A standing-room only crowd gathered at Common Good Books in St. Paul last night to hear Garrison Keillor and his radio crew perform scenes from Keillor’s novel, Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny. It was the second event in a three-day celebration of the re-location/re-opening of his bookstore at the intersection of Snelling Ave. and Grand Ave. (Tuesday night was devoted to poetry, and tonight Garrison will invite people onstage to tell him a story, then—if I understand the premise correctly—he will show them how to tell their story better.)
Something happens to Keillor when he gets a microphone in his hand. In person, the man can look downright dour; scary even. But put him in front of a microphone and his shoulders straighten, his eyebrows begin to dance, the corners of his mouth twitch upward, almost smiling, and then, inevitably, he begins to sing. Most people are terrified of singing in public, but loping through a schmaltzy song seems to relax Keillor and ease him into performance mode, where he taps into his inner ham and the jokes start flying.
Last night, after the obligatory song, Keillor started by talking about what a great corner it is for a bookstore. Across the street from Macalaster College, down the block from the former epicenter of intellectual life in the Twin Cities, the Hungry Mind (cum Ruminator) bookstore (since replaced by a Patagonia clothing outlet), and around the corner from the original Dunn Bros. coffee shop, where a steady supply of caffeine—the writer’s drug of choice—is readily available. Along the way he poked a bit of fun at some of the other businesses on the block, (“Jamba Juice—what is that? I hear it’s good for you, which is why I head over to Dunn Bros.”) and mused about the possibility of holding a Prairie Home Companion 40th birthday bash on the Macalaster quad.
The rest of the evening belonged to Keillor and the multifarious voice talents of Tim Russell and Sue Scott as they enacted scenes from Keillor’s comic novel. The event took place in the space next door to Common Good Books, a large, empty room that can seat 200-250 people comfortably, and will be used in the future for writer readings and various other events.
The readings have already started, with one or two a week already on the schedule through May. On Tuesday, May 8, Julie Schumacher will read from her latest novel, The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls; Thursday, May 10, Danielle Sosin will read from her book of three inter-related stories, The Long-Shining Waters; Thursday, May 17, historian Tim Brady will discuss Twelve Desperate Miles: The Epic World War II Voyage of the SS Contessa. Several poetry readings are also scheduled, and announcements of new events seem to be rolling into my inbox every day.
So far, the whole venture appears to be firing on all cylinders. The only way to improve it would be to blow out the wall between the bookstore and Dunn Bros., and maybe throw in the Breadsmith bakery, the St. Paul Cheese shop, and—yes—Jamba Juice. Because books are good for you too, even if some are the mental equivalent of flaxseed oil and wheatgrass.
Independent bookstores are a dying business, though, so it’s good to see one so full of life. Here’s hoping that Common Good Books has an uncommonly long run of success.