What this town needs is an independently run bookstore on Main Street. It would be an asset to the community, something that will draw more retail customers to the area and providing a catalyst for more development, and, from my own selfish perspective, it would give me a place to shop and hang out.
Let’s get the excuses out of the way. I am not a business man. I have no experience managing employees, products, balance sheets, or anything else not classroom related, let alone managing everything simultaneously. My time is limited already with raising my daughter and taking care of the house, and as I understand it owning a business is a more than full time job. Also, it takes money to make money. I do not have enough money just lying around for such a venture, nor do I want to do something like leverage my home against such an endeavor, especially in this financial climate.
Just what does it mean to have an independently owned bookstore with all the amenities in a community anyway? I would suppose that I should define exactly what I’m expecting to see in this bookstore. Of course, they would sell books. Thank you, Captain Obvious, for realizing that I’m saying we need a place on Main Street where we can pop in for a paperback or to pick up an amusing book for a gift. But just as important is the newsstand section of a bookstore. Besides being a place to purchase books, such stores are purveyors of periodicals, a place for the locals to pick up magazines and newspapers. I’m thinking of the First Amendment here, the one that guarantees the freedom of the press, and said freedom isn’t any good unless there’s a place for readers to find the news that has been produced. And a coffee bar is pretty much a mainstay for bookstores nowadays. Customers tend to browse longer, linger a bit when they have a chat with the barista first. I go into the Barnes & Noble at West Calhoun and feel lost without an opportunity to pick up that warm paper cup before perusing the stacks for something to blow my cash on.
Why does it have to be local, and not just one of the big chains? Well, that’s a whole other topic waiting to happen. Let’s just pare that whole answer down to being more attuned to local market needs along with a desire to keep the money I spend in my community instead of sending the profits off to New York City. As I said, that’s a whole other blog. Moving on…
There are, after all, several existing businesses and amenities to complement a bookstore on Main Street. And this is a time when the City of Hopkins is trying to maintain the viability of the downtown area since the rerouting of County Road 3 to bypass it some years ago. This may be a boon to the opening of a bookstore anyway, since the majority of the auto service and fast food businesses have been drawn south to Excelsior Boulevard, leaving behind a more sedate, walkable business area.
A brief list of what is nearby, if you will:
- Hopkins Public Library. Located a block off of Main, this is the local branch of the Hennepin County Library system. And from my own observations, it’s well used. I have yet to enter the building and not see a large number of patrons. So, just from casual observation I can tell that Hopkins is a literate city, and a literate city needs a place to purchase books.
- Hopkins Center for the Arts and Hopkins Cinema 6. I will lump the two theaters together, even though they are different types of theaters. But they are destinations for entertainment, albeit one being more “high brow” than the other, but it seems to me that the type of people that decide to make a night of dinner and theater are the type of people who would, say, browse a bookstore if they have a bit of time on their date night. Maybe that’s just the type of dates my wife and I have, but it makes sense. Arts, cinema, and literature, three of the finest that human society has to offer and Hopkins is lacking one of them.
- Gusto Wine Bar & Cafe. Please allow me this brief moment to perpetuate a stereotype. This fine dining establishment is the type that attracts educated people with disposable incomes, and Gusto seems to be doing well. Bookstores attract the same people.
- Mill City Writers’ Workshop. Actually, this place no longer has a physical location. What was once a workshop for amateur writers, providing classes on creating memoirs, novels, and the like, is now just an online-based editing service. I do not know the details as to why Ms. Shelby, the proprietor, closed the brick-and-mortar portion of her business, but it stands to reason that a workshop for writers would match well with a store for readers. Going out on a limb, perhaps the issue was the expense of keeping the office open, and perhaps some deal could be worked out to sublet space to them. And perhaps one of the writers happens to publish a book, well, they already have some sort of relationship with a bookstore in which to hold readings and publicize.
- Excelsior Crossings. Sure, there are other corporate offices in and around downtown, but this is the first major office development in Hopkins. The only tenant of Excelsior Crossings is Cargill, a multinational corporation that usually requires a college degree for employment. During a recent lunch at a local restaurant, I found that a good number of patrons that day had white collars and Cargill badges, and this was a good mile down Main Street from their office. Being an international corporation, they’re frequently flying employees here to the headquarters in the Minneapolis area, and there’s talk of a hotel being built close by as well. With just one of the three EC buildings actually open there’s already a swarm of college-educated potential customers wandering about, especially with summer coming up, and it’s only a matter of time before that number triples.
