Now that it’s closing time at Ruminator Books, some faithful readers may be seen staggering around in front of the locked doors, willing to go anywhere for a fix except those literary sports bars, Barnes & Noble and Borders. Like drunks, they want their medicine straight up with no straws or umbrellas. They like to walk right in, sit right down, and drill into their favorites under a looming altar stacked high with the objects of their obsession. They like to be left alone. Real bookstores don’t need a big rack of Danielle Steele jiggling up front to tempt the riff-raff. The ambient sounds of chipper salespeople, children, light jazz, and gossip are for Gymboree and Cost Cutters. Thankfully, there are plenty of St. Paul bookstores that know that the only good hissing comes from a librarian, not a milk steamer.
Midway Books, for example, has been a cool oasis on University and Snelling avenues for more than twenty years. While flyers get pinned to their windshields outside, customers can calmly roam three floors of rare and enduring volumes of literature, art, and photography.
Midway also has poly-bagged vintage comics and girlie mags like Rogue and Nugget, but the husband-and-wife owners steered their shop into more highbrow waters a few years back. Kathy and Tom Stransky bought six entire bookcases’ worth of art and photography books from a couple of itinerant collectors who traveled the country in a converted school bus.
A scholar can still slap down a few clams for a Ford-administration-era Juggs, but the store has also attracted celebrities with more esoteric appetites. Patti Smith stopped in after her recent appearance at First Avenue, looking up H.P. Lovecraft. When she spied a children’s book illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith, Patti wanted it for her daughter, Jesse. Stransky presented the book as a gift to the singer, saying, “You’ve given me so much pleasure through the years, it would be an honor to give you this.”
Stransky may not regularly hand out books gratis, but browsers are free to admire thousands of the most beautiful books in the world, like those illustrated by the proprietor’s own favorite, Kay Nielsen.
Down the street on Snelling is Speedboat Books and Gallery. A funny, nervous little man named Paul Dickinson owns the joint. He has been successfully featuring artists in his basement gallery for years. He does a brisk business online, selling weird, out-of-print, and rare books. Selling on the web provides some steady income for Dickinson, but he doesn’t predict that the Internet will suck up bookstores entirely. “People like to look at a lot of books,” he says, perched behind the tiny counter of his haphazard shop.
There is a hefty collection of kitschy covers that appeal to artists (The Frightened Fingers) and he sells a lot of technical manuals. Dickinson says he’d rather help the guy who’s looking for the ’72 Datsun Handbook than a darling first-edition Gatsby. “A good used bookstore is a cultural archive,” says Dickinson. He recently sold a Lucky Luciano book to the scriptwriters of The Sopranos and filled a request by David Mamet for a book on aberrant psychology.
Thomas Loome owns two magnificent bookstores in Stillwater. Of Loome’s Theological Booksellers’ inventory, he says, “People don’t collect these books. They are meant to be read.” The only sign of frivolity in the store might be the multicolored ribbons that dangle from beneath a shelf of daily missals. The books are housed in a circular room filled with stained glass light and hardwood floors. The floors are seriously sloped and the dim light from the hanging wrought-iron lamps blends with the sound of the rain coming through the open door to create an atmosphere more tantalizing than any in-store pastry counter.
Though Loome admits that he prefers to read his “intellectual hero,” Noam Chomsky, he and two other booksellers travel the world to maintain a bewilderingly esoteric collection of a half-million mostly unfamiliar volumes. C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton are two recent best sellers, and fans of St. Thomas Aquinas could easily be overwhelmed by the six-foot-high, twenty-four-foot-long free-standing shelf dedicated to his writings—if the floor itself doesn’t cave in first.
Some used books tell their best stories on their endpapers. Near the cash register of Loome’s other Stillwater bookstore, the secular one, is a first-edition copy of Thomas Merton’s Roots of Nonviolence. The book is dedicated by the author to Joan Baez, for an impulse price point of seventy-five dollars. Sixth Chamber, another independent bookstore in St. Paul, has a book by Robert Bly. For thirty-five dollars, a reader can contemplate the value of the author’s “charming inscription” against the owner’s need for a few bucks.—Sári Gordon