Store owner hangs on, offers space for readers and authors


Paperbacks Plus owner Kathryn Harris with her dog, Mario, also known as Biblio. The store is on North St. Paul’s East Seventh Avenue. (Solomon Gustavo/Review)

Paperbacks Plus has titles going back to the 1800s, such as this facebook of prominent Minnesotans, published in 1907. “They’re only worth like 10 bucks,” says Harris of her century-old books. (Solomon Gustavo photos/Review)

It’s easy to get lost in a book in one of the nooks or crannies of the vast Paperbacks Plus.

Harris flexes a pose at the counter of Paperbacks Plus, where she often negotiates great book bargains and has plenty of sweets to share. (Solomon Gustavo/Review)

Store owner hangs on, offers space for readers and authors

 

Every brick and mortar business is in a fight for its life with online retailers. 

Everyone attempting to sell things in person, from local shop proprietors to big box department store stockholders, are in the midst an economic, existential struggle. 

No business venture, though, appears as perilous in the digital era than the nearly extinct local bookstore.

One lingering stalwart still selling the physical page is Paperbacks Plus, the used book store at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Margaret Street in North St. Paul. 

Even on the historic main drag, boasting cutesy antique stores and unpretentious, vintage dive bars, a surviving, locally owned bookstore may be the charm crown jewel. 

The bookstore remains because of its owner, Kathryn Harris. The shop would surely be long gone, she says, but, because she owns the building and relies on income from renters, she’s able to keep the doors open.

“It’s a subsidized bookstore,” says Harris, adding she doesnt know of any other local bookstore owner who isn’t struggling mightily, working other jobs, selling non-book items to keep things going or or has another income stream to similarly subsidize their store. 

Harris says she stays in the game for a straight-forward reason.

“I love books. Even if I don’t read ‘em and even if I’m never gonna read ‘em,” she says. “I like being surrounded by ‘em. I like having piles of ‘em everywhere.”

Harris says she enjoys having books all around her house and the aspirational hope that she might someday read them. She likes that, when she dies, someone might be able to form an idea of who she was based on the collection she left behind.

“But I think everybody kinda feels that way,” she says.

 

Characters welcome 

“I’m 61,” says the slender Harris, joined by a handful of local writers in her spacious store.

“Sixty is a tough one,” she says, jawing with North St. Paul author Tony Ducklow, who is the same age. 

“It sucks, doesn’t it?” Harris says.

“Better than the alternative,” says Ducklow, dressed in a leather jacket, his hands clinging to his hips as he guffaws.

Harris continues her monologue. “Sixty is like this eye-opener. All of your hopes and dreams, they’re not coming true.”

Born in Minneapolis, the bookstore owner stayed there until her early adulthood. She then lived around the metro before settling in Shoreview. 

Paperbacks Plus originally opened in 1988 in a different building with a different owner. In 1993, Harris, who has experience in human services, was between jobs and saw a classified ad that said there was a used bookstore for sale. She took the rest of her savings and as she puts it, “bought a job.”

Though the early 90s were a better time to be in the book-selling business, the era already showed signs that trouble could be ahead.

“My husband’s accountant hated the idea,” says Harris — the number cruncher told her she’d make more money working at Barnes & Noble. 

“You need a new accountant,” she remembers telling her husband.

Coming from a “reading family” but with no real connections to books or the literary world, Harris says that once she saw the opportunity to be in charge of a bookstore, she felt an immediate steward’s obligation. 

The original owner left a bunch of inventory and gave her some tips on recognizing what an old book might be worth. She jumped right into the business, buying and selling.

Come 2001, North St. Paul condemned the original building Paperbacks Plus was in, meaning Harris had to move. The forced circumstance proved fortuitous — made homeless, Harris went to the bank and secured a loan to buy her East Seventh Avenue space.

Owning the building has been the difference-maker for the used bookstore.

Harris says she knows bookstore owners who were renting in the 90s and 2000s, who passed up the opportunity to buy their space or building. In the ensuing decades, many of those owners couldn’t compete with the online market and could no longer afford their rent. 

The subsidized Paperbacks Plus continues to stand in 2019, defying an environment of extinction like an endangered species kept safe in captivity. It’s not a bookstore surviving on its own in the wild, but it’s alive and well, nonetheless. 

 

Making space

Those who come in, says Harris, have been the same throughout all the book business tumult and transition. Be it 1995, 2005 or 2015, people stopping at Paperback Plus are in search of new, hot books, but they also want to save money.

“People who come in want a bargain. It’s not ful-price people,” says Harris, who’s often willing to negotiate prices in order to get books into a reader’s hands.

In the front window of her store, facing East Seventh, instead of an “open” sign, Harris elects to hang a neon “books” sign that glows day and night, because she says it grabs people’s attention.

Inside under high ceilings are walls and walls of shelves filled with nearly every kind of book, in every kind of genre. The inventory is stocked with classics, little known publications and books by local authors, with titles ranging back into the 1800s.

There are cozy sofas and little benches to stop at and peruse a text. Above the shelves and on the walls, especially behind the counter, are paintings and trinkets, staying true to the antique aesthetic of downtown North St. Paul. 

Harris constantly keeps mounds of candy at her desk, where she can be found ready to share a treat or talk about a favorite author. Hers is Taylor Caldwell, a British-born American novelist she had never heard of but discovered in her inventory of books. 

The physical place has also become a base for local authors and poets. Harris holds in-store book signings and author meet-and-greets on Fridays throughout the summer. The first is June 7 from 5 to 9 p.m.

Paperbacks Plus is open Tuesday to Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The store is located at 2539 Seventh Ave. E.

 

–Solomon Gustavo can be reached at sgustavo@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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