Ruminator must evolve to survive

For years, other well-known independent bookstores around the country have mourned the old ways but also diversified.

Many people do not realize the Twin Cities are an important U.S. literary hub in company with New York, Boston and San Francisco. For years, one of St. Paul’s independent bookstores, Ruminator Books, represented that community with high-quality literary book sales and as a critical stop for touring authors.

The store now faces deep economic woes and might receive a $50,000 grant from St. Paul to help keep it afloat. The grant is one of many new revenue sources, including public stock offerings, designed to tackle the store’s estimated $1 million debt. St. Paul should only offer public funding to Ruminator in combination with increased organizational transparency and assurances that the store’s business model is built to last.

In 1993, St. Paul raised the sales tax by 0.5 percent and earmarked the money for municipal economic development. The cultural Sales Tax Revitalization Program focuses on the downtown “cultural district,” but awards some funds outside that area.

The program seems a good fit for Ruminator Books’ author events series, but raises concerns primarily because it is not clear Ruminator can survive long enough to fulfill its programmatic objectives. Unlike other prominent local organizations such as Graywolf Press and the Loft Literary Center, Ruminator is a for-profit organization and is not accustomed to public scrutiny of its business operations.

Since Ruminator Books opened in 1970, the store’s book offerings have expanded but kept a base of politics and literature. Graphic novelist Neil Gaiman recently commented, “Every now and then you’ll run into bookshops where they could just as happily be selling greeting cards or CDs or small stuffed animals or signed photos of celebrities, and it wouldn’t bother them. Ruminator is all about books.”

Their traditionalism might be honorable, but it also signals the store’s inflexibility and nostalgic devotion to a type of bookstore that can no longer weather the market.

For years, other well-known independent bookstores around the country have mourned the old ways but simultaneously diversified. Many reputable stores incorporated cafes, including Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore.; Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Wash.; and Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, Iowa. Sales from vanilla lattes, “Cats for Dummies” and knick-knacks might not be the fare of literature’s most elite, but they pay the bills, and St. Paul residents would love to see Ruminator stay.