What would a town that loves books be without bookstores? Thankfully, the Twin Cities has many wonderful options for those who like to browse, buy, and discuss books. I recently got a chance to chat with some of the newest booksellers this side of the Mississippi—Angela and Jamie Schwesnedl, who opened Moon Palace Books in the Longfellow neighborhood on October 25th, 2012. We talked about the pressures of owning a business, the shifting publishing landscape, and what’s in a name, as well as our mutual, overarching love of books. Our tastes, it turns out, have more in common than we thought!
So why a bookstore?
We love books!
Was there a particular moment when you knew that opening a bookstore was something you wanted to do—some formative experience in another bookstore or library, or a reading experience that led you to a life of book-loving?
(Jamie) I used to publish books, and traveled around the country a few times selling a book that I wrote, so it was really the small, independent book stores that kept my gas tank full—I can’t say that experience made me want to open a bookstore—it seemed like really hard work! Angela is a total book maniac. She’s very talented and versatile, but it’s kind of hard to imagine her doing anything else.
(Angela) Well, I worked at Paperback Exchange at 50th and Penn for over a decade. I loved it, but I’m excited to sell new books that reflect my interests and tastes more, and to work closer to home. Other than the book maniac part, I’m also the type of person that likes having my own business. It’s always really appealed to me and involving books seemed like the thing to do.
Sounds like a solid background in bookselling… hang on… Jamie, this would be a pretty ridiculous coincidence, but about a decade ago I was at a concert in Portland, Oregon and a guy who kind of looked like you, now that I think of it, came up to me and sold me a book. It’s called Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing—that wasn’t you by any chance, was it?
(Jamie) YES that was me who sold you that book! How funny! I sold books in Portland a few times—with Reading Frenzy, Powell’s and Ozone Records (RIP) there it was always worth my while. Do you remember what show that was?
Not at all. I do remember that I was reading at the time, and you pitched it well. I reread it a couple of years ago, too–it stands up! After reading the jacket again, I see that you spent some time in Iowa City… What led you to the Twin Cities?
(Angela) I’m from northern Minnesota and Jamie grew up in Iowa City. I’ve lived all over the city and when I was looking to settle wanted to be near the light rail and the Midtown Greenway. I like south Minneapolis in general but Powderhorn felt good to me. I like being close to stuff and being able to get to and from places easily.
(Jamie) I moved back to the Midwest from the East Coast in 2007, to be closer to my family and have a better quality of life—yards, gardens, etc. My brother and his family, plus some old friends of mine were living in South Minneapolis, and I really liked it. I remember walking on a bridge over the greenway in February, and seeing people riding their bikes, and thinking, “If things are this nice in February, it’s gonna be great around here in the summer!”
Your specific location seems like a real up-and-coming neighborhood. The bookstore is right beside Peace Coffee and Trylon Microcinema—were these factors in choosing the location? Are there any other factors that led to your choice of this particular neighborhood?
(Jamie) We are thrilled to have a store that we can walk to from our house in Powderhorn. Angela is one of the founders of the Trylon microcinema so she was spending a fair amount of time in the building already.
(Angela) I think the kind of person who wants to go see a movie the old-fashioned way on a screen with other people is also the kind of person that gets bookstores as a destination of value in the community. Something really essential. And we both love Peace Coffee, – for their great coffee and for the foot traffic they bring to the building. It’s the kind of coffee shop where people are working and reading, and not just on their laptops and tablets but actual paper books.
(Jamie) The people who work there are big readers too!
(Angela) The neighborhood is very supportive of local businesses. Longfellow is happening. There are so many readers and book-lovers here—and not just readers but writers. It seemed like a really great location.
Angela, I didn’t realize you were a co-founder of the Trylon, that’s cool! Do you feel like that experience paved the way for Moon Palace?
(Angela) Helping out at the Trylon, I’ve definitely learned a lot business stuff. I like looking at profit and loss statements and that kind of thing. Probably my biggest contribution at the Trylon has been filling out the application for non-profit status from the IRS. I’ve learned not to be intimidated by mountains of paperwork, which is good because opening a business involves a lot of paperwork.
How has the response to the store been? Has anything surprised you about being entrepreneurs, or about being booksellers in particular?
(Angela) It’s been great. People have been really enthusiastic. We weren’t really sure what kinds of books people would be excited about or if they’d even be excited about us at all but the response has been great.
We were expecting to do more used book business than new, but it’s been the other way around. There’s been a lot of really great books coming out in the past few months, and people are really excited about them. As far as being entrepreneurs goes there are a lot of challenges. If we don’t do something, it doesn’t get done. I’ve had to learn to twitter. Drupal. Taxes. I like those kinds of challenges and figuring things out but some days just responding to emails keeps me busy. The hardest part is being surrounded by so many more books but having less time to read.
(Jamie) The public wants way more Star Wars books than I ever thought possible.
You get your name from the Paul Auster novel, no? Out of context, it does have a slightly Sci-Fi ring to it—maybe the Star Wars requests might find some explanation there… I work for Rain Taxi, and people always ask what the name means—do you get that question a lot?
(Angela) We do get asked that a lot! I have a copy of Moon Palace on display on the counter, and that’s kind of helped people figure it out. People usually assume it’s my favorite book but we’ve had a couple of people assume we’re a New Age store. I usually tell people Moon Palace was the book that turned me into a reader because that is true. When I read it I was just figuring out what kind of reader I was and what kind of things I like to read. It’s the story of a guy in New York who inherits boxes of books from an uncle. He uses the boxes for furniture and then when things get hard he reads them and sells them. I liked the name and I liked the way it sounded with Trylon (named from the Trylon and Perispere structures from the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens) and Peace Coffee Wonderland Park (Wonderland Park is the name of a Minneapolis amusement park that used to be located where we are now) and I thought they sounded good together.
