June 2008

Gili Warsett

features

The Book House in Dinkytown: An Interview with Kristen Eide-Tollefson

The first time I walked into the Book House in Dinkytown, a floor-to-ceiling, book-filled, two-story maze organized into a dizzying variety of topics, I got the sense that I had entered someone’s brain. Then I met the store’s owner, Kristen Eide-Tollefson. She talks with a rapid brilliance that is often cluttered with tangents; there was no separating the person from the place.

Situated in the heart of Dinkytown, the nickname for the University of Minnesota’s neighborhood in Minneapolis, the Book House from the outside looks like just another used bookstore, with faded burgundy awnings and dollar book carts on the sidewalk, beckoning the literary world into its labyrinthine cave. But inside, there is nothing ordinary about this Minnesota landmark.

Though there are books everywhere, I realized that I would be unable to engage the collection until I threw my look-it-up-on-Google browsing strategy out the window. The Book House survives because people like to touch, smell, and read through books, as if to imagine them as creatures with a life history to share.

This place is for the sandcastle-builders among us: We’ve got to gently work the material to create a foundation that protects our castles from washing away into the sea. Kristen Eide-Tollefson is the queen of the sandcastle, and those of us who choose to enter her brain/store are the knights who will preserve the Book House’s literary design.

Since 1976, the Book House has evolved into an archive-like bookstore, with one of the largest collections of rare, out-of-print, and obscure books that is constantly changing due to the nature of being a store and not a library. Was this your intention when the Book House first opened?

The Book House has always been about stewardship: the stewardship of the book as a physical object and the collection as a temporary embodiment of a particular perspective.

In 1976, my husband at the time, and I were contacted by another academic book dealer who was part of the collective of used book dealers in a suite of 2nd floor rooms, in what old timers call "the hotel." His library sales had fallen off too and he needed an outlet, and saw opportunity for a bookstore focused primarily on academic collections. He called us to take a look at a new space opening at street level on 14th Avenue.

Three twenty-four hour days later we were in business as The Book House in Dinkytown. We have always resembled a sort of open archive. The flow of books and collections has been like a moving bridge between generations.

How have your objectives changed?

While our objectives have not changed, how people use the store has changed significantly. In the days before the Internet, browsing through The Book House functioned something like a collective unconscious. Folks have come in with a keyword or idea, going into browsing mode, and have found books or chapters in the middle of books that are precisely what they were either looking for. This mysterious function (William James addressed it in his 'theory of attention') has always been part of the mystique and lore of The Book House. The art of browsing is being transferred increasingly to the Internet.

How has the advent of the Internet redefined bookselling?

The book business has changed more in the last thirteen years than in all the four hundred plus years previous to this.

The treasure hunt for books in the past took people to stores all over the country and it usually took a lifetime to complete most collections. Now this same function can be done over the Internet, worldwide in nanoseconds.

The Internet has made the new and used book businesses, in many ways, one. There are fewer strictly used bookstores every year. New and used copies compete in the same database. The way to compete is to allow the Internet database servers to constantly modify the price of your books to the bottom line of cost -- often without due consideration of condition or edition.

On the other hand, it’s easier to sell an expensive book online than ever before. And this makes investing in better books more viable. So much of our old material is of interest to folks in other parts of the world. And we, still, offer it reasonably priced.

Besides having access to the physical object, what separates a bookstore like yours from an online purchase?

Our collection is diverse within and among sections. We have no censorship policies other than smut and vicious bigotry and anti-Semitic tracts.

In a largely male-dominated bookselling world, do you feel that you have had to prove yourself as a woman?

I think the proving has had more to do with being established and sustaining myself as an independent businesswoman, than as a bookseller. I inherited, through a thirteen-year apprenticeship, book knowledge and credibility from my former husband, who made sure that I had at least one foot in old time bookselling by visits to bookstores and old-time book dealers across the country.

My mentor and I once drove all the way to California to visit Peggy Christianson, a Los Angeles book dealer, before she retired -- because she was the only woman book dealer he knew. We also spent time with the deeply respected Chicago rare book duo. Partnerships of spouses became more common in the eighties. Women booksellers carried on after divorce or death.

So, would you say that most women in the book-business came to it through men?

Now there is a new generation of truly independent women booksellers. Mentoring these women is gratifying.

What are some of the tidal waves that independent booksellers are paddling against?

It’s kind of a global climate change for the book business. Globalization and corporatization are two of the major environmental factors affecting bookselling. As things become more and more centralized and controlled, they become less sustainable.

Do consumers have power to reduce the tidal wave?

I believe that culture making is not a luxury; it is a fundamental, sustaining function of society. And we must fall back onto remaking it ourselves. As long as there is a social need for independent minds, I believe that there will be a call for independent bookstores. There is the specter of our increasing dependence, particularly on Amazon. This is a very slippery slope, this dependence.

Do you think a bookstore needs to specialize in at least one topic, in order to establish an identity?

Yes, I do. I think that special areas of knowledge give a bookstore credence and distinction. People will bring you what they associate with you.

Why does your store have an expansive Jungian section?

I came upon the notion of the collective unconscious through Jung's work and this appealed to me very much. It is also the foundation of my interest in folklore. The Jungians became part of my community when I was divorced in 1988, took over the store, and established Mythos Institute with my partner, Ted in 1990.

Along with Jung, you have a special appreciation of mythology and folklore. Is there a story behind this interest?

As a child, I collected stories -- not books, my mom wouldn't allow that kind of excess. Stories of the imagination: fairy tales and mythology were my favorites. The realm of the imagination was my playground.

I knew the power of story to shape and create worlds. When I needed to expand my collecting arena as we traveled to buy books, I decided to collect folklore and mythology.

I remember when I had created the core of the collection that is now fifteen thousand volumes, in the library of our house in Stillwater. I was reading at my desk, and suddenly became overwhelmed with all of the book voices around me. I called out, "what do you want of me?" In that half conscious, half sub-conscious realm of the collector, this seems to still be a good question.

The folklore movement arose in the mid-1800s as a response to the disappearance of the village, and the village way of life. I believe that there is, in ritual, folklore and mythological traditions some of the fundamental tools of the social infrastructure of humankind that we need to recover.

Do you have a favorite book?

If I were to name one favorite book that is not Peter Pan, my childhood favorite, it might be Heraclitus's Fragments, a series of aphoristic bits of wisdom from ancient Greece when they were still inventing philosophy and it was still tied to the even more ancient oracular, earth based wisdom traditions. It’s a bit eccentric.