Construction didn’t bind Dinkytown used bookstores

by Jennifer Niemela

In Dinkytown, paper is stronger than concrete.
Four small used bookstores in Dinkytown continue to thrive within a four-block area despite last year’s road construction that forced some national franchises out of business. One bookstore even opened on 14th Avenue in the midst of the construction that closed that street.
“I was nervous about opening a store on the wrong end of a dead-end street,” said Cummings Books owner Jim Cummings of his store that opened in November 1996. “But I’m growing. The response has been better than I hoped.”
Store owners attribute their survival during the year and a half of construction — during which Dinkytown lost mainstays like National Camera Exchange and Burger King — to a largely pedestrian audience that is willing to browse.
“We have a loyal clientele,” said Magus Books manager Julie Canny, who added that her store lost very little business during the construction.
Another reason for the success of the bookstores — all of which are owned independently — is the tenaciousness of small-business owners, Canny added.
“Failure is not an option,” she said. “We’re not owners of large chains. A lot of the businesses that folded were franchises.”
Ironically, the four Dinkytown bookstores don’t consider themselves to be competitors despite their close proximity to one another. Rather, store owners said there is a certain camaraderie between the stores.
“We’re sort of a family,” said Cummings. “We’re not competitive.”
One reason for the lack of competition between the stores is the nature of used bookselling. Each store reflects the interests of the owner and therefore merchandise doesn’t necessarily overlap like large chain stores often do.
For example, The Dinkytown Antiquarian Bookstore specializes in more expensive collectors’ editions, while Magus Books concentrates on new age and the occult.
English and composition teaching assistant Curt Leitz, who frequents Dinkytown’s used bookstores, said having four similar stores in such a small area is actually an advantage.
“People who would make the trip to shop used bookstores would want to browse,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to find; what you can’t find at one you might find at another.”
However, Dinkytown Antiquarian Bookstore owner Larry Dingman said the loss of franchise stores in Dinkytown hurts the bookstores because it cuts down on the number of potential customers.
“Businesses like National Camera Exchange brought people in from the outside,” he said. “They’d drive in and park at their meters for an hour and if they had time left over, they’d stop in here.”
But the student population continues to support the bookstores. In fact, independent booksellers, who provide much of the merchandise for used bookstores, target the Dinkytown area because they know there will always be a demand for books.
Book scout Bob Germaine, who buys books from estate sales and sells them to Cummings Books, said Dinkytown provides him with much of his business.
“Part of it is there’s a concentration of people who read near the University,” he said, adding that Cummings also pays him the best prices for his wares.
Book House employee Yanni Raptis, who has worked in used bookstores across the country, said Dinkytown’s student population needs used bookstores because they provide resources University bookstores might not. Books that are out of print that students might need for research are often easier to find at used bookstores than through the University.
“Students are the most important thing,” Raptis said. “We’re a lot more about texts than collectors’ items.”
Institute of Technology freshman John Krochak, who shops Dinkytown bookstores at least once a week, said used books are simply more affordable to students, so it follows that used bookstores would be successful in a campus setting.
“I don’t want to pay full price for a book. Like this book,” he said, holding a hardcover collection of Picasso paintings at Cummings Books. “It’s only $35, whereas full price it’d probably be $70.”
The informal atmosphere of small bookstores is another thing students appreciate, said Cummings, whose store is home to two cats and an aquarium.
Dingman concurred.
“There are always going to be students who enjoy dust-jacketed copies of Nadine Gortimer,” he said. “The bridges had to be fixed, but the stores geared toward students survived.”