Story ends for Orr Books

Uptown’s Orr Books closed its doors last month after three decades of business

CARAG – Charlie Orr used to have a recurring dream about finding a silver coin on the ground. The coin would lead to another and another, until coins were everywhere.

It’s been many years since he’s had the dream.

"It ended, so I think it’s no longer time for me to be a merchant," Orr said.

Orr, 64, is a treasure hunter, but not the kind that looks for a mark on a map. He’s the kind that looks for garage sales in the classifieds and spends early mornings scouring stacks of old books, searching for keepers.

Such treasure hunts are among Orr’s fondest memories of the book business, which he got out of last month when he closed the store that bore his name for 34 years. Business at his independent bookstore in Calhoun Square, Orr Books, dropped during the last decade as corporate stores grew and online sellers became more popular.

The added burden of having to move to a month-to-month lease because of the possibility of Calhoun Square redevelopment reinforced his decision to close. Local development company The Ackerberg Group approached Orr about moving his store to another location, but he declined. He said his age and financial situation would make starting his business somewhere else too difficult.

"During the last 10 years, I haven’t made enough money any year to pay my modest expenses," Orr said. "I’ve been dipping into my savings."

It wasn’t always that way. Business boomed in the early 1980s, when he was able to purchase a home and pay off his mortgage in a few years. Those were the days when he could provide good wages, healthcare, benefits and regular bonuses to five employees.

Those perks went away years ago and, by the time Orr closed shop, only two other employees were working in the store. From a financial perspective, Orr said he recalls being relieved in recent years when employees made the decision to go. He never had to fire anyone.

Orr got his first taste of the book business working for his mother, Vera Orr, during the late 1960s in her bookstore near the Uptown Theater. She opened a second store at 3027 Hennepin Ave., which Orr took over in 1973 after serving in the military, spending some time taking classes at the University of Minnesota and working briefly as a Minneapolis cab driver. His store moved to 3034 Hennepin Ave. in 1981 when Calhoun Square was built.

His book offerings changed numerous times during the past several decades. Orr Books did well for a while selling used books that Orr dug up at garage sales or bought from vendors. Those were gradually replaced by newer offerings as the store evolved based on changing customer tastes.

"I never felt I should have a major role in what customers read," Orr said.

There was a time when Orr couldn’t keep feminist studies books on the shelves. Topics such as the recovery movement and American Indian studies also had their moments, he said. At one point, Orr Books was known as the place to go for "New Age" reading material, but Orr banned the term after the press got a hold of it.

Though he’s followed customer demand, Orr’s selection has always been eclectic and some big titles such as the Harry Potter series never found their way into his store in great numbers. He said once all the fans got a hold of those books, he couldn’t get rid of the rest of them.

Orr has also sold baseball cards, comic books, magazines, cards and photographs. For a while, his store supplied textbooks for St. Mary’s University.

In recent years, Orr Books became a sort of spiritual bookstore, stocking works about Buddhism, meditation and related topics. The store also has a large selection of audio books.

Despite all the changes, Orr Books developed a loyal following of customers, some who had gone to the store for a book or conversation since it opened. Knowing customers has always been important to Orr.

Even days before his store closed, he kept a list of names and descriptions of people he saw regularly at the store. The UPS guy, the Green Party girl and the guy who stole a baseball magazine were among them.

David Engelking, 58, of CARAG, worked at Orr Books for 20 years and described the store’s community as an "orbicular web." Some are into the store’s spiritual offerings, some come for the poetry, others just want a good novel, he said.

During an emotional speech at a farewell open house for Orr Books last month, Engelking thanked customers for their support.

"If the Orr books community is like a web of circles and rays, I have had the privilege of being at the center," he said. "It has been a great blessing to stand in this place and to know all of you wonderful people."

One of those people was Anita White, 54, of Longfellow, who patronized Orr Books since it opened. When times started getting tough for Orr in 1998 and he mailed a plea for help to customers, White went beyond her means to buy $100 worth of books.

"I didn’t have the money, but I did it anyway," she said.

Customer Lois Egan, 55, of Linden Hills, said she went to Orr Books for the service.

"You can buy a book anywhere," Egan said. "But to get the wisdom you get here is irreplaceable."

Linden Hills resident Rosemary Peternell, 61, said the Orr Books staff stayed in touch with her while she was in Africa for six years and picked up on her life as though she’d never left when she returned.

Don Olson, 63, a local magazine distributor who worked with Orr Books for many years, said the store had become a center for the spiritual community toward its end. Many people met and formed relationships there, he said. "What you really lose with a store like this [closing] is a meeting place."

Engelking said he was working on trying to create a successor to Orr Books called Aurora Books, but he planned to take some time off first.

Orr planned to retire.

"I’m going to refresh my study of the Russian language, take some sorely needed violin lessons and I might even venture into tournament poker," Orr said during a speech at the farewell open house.

He wants to leave some time for garage sales, too, so he can add to finds such as an early Emily Dickinson book, the first EC comic and a 1945 magazine featuring Marilyn Monroe.

"I’ve always enjoyed finding treasures," he said.

To keep tabs on Engelking’s progress in opening a successor store, visit aurorabooks.googlepages.com (no www).

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]