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Uptown's Magers & Quinn Booksellers survives by adapting to change

Magers & Quinn Booksellers owner Denny Magers sits at an old-fashioned wooden desk tucked out of view from the checkout counter, behind a barricade of stored-away books. Behind his head, a bumper sticker fixed to a file cabinet drawer states, &#8220Stop global whining.”

There's no whining going on at this surviving, even thriving store. While other shops have exited the area around Calhoun Square - including corporate behemoth Borders Books - Magers says his has survived because of its adaptability, despite closing its Downtown location in the spring of last year.

&#8220We're really delivering something that other bookstores don't. The experience here is different,” he said.

He acknowledges, however, that, &#8220it's a struggle for exposure. People who only buy new books don't know to come here. It's hard to change people's shopping habits.”

Survival guide

Since he opened Magers & Quinn in 1994, it has become one of the largest independent bookstores in the Midwest. (The Quinn half of the store's moniker is his mother's maiden name).

Over the past couple years, it has gradually added more and more new books on widely ranging topics, as opposed to used, out-of-print and rare books. Most of the store's stock is discounted.

To attract new shoppers, the store is updating its image. Recently, Magers & Quinn's signage and logo were made over. Where the logo once featured a nostalgic illustration of a man poised with a hefty stack of books, now a black and red box simply frames sleek modern letters that spell out the store name.

Magers & Quinn has an extensive online bookstore (www.magersandquinn.com); online transactions even take place inside its bricks-and-mortar fortress on three in-store servers.

In the offline world, Magers gets praise from business leaders for his adaptability and lack of whining about the unstoppable changes wrought by online retailers. &#8220He plays well with the community and alters to fit demographics,” Uptown Association Executive Director Cindy Fitzpatrick said. &#8220He's a good enough businessperson to go with the cycles of retail. He's not a complainer. He says ‘here's what I've got and what I can do' instead of ‘poor me.'”

Character development

Magers & Quinn is housed in the 1920s-built Bryant Building that was originally a Chevrolet car dealership. Heaps of books are stacked on tables and stuffed into mismatched bookshelves.

Wooden bookshelves on one wall are replete with old metal tracks and antique ladders that glide across them. Walls are white and floors are carpeted. Occasionally customers stake out an aisle, sitting cross-legged on the floor next to their section. The store boasts a comfortable, lived-in look and an appropriately musty old-book smell.

Its 8,000-square-foot main floor contains 125,000 titles. The 10,000-square-foot basement contains many more; over 500,000 books are for sale online.

Some visitors pen their testimonies, confessionals, suggestions and other sentiments in an oversized tome that's open on a glass display case near the checkout counter. Some scribble spontaneous sketches or write riddles that show off their smarts.

Others reveal their innermost secrets about their obsessive-compulsive affinity for books or the store, imparting flattering impressions of Magers & Quinn: &#8220In the middle of the night, I think of this bookstore and then I feel fine” and &#8220I'd live here, if I could.”

A family tradition

Magers & Quinn has 25 staffers including Magers' daughter Mary and son John. Some other relatives pitch in part-time. Over half of the employees work full-time.

Magers' sister Kathleen Gonzalez previously worked next-door, at the Whitney Annex, an antiquarian shop, selling vintage maps, books, small prints and other ephemera. The Whitney Annex closed in 2005 and has since relocated to 4157 Grand Ave. S. as Whitney Book & Print Store.

A staffer who has attained legendary status among bookworms is David Unowsky, former owner of Hungry Minds, which later became Ruminator Books, a St. Paul mainstay for 36 years. He coordinates readings at the shop.

With just a year of readings so far, Magers & Quinn is already attracting prominent authors such as Barbara Ehrenreich, of &#8220Nickel and Dimed” fame, and Uptown writer Alison McGee.

The store has two or three readings weekly; one event drew over 250 attendees. The store also hosts readings and sponsors a book club called Books and Bars at Bryant-Lake Bowl.

Unowsky said he enjoys working at the shop where he lends his &#8220new-books expertise,” while also learning about the business of selling used books (his store only sold new books).

He called the hybrid store &#8220the wave of the future. We're making available every possible idea. A good bookstore is the place to do that. It's one-on-one, yet we're gathering information from the world on what the sale of a book is.”

A sense of place

Since Borders Books closed its store in Calhoun Square last year, Magers & Quinn has seen a jump in its foot traffic. To compensate for the void left by Borders, Magers said he's increased his store's inventory of recent titles.

Charlie Orr, owner of Orr Books, just down the street, said he was surprised when Borders closed. The 1,000-square-foot Orr Books carries mainly books about spirituality.

Borders' closure made Orr realize that most bookstores - even the chain giants - are struggling in the age of Amazon.com.

&#8220I wasn't alone for not doing well in the Internet era,” he said. &#8220I thought I would be the first bookstore to leave. There are only a few independent bookstores and it only affects us greatly.”

Online retailers have the unfair advantage of not having to pay sales taxes, he said. Plus, virtual shoppers don't drive to their destination and there are no parking hassles.

But others insist independent stores deliver some things that larger stores and online vendors can't.

East Harriet resident Drew Fesler agrees; the management consultant has been coming to the bookstore regularly for over a year. He walks around clutching an armload of books (&#8220Holy Blood Holy Grail,” &#8220The Main Enemy,” &#8220The Rhinemann Exchange,” among others).

&#8220This is my place for books,” he said. &#8220It has an eclectic mix. I can always find something different than I planned to buy. I like the fact that you can find used, hard-to-find books in addition to new books.”

If Magers & Quinn can keep Fesler and those sharing his desire for uncommon books in an uncommon store happy, there will never be a need for whining at the store.

For more information, call Magers and Quinn Booksellers at 822-4611 or check out www.magersandquinn.com.

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 and apratt@mnpubs.com.