Garrison Keillor's Common Good Books re-opens in new location

Categories: Books
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Photo by Tatiana Craine
Since childhood, local legend and radio icon Garrison Keillor longed to have his own bookstore. Common Good Books is his dream come true. For the last six years, the store was located underneath Nina's Café in St. Paul, but during that time it eventually outgrew the small basement space.

Last week, Common Good Books celebrated its move to a new location on the corner of Grand and Snelling Avenues. While the store has technically been up and running for several weeks, it kicked off the month of May with a special three-day grand opening.

The first event, the Spring Poetry Free-for-All, was an open-mic night at Macalester's Weyerhauser Chapel fit for anyone with a penchant for poems and the guts to read them in front of an audience. The next day, the store hosted a staged reading of Keillor's new book, Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny. Actors Sue Scott and Tim Russell, both of A Prairie Home Companion fame, accompanied Keillor as they brought the hard-boiled detective Guy Noir, Lieutenant McCafferty, and Sugar O'Toole to life. On the third day, the store hosted Tell Garrison a Story. Keillor opened the night with a gut-splittingly funny and poignant tale from his childhood about being left at a gas station by his parents on a road trip. Audience members then stepped onstage and told stories ranging from life in Minnesota to managing a movie theater regularly attended by The Doors and Frank Zappa in Los Angeles.
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Photo by Tatiana Craine
Garrison Keillor at Common Good Books
Common Good Books store manager Martin Schmutterer has been with the company since it first opened in 2006. Having made a name for himself in local lit circles as an astute literary curator, Schmutterer has watched the store grow and mature before finally moving out of its Cathedral Hill home to the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood.

Visitors to the store can expect a lot of personal touches from Keillor.  Schmutterer has observed him championing the new location. "He's been much more involved here in recent weeks," he says. "We're doing three events in a row here, and he's been spending a lot of time in the store. We're getting lots of feedback from him."

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Photo by Tatiana Craine
The highlight of the past week for Schmutterer was the reading of Keillor's new book. "We packed the empty storefront next to us. Afterwards, people just came and filled the store. We just had a busy, great night," he says.
Keillor isn't the only author helping breathe life into the shop. Peter Bognanni, associate professor at Macaleseter College and winner of last year's L.A. Times First Fiction Award, has watched Common Good's transformation over the years.
Since moving locations, Common Good Books has seen a higher volume of people coming in to check out the store. "There's actually foot traffic, and people can look in the window and see that it's a bookstore," Bognanni says. "I knew someone who worked for Common Good Books who said that even after they were down in that basement space of Nina's for two years, people would come down there and say, 'I didn't know you guys were down here.' Now, I see people walking in all the time."

At the previous location, Bognanni recalls finding it hard to fully enjoy attending readings due to the lack of room for both audiences and authors. "I remember in the old space they used to have readings in the hallway of that kind of underground spot they were in," he says. "People were in the café, and it never really seemed like they had the right fit for what they wanted to do."

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Photo by Tatiana Craine
Now, "they have a really good set up for readings" he says. "They clear out a little space at the back of the store. There's enough room for the chairs, the podium, and they have a nice little sound system. Everything works great."

A different location and a new relationship with Macalester College allows Common Good Books to host events that the store couldn't have before. While the store can hold a few hundred people, Macalester's facilities offer the freedom and capacity for many more people to interact in the local literary scene at bigger events. "We're trying to bring in a sense of all-sizes of readings," Schmutterer says. "But we also want to have some very large groups. As part of our partnership with Macalester, we're able to use their event spaces. We can use event spaces and go all the way up to 800 people; it's a luxury we didn't have before."

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Photo by Tatiana Craine
This isn't the first time Macalester has teamed up with a local independent bookstore. For nearly 35 years, Macalester partnered with the Hungry Mind bookstore, which was located a block away from the college campus. Bognanni recalls dropping in at the now-defunct Hungry Mind bookstore while attending college. "I feel like the Hungry Mind was actually a really seminal place for me when I was a student interested in creative writing at Macalester," he says. "I remember walking over there and seeing David Sedaris just randomly one night before he was really famous, when he used to just do pieces for MPR. It was just amazing."

While the grand re-opening of Common Good Books has exceeded expectations, Schmutterer did mention the ever-changing difficulties in running a small, locally-owned bookstore. "It used to be that the enemies were the superstores: Barnes & Noble and Borders," he says. "I don't expect Barnes and Noble to move in across the street from us the way that say, in the late 1990s and early 2000s you saw that happening. That really impaired bookselling."

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Photo by Tatiana Craine
In recent years, the most imminent threat to independent bookstores has shifted from the usual big-box stores to an entirely new danger: technology. "You do see the ever-present reality of people having that digital option, and that's a completely new part of the game," he says. "You have to work with it."

However quickly e-books may be encroaching on small stores like Common Good Books, Schmutterer is confident that the store will still draw in a certain population still intrigued by finding a great book on the shelf not necessarily seen at bigger stores or online. "What we really offer people is an experience of seeing the books, sitting down, and being able to actually look through the physical copy," he says. "We try to actively curate what we have. We don't try to be everything to everyone. We do sometimes sell things that you can't ignore in the mainstream, but you don't have to sell everything."

While this week's celebrations have been both very fun and successful for the store, Schmutterer was also quick to note that some of the best moments have come from the sense of community-building that has happened between Common Good Books and the other local businesses.  

"We have all these wonderful little moments," Schmutterer says. "Like yesterday, the ice cream man stopped by and brought us free ice cream. And on one of those first days, we were all exhausted, just completely deep-down, and Ben from the Cheese Shop brought us sandwiches. The school brought us food one day, too. It's just wonderful to be welcomed by our neighbors," he says.

Location Info


Common Good Books

38 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul, MN

Category: General

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