Monday, May 2, 2016

In plain sight

For nearly a quarter century I have been living in these darling twin cities (fraternal, not identical, but they still live together and dress alike). And through all this time I have occasionally passed, on a prominent corner in a busy but very dodgy part of town, a book store. The windows were covered, usually, with dusty posters and signs of bitter complaint about the Light Rail that was going in on their doorstep (and which has since arrived, causing what seems to be no damage in the 12 year construction process on either the neighborhood or the shop, but not conferring all that much advantage either) . It's a bookstore that looks large, old, and slightly rundown. There is metal grating on all the windows and "Sorry no public restroom" signs to encourage you to prepare for any visit. Their name is Midway Books.

This name without frills, and its exterior presentation, conjured up no glorious, magical bookstore images in my head. Instead, for a quarter of a century I pictured that inside there would be a spread out, misused space, somehow dark, dusty and sunblasted all at once. It would feature a large collection of new and slightly outdated magazines and newspapers on unappealing metal racks, a section for new, glossy paperbacks and hardcovers that somehow still looked faded, including far too many copies of bestsellers- several of which will have grimly outlived their brief bestsellerdom, and a junky, unsorted section of used books which would look like all the new books, only ten years later.

And this all fit perfectly with the neighborhood, a strange one that's hard to come to grips with. Its broad streets are always choked with tangled traffic. It never seems to update, even as it occasionally is besieged by massive construction projects. Is it forever a Twin Cities commercial area of the fifties, or is it stuck rather in the seventies? How do these shops stay in business? No one seems to go in. You can't tell what they're about from the outside. They never seem to change; once a vacuum store always a vacuum store. But there they are forever, with their beaten down "open" signs hanging in grimy, vandal fearing windows, staffed with real live clerks for at least nine or ten hours every day.

Did you know that I can now take a light rail train nearly right to the door of Midway Books? I love our light rail trains. It's a mere 15 minute walk from my house to the train. I switch trains at the (former) Metrodome stop over to the Green Line and that takes me to the middle of a busy street within sight of the bookstore. It is 2.79 miles as the bird flies from my house to Midway Books. But on the train I can get there in a mere hour and a half!

So do you have all that? Because now you need to know that everything I thought about Midway Books was wrong.

My wife found a book she wanted online and it turned out that, of its few copies for sale anywhere in the world, the cheapest was a copy of it on the shelves at Midway Books. So around lunchtime on a Wednesday we went there on our first ever trip.

We parked in a complicated, slightly broken down parking lot the bookstore shared with a liquor store and maybe a gun store or something. A man roamed through the lot looking in dumpsters for aluminum cans. I made grim, judgemental comments about Midway Books based on my delusions listed above. We passed several not very clean looking false doors to the bookstore while young people on the sidewalk appeared to be up to no good, whatever that might mean. Nothing disabused me of any of my notions until we opened the entrance doors and stepped in...

to a wonderland. 

Midway Bookstore is a dream of a bookstore. It is dense and comfortable, serious and full of interesting things. At the library I work at people donate hundreds of books every day. Every rare once in awhile something is interesting, historical, valuable, iconographic, or mysterious. It is so exciting and unusual when we get something like that that we share it around in a fever. And yet at Midway Books that was pretty much the only kind of thing they carried, all crammed into towering stacks and high shelves and deep bins. I don't have much in the way of examples because I was overwhelmed by it all and not taking notes. I do have one random one though. We were mostly looking in the art books. We were not in the rare book section, or rooting through locked cases. I pulled out a copy of Norman Rockwell's autobiography. It was a first edition and signed by him. I'm not saying I have to have that book for $125. I'm just saying that a book like that was typical in that store.

My wife got two books she seemed to love. Then we went to bagel place a quarter mile from where I work that I've ignored for 21 years. Their bagels were fantastic, as good as any I've ever had.

I'm just saying, I don't know anything.

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