In my report on the Magers & Quinn Irvine Welsh reading, I wrote about talking to David Unowsky, former owner of the Twin Cities’ much loved, now closed bookstore, The Ruminator. Turns out David Unowsky doesn’t just work for Magers & Quinn, he arranges their readings. I found a 2005 article about his “second act” in Publisher’s Weekly:
As Dylan Thomas might put it, David Unowsky simply refuses to “go gently into that good night” of bookselling.
Unowsky, former owner of the Ruminator bookstore in St. Paul, Minn., has joined the staff of 10-year-old used bookstore Magers & Quinn Booksellers, whose main store is located in Minneapolis’s trendy Uptown area. (There is also a downtown store.) Unowsky’s hiring reflects owner Denny Magers’s desire to expand his inventory mix to include new titles. The 9,000-sq.-ft. bookstore currently offers 100,000 used books with another 400,000 used books available on the store’s Web site. The bookstore will soon begin hosting author events, which will be arranged by Unowsky.
“This was an opportunity to get a heavy hitter, a real slugger, on our team, at a time when we’re going through a transition from being a used bookstore to being an entity that people think of right away when they want a book, no matter what kind it is,” Magers told PW Daily. “It takes a long time to change the public perception that we only sell used books. Having somebody as experienced and well-known as David will help us a lot.”
The Ruminator closed its doors last June after 34 years in business. By the time the Ruminator’s landlord, Macalester College, served Unowsky with an eviction notice, he had depleted his retirement savings, mortgaged his house and racked up $10,000 in credit card debt, trying to keep the financially beleagured store afloat.
It is a sad end to an entrepreneurial career that began in 1970, when Unowsky opened the store under the name, Hungry Mind (he sold the name in 2000 and renamed his store). Hungry Mind earned a reputation as one of the few truly fine bookstores in the U.S., often mentioned alongside such greats as City Lights in San Francisco, Elliott Bay in Seattle and Tattered Cover in Denver.
Unowsky admitted that, like many independent booksellers, he’s always been more focused on books than profit. But he traced the financial problems that led to the store’s closing back to his decision four years ago to open a second store in Minneapolis. In hindsight, he said, he realizes the location was too isolated to sustain a bookstore. The store lost money for three years until it closed.
Struggling with debt, Unowsky fell behind on his payments to Macalester. Her tried a number of tactics to get back on course. Late last year he sold stock in his company, $1 a share for a minimum of 250 shares. He got enough takers to affirm how much book lovers treasure his store–but not enough to cover his debts. He abandoned the stock idea and gave the investors their money back.
Around the same time, he got help from some prominent authors, including Neil Gaiman, Oliver Sacks and Margaret Atwood, who donated items to be auctioned off on eBay to raise money for the store. Then, the horizon seemed to brighten considerably when a financial backer stepped up to negotiate directly with the school.
Those discussions dragged on for months, ending last week with the school demanding that Ruminator Books leave the property. “I’m evicted,” the bookseller said. “This isn’t my decision. I thought we had a deal with the college and we were going to go forward.”
But David Wheaton, Macalester’s vice president and treasurer, said they were never able to come to an agreement on future terms or dealing with the store’s past debt. “We had gone on for a long time and had been looking for a way to bring the discussions to a decision,” he said.
“I think that the store’s been an important part of the campus community and the larger literary community for a long time,” Wheaton added. “This is not something that we approached or did lightly, and I think it will be a loss for our campus and the neighborhood.”
He’s not the only one who thinks so. News of Ruminator’s imminent demise has provoked the usual laments from writers and readers, who laud the store as a literary oasis in an increasingly shallow and commercial culture. Unowsky must be warmed by such praise. What he really needs now, though, is a steady paycheck.
“I’m 62 years old,” he said. “I’d be happy to work for someone else–to work hard for someone else–and go home at night and not worry about making payroll.”
And what replaced The Ruminator? Patagonia. I currently live very close to this location and it kills me that I could’ve been MERE BLOCKS from The Ruminator. Now if I need outdoor clothing, Patagonia’ll provide.
© 2007, Patrick Stephenson. All rights reserved.