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Hard Times For Hardcovers

Kenwood digs deep to keep Louise Erdrich’s bookstore open.

Hard Times For Hardcovers
Louise Erdrich, among the stacks at her Birchbark Books in Minneapolis.
Hard times hit Birchbark Books, writer Louise Erdrich’s beloved Kenwood bookshop, when the Kenwood Café, its neighbor on the corner of 21st and Penn, shut down last January. The two Minneapolis businesses, joined by a doorway, were mutually dependent. The café brought foot traffic to the bookstore, and the bookstore held readings and other events in the café. Sales at Birchbark plummeted, and Erdrich had to consider whether she could stay in business.

“Bookstores are no longer profitable enterprises,” Erdrich said via e-mail. “The margin is too slim, and the competition from online booksellers too great. I cannot operate indefinitely at a loss.”

That’s a familiar refrain in the business, where a small ray of hope has been the handful of prominent authors who have opened bookstores in recent years, from novelist Ann Patchett in Nashville to Larry McMurtry in Archer City, Texas, to Garrison Keillor, who just this spring moved his Common Good Books to a bigger location in St. Paul, but lamented unexpectedly large losses in a recent StarTribune article.

Birchbark, where the inventory reflects Erdrich’s love of books and devotion to American Indian culture, may survive, thanks to the efforts of a group of neighbors and customers who gathered March 10 to provide bridge capital to keep the shop afloat until a new tenant arrives next door. The event, at which Erdrich read and auctioned off a manuscript, raised more than $20,000—especially notable because the donations were neither tax-deductible nor did donors accrue gift cards or anything but goodwill.

Meanwhile, Don Saunders, the chef/owner at In Season in Minneapolis’ Armatage neighborhood, has taken the space next door for a restaurant he expects to open in fall.

Erdrich, who called Saunders a culinary “genius,” is hopeful they’ll find a way to work together, though she concedes it will be hard to duplicate the relationship she had with the daytime-driven café. The connecting doorway—a code violation, it turns out—will be history. But the hope is that each business can help the other. “Bookstores are important,” Erdrich said, “because the physical book is important. Hip grownups read and carry hardcover books. To me, it’s a sign of passion and intelligence.”
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