a while, this neigh­bor­hood just wasn’t doing as well. We had issues with pro­longed con­struc­tion in the build­ing and else­where on Hen­nepin. Then there was the e-book scare – but we’ve been sell­ing books for less than ten dol­lars for years, so we are pretty com­pet­i­tive. I think we offer a wide enough choice, from our author events, to the com­bi­na­tion of used and new books, to our online busi­ness. We do spend a lot of time rethink­ing the lay­out of the store, though.

When you look at the way peo­ple read nowa­days, with so much of our atten­tion focused on screens – do you think that peo­ple are los­ing patience for long-form writing?

I see it with myself. The way I read, it’s often dif­fi­cult for me to fin­ish a longer book. If I spread it out too thin, because I have too lit­tle time, my engage­ment with it waxes and wanes. The oppor­tu­nity to fin­ish some­thing in one sit­ting def­i­nitely has its appeal. And because we con­sume media all through­out the day, we eas­ily for­get to carve out some chunks of time dur­ing the week to read for plea­sure. So let’s take back our lazy Sun­day mornings!

Know­ing the Uptown crowd, I assume that when Ama­zon recently launched their preda­tory attack on brick and mor­tar stores, you haven’t seen any­one scan­ning your shelves with a mobile phone to report your prices to Ama­zon and get a dis­count on their next order.

No. On the con­trary. We have heard lots of peo­ple say that it moti­vated them to come here that day and buy a book.

It seems to me that many peo­ple base their deci­sion to buy online not only on the price, but also on the avail­abil­ity of reviews and other peo­ples’ opin­ions. So rather than chat­ting with a store owner or just brows­ing the shelves serendip­i­tously, we develop this mag­i­cal rela­tion­ship with the num­ber of stars a book has gotten.

Yes, but that’s one of the biggest down­falls of e-commerce! There is no human inter­ac­tion. I think that’s what makes your day – being able to chat with your barista, and with other peo­ple here and there. That’s what a com­mu­nity is all about and peo­ple savor that expe­ri­ence. In terms of how you find books, this is a browser’s par­adise. There is no way that you could repli­cate this expe­ri­ence online. Sure, all these books are avail­able online, but there is no way that you would stum­ble upon a book on Russ­ian candle-making, next to Napoleonic his­tory, next to Mark Twain. This kind of jux­ta­po­si­tion would never be there. Your eye­balls would never be exposed to this many curiosi­ties at once.

So you would argue that an algo­rithm that offers rec­om­men­da­tions based on what we and other peo­ple who are allegedly like us have bought in the past, actu­ally enforces conformity?

It really does, and I don’t want to be a part of that. I’d like to think that my per­sonal tastes are dynamic, and that an algo­rithm could never really fig­ure them out. Maybe that’s silly to think, and maybe I am easy to peg. Maybe you could look into my record col­lec­tion and my book col­lec­tion, and say, oh, you’re that guy. You like lit­er­ary fic­tion, and mod­ernist poetry, and Scan­di­na­vian inte­rior design. But I hope that’s not the case. I think a good retailer knows that – he shows you enough things that catch your atten­tion and you walk out with more than you came in for. We see that a lot. We’ll see peo­ple chuck­ling at the reg­is­ter, because they don’t know what just hap­pened to them. And then they hap­pily walk out with an arm­load of books.

What are some of the more unusual things that have hap­pened in the store?

A while ago, we hosted a birth­day party for a group of 13-year old girls and had them com­plete a trea­sure hunt in the store. We’ve also done that for senior groups. We recently had a group of ladies, mostly in their late six­ties and sev­en­ties, lit­er­ally run­ning down the aisles in com­pe­ti­tion. And I’d love to do more of that. I’d love to offer another expe­ri­ence above and beyond brows­ing that is wholly dif­fer­ent than what you can get online. We also host book clubs and author events. Things that we can curate and cre­ate and present that you can’t get any­where else.

What about love – do you know cou­ples who have met here?

We’ve had a cou­ple of employ­ees who met each other here and even­tu­ally got mar­ried. We even had a wed­ding here once. A cou­ple just showed up with some friends and got mar­ried in the poetry sec­tion. We have also seen some break-ups, and lots of awk­ward dates. Fri­day night is awk­ward date night –I’d like to cater to that crowd more often, per­haps offer up some incen­tive to come here between din­ner and  movies.

Or, they could go over to Apple to play with gad­gets. How do you feel about the changes in the neigh­bor­hood in the last cou­ple of years?

I may be talk­ing the talk and not walk­ing the walk here, but I think you need a mix. For this neigh­bor­hood to be as strong and vital as it was fif­teen years ago, when it was almost exclu­sively smaller busi­nesses, I think nowa­days you need a mix to draw peo­ple from the oppo­site side of town to come over – you need a few of the well-known, land­mark places. That said, our best neigh­bors aren’t the big boxes, they are the small inde­pen­dents that work with our demo­graph­ics really well. Penzey’s Spices, Kitchen Win­dow, Paper Source, Lucia’s restau­rant – we absolutely couldn’t have bet­ter neigh­bors. If we lost them, then I think we would be in big trou­ble. Fine foods, fine cof­fee, good books, the lakes – this block is the only place where a book store of our size could sur­vive in the Twin Cities.

