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.
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?
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.