I think of bookstores function as community centers, landmarks where people gather and share ideas. Do either of you have a background in community involvement or serve the community in other ways?
(Jamie) We’ve both lived and worked at local businesses here for a while. I’ve helped with organizing the community garden on our street, and Angela has volunteered all over the place for the last 15 years. We also have a 1 year old daughter now, so that’s giving us lots of new ways to be involved, but decreasing our time to be involved in some of the ways we have been in the past.
“The economy” is used as such a scare tactic these days, and many people view the publishing industry, at least the print part of it, as a dangerous business to be in. How did you overcome this pessimism?
(Jamie) We really think it’s a great time to start a bookstore. People are looking for more meaningful ways to spend their leisure time, things that connect them with the world around them, and want to live in a neighborhood with businesses that they can walk or bike to.
(Angela) People still want to browse books and still want to touch stuff before they buy it—even people who buy ebooks still buy actual paper books and often want to do it at a place that matters to them. They want to go to a bookstore and buy from someone else who loves to read.
(Jamie) There’s this perception that small, local bookstores are all going out of business and being destroyed by the Internet and the big chain stores, but actually a lot of independent bookshops are thriving. Not every local business will last forever—some are labors of love, requiring way more work from an obsessed owner than anyone who might buy the place would want to put in, or they depend on the owner’s or staff’s lifetime of experience, that just can’t be passed on when they retire. Some stores are successful for a while, but then a neighborhood changes, or different kinds of books become more popular and not all stores change with the times. Right now is a really good time to be a bookstore in a neighborhood where people are interested in gardening and queer history, and left wing politics—it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to be shopping at Wal-Mart or Target and find an employee there who can recommend a good book on permaculture gardening or social justice movements in Minnesota—and really unlikely that they’ll have it in stock.
(Angela) I also think personally that the Twin Cities is full of readers and writers and publishers and great bookstores. I think more bookstores can make for more readers. I love that I can send people to other stores and I do. Not just for stuff that I don’t have but because other stores are full of good things and visiting them is part of the great experience of living here and visiting here.
The TCDailyPlanet article last December mentioned that you were selling ebooks through your website, and I noticed that you had a Kobo display in your store. Have you been selling a lot of ereaders, or has there been a strong interest? I know you share my love of print, but I’m curious how you’ve embraced—or at least accepted—this digital wave in the industry.
(Angela) We are selling ereaders and ebooks. It’s kind of a big experiment. We’ve sold some, but not a lot. Selling any felt like a surprise to me. When we talked to people about ebooks we were surprised at how many people had ereaders and really wished they could buy ebooks from an independent bookstore. Some were embarrassed that they had a Kindle. I think ebooks make sense for a lot of people. I just think that people who think they will completely replace paper books aren’t thinking. I’m not afraid of technology—I’m just not as in love with it as a lot of people.
(Jamie) Interest has definitely increased since the Arc tablet came out a few weeks ago. I think it just catches people’s eye more in the store—it has color, and you can watch videos, etc, so people notice it on the counter more than the other ereaders which are smaller and have black-and-white displays. Ereaders aren’t something that people are buying every week or month, so I don’t expect to sell a ton at first. But I think it’s good for people to see that there’s something out there that they can get at their local bookstore, and they can buy the ebooks from us, instead of a big chain. Just having the ereaders on display is a conversation-starter—it helps people find out that they can buy ebooks from their local bookstore and read them on an ipad or whatever.
(Angela) I definitely love being able to tell people they have no excuse for buying their books on Amazon. If they want ebooks, they can get them from us. I think a paper book has better value but honestly that might depend on the book. Also, as far as the book industry goes, I’m not sure that ebooks are really the biggest change happening right now. As a bookseller, I hear way more talk about self-publishing, and I think there are big changes going on in the production and distribution of paper books that have the potential to impact independent book stores more than ebooks.
Sometimes you team up with Trylon for film/book events. Are literary events a factor in your plans for the store? Do you see literary events as valuable, and if so, how/why?
(Jamie) We’re really excited to have more literary events, and team up with the Trylon more. Our time slots are limited to mornings and afternoons, or evenings when there’s no film showing, because we share a wall with the Trylon, so noise is an issue. We can hear the movies and the movie audiences would hear any event we’re having. But we think literary events are a great way for book nerds to be social, for people to check out a kind of writing or book that they might be curious about. They’re a great way for authors to connect with readers, and they generally create the sense of living in a community that values literature and literacy.
Do you often recommend books to customers, or do they mostly know what they’re looking for? Are there any books or genres you’ve seen selling better than others? Any you’ve found yourself recommending on a regular basis?
(Angela) We love making recommendations—some people come in knowing what they want, but a lot of folks have come in just to check out the store and were interested to see what we’d recommend. And I personally love getting book recommendations from customers too. I like hearing what people are reading, what they’re liking, what they’re disappointed by.
(Jamie) Angela has worked really hard on the new book section, and I so just looking at the new books on our shelves is sort of like getting her recommendations. We’ve been selling a lot of cookbooks, a lot of poetry, and pretty much all kinds of fiction—mainstream, experimental, graphic novels. And of course, we sell a lot of film-related books, being next to the Trylon. And once again, much to my surprise, we will sell a lot of anything with Yoda or Darth Vader on the cover.
(Angela) I’ve definitely ordered stuff that I’m excited about and that I would want to read. I tend to be a pretty generous reader, maybe too much and I’ll read almost anything. If it’s a book then I’ll probably like it.
Be sure to swing by Moon Palace Books, 2820 E 33rd Street, Minneapolis MN, and ask for a recommendation! I hear they have some quality Star Wars titles fresh in stock.