Local Art: Twin Port's newest creative outlet
Artist's corner with Bob and angel Dobrow of Zenith bookstore (duluth, MN)
UNL: How did Zenith Bookstore get started? What led you to open a bookstore?
BD: Pondering life after a successful academic career at Carleton College, the idea of opening a community bookstore hit us like a bolt of lightning, as THE thing to do. As young people in New York City, we would spend hours and hours in the many great used bookstores in Manhattan.
UNL: What is the mission of your bookstore? Is there anything you believe is unique and sets it apart from others?
BD: The mission is to promote love of reading, love of ideas, openness and inclusiveness, critical thinking, and diversity. We sell mostly used books, but they are of a very high quality. Walking into the store and looking around you might think it was a new bookstore.
We have spent a lot of time thinking about how to make the space comfortable and inviting, from the exposed bricks, to the warm lights, to the comfy chairs. At the same time there are a lot of titles on the shelves – 20,000 at last count.
UNL: How long did it take to start up Zenith Bookstore? What was the process like?
BD: About a year and a half from conception to life. We had never owned a business before so there was a lot to learn. When we bought our building we didn’t know anything about the process of getting a building permit, financing, design, etc.
We did an awful lot by ourselves – for better and for worse. We made many mistakes along the way, but it has our personal stamp and vision on it.
UNL: What is your sense of the current outlook for independent bookstores? Recently, at least in some cities, things seem to be looking up. How are things in Duluth so far?
BD: There is a lot of evidence nationwide of a resurgence of indie, brick-and-mortar bookstores. An embracing of localism and a rejection of the Amazon-Walmart-strip mall model of economic development.
The response in Duluth to our bookstore has been absolutely incredible. I think there has been a huge hunger for books and community. Things could not be better for us. Within two weeks we extended hours to include Sunday. And we’ve now hired three employees. We are very grateful to Duluth and the West Duluth community in particular.
UNL: How do you help people navigate the store? Obviously, there are a lot of signs. Do you also provide recommendations? Staff picks?
BD: We do all of it. Different staff people have different types of expertise. For new books, we are looking for titles that are truly interesting, both best sellers and indie picks. Also, we have a great computerized point of sale system - all of our books, used and new - are in the database, and we can search for books as customers want. We will also do special orders (no shipping!) with a turn around of just a few days.
UNL: What are your bestsellers? Things you're always selling out of and looking to acquire?
BD: It’s very mixed: We almost sold out all our Stephen King the first day. Also C.S. Lewis! Al Franken’s new book has been hot. Local authors are going strong. Classic books are always big sellers – especially 1984, Margaret Atwood, etc.
UNL: Do you in any way promote local writers, artists, and photographers?
BD: Absolutely, three cases in the front of the store are devoted to local authors and books of regional interest. We are working closely with Lake Superior Writers. We have new books prominently displayed in the store from photographer Tim White and the Duluth Institute of Art.
UNL: What is it about the Twin Ports that attracted you to this area?
BD: Being a real city, and at the same time close to the country and the land. The outdoors culture is second to none. And the lake is a true spiritual experience.
UNL: Anything else you would like to share with us?
BD: The big thing coming up is our grand opening event on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept 16. It will be an outdoor Zenith Book Fair with tables and participation from local authors, publishers, and reading/writing groups.
There will be food and music – a celebration of community and reading. We have already gotten commitments to attend from Brian Freeman and Lorna Landvik. It promises to be an exceptional event!!