FEATURED INDIE: Micawber's Books

Here at Atelier26, we love shining a light on Americas best independent booksellers. Independents and their staff are in the business of knowing their neighborhoods, clientele, and clientele's particular tastes (a far cry from the M.O. of Amazon or the chains). Indies thereby do a profound service to their communities -- and, by ripple effect, to the larger culture in our country. Its no stretch to say that vitality of the indies means vitality for democratic culture itself, which begins in and consists of (what else?) neighborhoods!

Micawber’s Books in Saint Paul, Minnesota embodies the tradition of neighborhood bookstore at its best. First opened in 1972, Micawber’s came under new co-ownership of booksellers Hans Weyandt and Tom Bielenberg in 2003. We asked Hans a few questions about life as bookseller.

Atelier 26: What prompted you to take the helm at Micawber’s back in 2003? Was it your first time running a bookstore?

Weyandt: Both myself and Tom had been working at The Hungry Mind (which changed its name to Ruminator Books) and we knew that it was going to close. I heard through family and friends that the owner of Micawber’s was looking to retire and thought it was at least worth our time to sit down and talk with him. The entire process from there moved very quickly. Tom had been the head buyer at Hungry Mind — and had been there for 25-plus years. I was in charge of special orders. Neither of us had run a store.

At26: How does the Micawber’s book selection differ from the selection at Barnes & Noble? How is the shopping experience at Micawber’s different from browsing/buying on Amazon? What else sets you apart?

Weyandt: This is one of those questions that is really difficult to answer in a brief, coherent way. Our stock is different because none of it is based on paid placement or co-op. Every book we carry is because we want to carry that specific book. We actually buy books for specific customers. Often a sales rep will say to one of us, “You probably don’t need that book.” But we’re getting it because we know someone who will want to see it. As far as the difference from browsing on-line, it’s a different world. Here, people pick up books and read portions. They wander from section to section. Of course, you can read excerpts on-line and virtually “bounce around” a bookstore (if that’s what Amazon is called), but that is very different. Here, we don’t use electronic algorithms to tell people what they might like — we talk to them. Over time I’ve basically come to the conclusion that Barnes and Noble and Amazon are similar to large grocery stores and we are like a farmer’s market. Technically we are in the same business, but in many real ways we are not. There is room for both and both serve different purposes, at different times, for many people.

At26: What most excites you about the indie bookselling climate in the country today?

Weyandt: What excites me is that small bookstores can constantly change and re-imagine themselves. A few years back we understood that sustainability, in all its forms, was really gaining traction so we created a section. Books from Food/Cookbooks, Energy and Transit, Economics, Cultural Studies and Current Events all moved. It is now a very strong section for us. We also have lots of mini-sections. New York Review of Books, Oxford's Very Short Introduction Series, Melville House has a few different series we feature as a whole — it’s visually nice and sets us apart from other stores. Customers like the fact that we are constantly changing the look of the store. 

At26: How do e-books fit into the indie bookselling world?

Weyandt: That’s still very much up in the air. I know a lot of stores that put a great deal of time and energy into working with Google regarding e-books and then the rug got pulled out. The entire issue is still sorting itself out. One of the main reasons why we haven’t sold e-books is that there is so much gray area. If a customer has a certain e-reader, he/she can only purchase certain books from certain publishers. It’s very confusing to those of us in the book world, and even moreso to the average customer. It really isn’t about some luddite moral vision. That said, I’ve never seen one of our main priorities as keeping up with the Joneses. Our responsibility to our customers is to have an interesting stock and provide good customer service. To this point, the e-book piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit those goals.

At26: What do you most want the book-buying public to understand about indie bookstores?

Weyandt: That we aim to be fun and helpful. A huge majority of stores do not involve themselves in the old “High Fidelity” kind of indie snobbery. What we want to do is to be a community center and neighbor and help people find great books.

Atelier26 is proud to report that Date of Disappearance is now in stock at Micawber’sBooks.