Speak­ing of books, which book would you rec­om­mend Pres­i­dent Obama to read, as he gears up for his reelec­tion campaign?

That’s a strange question.

I know.

You know, I’d like to think that he doesn’t need my help and that he’s got this one in the bag. And that maybe he should just sit back and read a book for enjoy­ment and relax and just be him­self. I’ll put that on the record. I want him to read some­thing light and fluffy – he doesn’t need to read any­thing heavy or inspi­ra­tional. I want him to sit back and have a good laugh and enjoy a book and take a load off for a while. I think that will prob­a­bly do him more good.

What should the Repub­li­cans read?

Maybe Com­mon Sense by Thomas Paine? But you know, I think I would say the same. Stop and read for plea­sure. Branch out and read some­thing out of your juris­dic­tion. Enjoy some­thing new, per­haps read some­thing by some­body from out­side of this coun­try. Read River Town by Peter Hessler, a Peace Corps mem­ber and later a New Yorker cor­re­spon­dent who worked in China in the mid-nineties. Read a book from a dif­fer­ent cul­ture. Hell, read a book by a woman.

And read poetry, of course – learn to use words beau­ti­fully and not just point­edly. And that holds true for both par­ties. Read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quar­tets – that sums up most of life.

Which three local authors would you rec­om­mend to a new­comer look­ing to con­nect with the Twin Cities?

Bill Holm – one of my favorites. He finds beauty in the plains and in the small town lives of rural Min­nesotans. He finds more beauty in a hum­ble, poor and frail piano teacher from a small town in the Mid­west than in an accom­plished New York artist or a West coast wine­maker. He finds more beauty in that sort of per­son – and so do I.
I would def­i­nitely rec­om­mend Louise Erdrich, because she really put Min­nesota on the lit­er­ary map in the last 25 years. She also owns a book­store – so she’s not only a highly accom­plished and inter­na­tion­ally renowned author but also an accom­plished busi­ness­woman.
Who else does this region well? I think Sig­urd Olson has done the North­woods land­scape really well.There are lots of hid­den gems here. Peo­ple are doing great things, under the cover of snow and bur­rowed away here in the Midwest.

Granted – but what do you see as one of the biggest chal­lenges we are fac­ing in the Midwest?

I think it’s hard for small bou­tiques and small retail­ers to stay open. But the more of them there are, the more fun a city is to visit. That’s where you truly get a feel for it. And it’s hard to get that when the only stores that are sus­tain­able here are large scale big box places. We live in a very mall-oriented, com­mer­cial cul­ture. We don’t have a lot of neigh­bor­hoods that can sus­tain cool inde­pen­dent shops. Be it a record shop, a cloth­ing store, a hard­ware store – what­ever. So that leaves the iden­tity of the city in the hands of out­siders. Who­ever owns the chain stores is defin­ing what our cities are going to feel like. On the flip side, there is a grow­ing num­ber of really inno­v­a­tive, really smartly estab­lished restau­rants. I think that is some­thing that will con­tinue to grow and gain respect, nation­wide. I hope this trend will work for other indus­tries and areas of com­merce as well. As our pub­lic trans­porta­tion devel­ops, there will be more neigh­bor­hoods that have the foot traf­fic that is nec­es­sary to sus­tain a small busi­ness. I wouldn’t open a book­store in any other neigh­bor­hood for that rea­son. But if you get more peo­ple out and about, on their feet, going to four or five dif­fer­ent shops in one swoop, than you’ll have more bou­tiques and more inter­est­ing lit­tle shops, the kind that you find in Europe, or in New York, or in Los Angeles.

There is a lot of com­pe­ti­tion between cities. Why should a vis­i­tor chose the Twin Cities over going to Portland?

(Long silence.)

Or should he not?

That’s a good ques­tion. I guess it all depends on who your tour guide is. Com­ing here with­out a good guide, you might not have a great expe­ri­ence. You need some­body who can bring you where you need to go depend­ing on the type of per­son you are. I think that’s incred­i­bly impor­tant for this city – there are a lot of hid­den gems, there are a lot of secrets. There are a lot of neigh­bor­hood walks that some peo­ple may know, but that some­one else may com­pletely miss. Most of the things to see are spread out, so you have to cover a lot of ground to get a really good feel for the city. And I think you have to be con­nected to someone’s net­work, to come here and feel the cama­raderie, whether it’s the artist net­work or the foodie com­mu­nity or the bik­ing cul­ture. You’d have to have some­body who has been here a lit­tle while, and who can really show you the ropes. Oth­er­wise, I’d say, maybe go to Portland.


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