- Southwest Light Rail Line. This isn’t going to be open until around 2015, but don’t let that stop you from opening the bookstore now. The closest station will be the Downtown Hopkins station, a slight misnomer since the ROW for the light rail line will be three long blocks south of downtown at 8th Avenue and Excelsior Boulevard. But, the plan is to connect the station with Main Street via a shuttle bus or even a fixed-rail streetcar. So the light rail will bring even more potential customers to the area in the form of commuters that could have some need to stop at a bookstore or newsstand on their travels and residents that will be flocking to Hopkins to live along the light rail line. It’s called transit-oriented development, which basically means an increase in density in the areas around stations since light rail transit is so much more savory to people than your standard diesel-fume-spewing bus.
On top of all these complementary businesses and amenities, there really isn’t that much competition nearby:
- There are four chain stores at other shopping areas in the vicinity. Three of them are Barnes & Noble (West Calhoun, Ridgedale, and Eden Prairie Center) and one is a Borders (Ridgedale). The closest two, those being the ones near Ridgedale, are a safe six and a half miles away, and all of them are in areas that are shopping destinations unto themselves. People go to shopping centers and hit up multiple stores because they’re there, and downtown Hopkins is just as much a center for shopping as any of the others nearby. It just has the added bonus of being surrounded by the homes of potential customers instead of wide swaths of parking lot.
- As far as coffee goes, the Bhakti Cafe is the only place on Main Street. And they seem to be focused on serving just the office employee clientele, since most days they close at 6pm and their website prominently advertises their catering and box lunches. Even on Fridays their hours only go until 9pm, so it’s really not much of a gathering place for the community. That’s left up to the bars for us adults (which crank up the music and don’t lend themselves to conversation on Fridays and Saturdays) and the Depot Coffee House on Excelsior, which is run by high school students and aims to serve those too young to get into the bars after the rush hour is over. Dedicate a corner of the bookstore to allow for casual conversation over coffee and stay open past 6pm and you’re in the money.
- The only sources of news in print in the near vicinity are the various Star Tribune and Pioneer Press vending machines dotting Main Street, the magazine racks at nearby gas stations, and the check-out lanes at Driskill’s.
So, I realize that I started this post with a series of excuses for not venturing into the bookselling business myself. And it’s also fairly obvious that I have indeed put some thought into it, albeit just in a sort of wishful daydream. After all, local literary hero Garrison Keillor even owns a bookstore in St. Paul. Imagine being a stodgy old intellectual who writes books and a newspaper column, hosts a popular NPR radio show, and in his spare time sits himself behind a cash register to sell tomes to discerning customers searching for a more intellectually fulfilling book purchasing experience than what the national chains offer. Or maybe I just romanticize authorship, despite the stern warnings from romance writer Sonja Foust.
On a side note, of all the authors I could know, it turns out that I find myself associating with far too many romance authors.
Anyway, should I suddenly turn myself around, step up, and live out this far-reaching fantasy, here’s a few other things I would offer at the bookstore:
- Look into setting up newsstands at one of, or all of, the three Hopkins LRT stations when they’re up and running. If it’s worth hiring the extra help during morning rush hours, you could cater to commuters looking for a newspaper or magazine for their ride in to work. And on their way home, they’ll see the locked-up stands plastered with advertising for the downtown store itself.
- If you couldn’t tell, I’m all about the printed word and good, local journalism in print. I’m also a fan of cutting back on waste (sort of a conflict of interest, if you look at it… newspapers are just as much a use-and-dispose commodity as a paper cup), so I would set up a coffee maker next to the newspaper rack with an offer: Purchase a newspaper and fill your to-go cup for free.
- I would also use the store to encourage young writers. National Novel Writing Month also runs the Young Writers Program, and in my teaching experience I’ve found some excellent young writers that just need an excuse to write. As an extension to this program, which I would be glad to sponsor, I would want to actually try and publish the work of some school-aged author. There are several relatively inexpensive publish-on-demand companies and it would be fairly simple to set up some local authors and the like to judge a contest for young writers where the prize if having their work printed and sold in the store.
Since I have said that I won’t do it, I implore that someone please open this store. There are a few promising storefronts available now. Furthermore, I will promptly apply for employment then turn around and spend my paychecks at the store.