A little help from the neighbors

When the Kenwood Café closed last winter, leaving the corner of Penn & West 21st Street without lattes and cinnamon puppy dog tails, much of the corner’s walk-in traffic went with it. 

Despite the lull, all of the businesses on the block have survived the winter — thanks in part to some generous neighborhood check-writing. Now they’re welcoming a new restaurant this month, and even forming a new business association to further support one another. 

“This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Trudy Waters, owner of the custom frame shop FrameStyles. “You can be next door to somebody for 20 years, and not really know what’s going on.”

The businesses are extending hours to match the restaurant. They’re creating date nights for parents to dine out at the new restaurant, called The Kenwood, while kids paint artwork next door. And they’re launching an event called “Small Business Saturday” on Nov. 24 as an answer to the mall-focused Black Friday. 

“I’m looking forward to the restaurant opening up,” said Todd Bockley of the Bockley Gallery. “I’m hoping that it becomes a destination and brings people into the neighborhood who weren’t aware of this little neighborhood business district. … The one thing that I’ve missed is we haven’t had as much walk-in traffic.”

The bookstore gets a boost

Birchbark Books, in particular, keenly feels the café’s absence. 

“Our day-to-day street vitality is gone, because no one is going every morning to get coffee, or every afternoon to get a sandwich,” said Manager Susan White, who lives in the neighborhood. “The loss of that daily customer coming in to the bookstore to say ‘Hi’ and buying a paperback really adds up.”

Missing the coffee service, staff went to Costco and bought a sustainable rainforest blend to brew for customers. 

“Without food and beverage, you don’t have community,” White said. “You have to have a place to sit and talk and socialize. You can do that in a bookstore, but if you take the food out, there’s something missing.”

The bookstore’s staff became nervous as months went by and plans for a new tenant hadn’t yet materialized. Seeking help, they decided to throw a benefit, inviting donors primarily from the Kenwood neighborhood. 

Apparently, all they had to do was ask: the neighborhood response was overwhelming. Birchbark owner and author Louise Erdrich wrote in her blog that customers bought stacks of books, and others stopped in to slap checks on the front desk.

“The response was so sudden that I got a call from our ever-courageous bookkeeper Diane,” Erdrich wrote. “She had been about to do the usual grueling little dance — decide which bills to pay, which bills to beg off — when she looked at our account. Double take! What happiness!”

The benefit took place at a home overlooking the Stone Arch Bridge. At the silent auction, three fine art prints alone raised $4,000, donated by Kenwood resident Christopher Cardozo. Jazz singer Prudence Johnson donated a private in-home concert to the auction, and Erdrich auctioned off a manuscript of her forthcoming book “The Round House” (the buyer plans to donate it to The Loft Literary Center).

“It sustained us through January and February, which are traditionally the slowest months anyway, and with the cafe closed, even slower,” White said. “We exist because Louise [Erdrich] views the bookstore as a gift to benefit the community.”

Erdrich is publishing three new books this summer, and she is preparing for a book tour in France, followed by an extensive national tour in October.  

“Chickadee” follows the journey of twin brothers, continuing the story of an Ojibwe family through 100 years in America. Erdrich has written about the characters in three prior novels, and White said sales have been excellent, because readers have waited years for the next installment. 

The book “The Antelope Wife” is actually a rewrite. Erdrich was never quite satisfied with her four-year-old edition of the book — but she is perfectly happy with the new edition.

“Rewriting it was like having a 20,000 piece jigsaw puzzle in the wrong box,” she wrote.

“The Round House,” available on Oct. 2, follows a 13-year-old boy who is forced to save his mother. The story features “great love,” according to White. 

“This is a spectacular novel,” White said. “I loved this. …  She nails what it’s like to be a 13-year-old boy; I don’t know how she did it. There is tragedy woven in with redemption, and the complexity of family.”

Erdrich has a far-flung fan base, and her novel The Plague of Doves was a 2009 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Consequently, Birchbark Books is a bit of a tourist destination during the summer. 

“We have pilgrims, people who are on vacation or flying in, and they will take a cab and come here,” White said. 

Many of Birchbark’s other visitors are educators. The Minnesota Legislature passed standards requiring middle and high schools to incorporate American Indian literature, written by Minnesota authors about Minnesota natives. Consequently, the bookstore is creating new partnerships with schools to provide them with materials. 

“As long as we can break even, we can function, and we’ve been doing that for several years,” White said. “Our sales have increased every year. But you have to buy more to sell more. So we’re still at a break-even point. … That’s why it was so important to us that the person that came in next to us would be No. 1: Food, and a community-oriented business.”

Cross-promoting the block

Birchbark Books will stay open later, until 8 p.m., to complement the evening hours at The Kenwood. The block’s new business association has several other collaborative ideas. 

The Kenwood Pet Clinic will hang art submissions from the nearby businesses, all of them framed by FrameStyles — perhaps a book cover from Birchbark, children’s artwork from Artrageous Adventures, or a restaurant review from The Kenwood. 

“We’re finding ways to really interconnect all of us,” said Amanda Vallone, owner of Artrageous Adventures. 

On the first and third Fridays of the month, Artrageous Adventures and The Kenwood will combine to offer a date night from 5:30-8:30 p.m. While parents dine at The Kenwood, they can drop off kids at the art studio for a kids’ meal and a studio session, leaving with a finished art piece.

“A lot of people don’t know we exist, because we are right smack in the middle of a residential area,” Vallone said. “People don’t realize what a unique corner we have.”

The businesses are also considering new signage that distinguishes the corner of shops. 

“They have all been impacted by the loss of the café,” White said. “Now that we have a new restaurant coming in, now is the time to really be a cohesive unit and say, ‘Visit us.’ And we’ve never really done that.”

Reach Michelle Bruch at [email protected]