Paper Trail

How five loudmouth newsies built an information dynasty.

Rain, sun, snow, or sleet, there's always a Shinder on the street.

This, you can't help thinking, is what a big city should feel like at 10:30 on a Thursday night. The cramped aisles of the Hennepin Avenue Shinder's are crowded with browsers representing a tidy, if limited, collection of urban archetypes: a few career slaves with trench coats and briefcases. A guy in a grimy snowmobile suit toting a backpack. A couple of teenagers sporting nose and eyebrow studs and toting skateboards. An MTC driver. The usual assortment of mutterers, loiterers, and midnight cowboys.

Shinder's has taken the notion of "something for everyone" to almost frightening extremes. This is the library of Babel as retail business: You could scrounge the Internet until you're blind and you wouldn't begin to touch the comprehensive mix of information, entertainment, and sheer predilection that is the Shinder's signature. It all seems to be here: everything from the prosaic to the prurient, all the staples of American identity and obsession, fine-tuned to glossy absurdity. Fat Fendered Street Rods, LandRover World, Wallpaper, Modern Ferret, Big Fuckin' Tits.

Craig Lassig

Shinder's is the original wise-guy academy, the school of hard knocks and big knockers. But while they still have everything for the racing-form and Swisher Sweets set, they now also serve as news and information headquarters for wonks and wankers and wannabes of every sort. There is in every one of the stores an almost perfect balance between sophistication and seediness, class and trash. Blue-hair arts and crafts, home decorating and cooking, Asian cult cinema, word-search puzzles galore for the bus ride to the casino or the trip to the laundromat, and literally hundreds of automobile, hot-rod, and motorcycle publications. Magazines for crackpots, potheads, swingers, swing fans, body boarders, body artists, home brewers, and home schoolers.

Shinder's is geekdom's one-stop shopping--comic books and sports cards, Mad magazine, Star Wars and Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic the Gathering, candy bars, and Mountain Dew. For the gun nut in the family there is plentiful diversion as well, including Combat Handguns and Shotgun News. You can get Houseboat, Hot Boat, and Woodenboat. Or Dog World, Dog Fancy, Dogs Today, Dogs Quarterly, Pet Dog, North American Dog. You can pick up a videotape of Deep Throat, a $20 Dominican cigar, or a 1971 Pete Maravich rookie card for $89.99. For the homesick expatriate there is an unrivaled assortment of foreign newspapers and magazines, everything from British tabloids ("My Love For Nanny Louise") to Al Ahram Weekly; Die Aktuelle to three different Irish papers.

The porn is there, in all 13 metropolitan Shinder's locations, but its presence and accessibility feel almost like a tacit agreement between management and customer. The Yellow Pages ad for Shinder's makes no mention of it, and the "Adult Materials" section is a walled little corral in each of the stores, accessible through swinging doors downtown, a veritable anonymous fortress in the belly of the suburban locations.

"We're always more than happy to carry everything," says Clem Fortman, an 11-year Shinder's employee and now the manager of the Hennepin Avenue store. "Stuff takes off and we ride those booms whenever they come along, but over the long haul we really have to depend on the mix to survive."

And you really have to hand it to them. Through a combination of luck, timing, name recognition, unusual business acumen, and dogged persistence, Shinder's has survived two World Wars, a Cold War and a Depression, urban upheaval and suburban flight, family feuds, morals snits, major industry sea changes, and in the last decade it has taken to the suburbs without sacrificing the character of its Hennepin Avenue origins. The triumph of Shinder's is the triumph of old-city idiosyncrasy. It is almost a triumph over history itself.

AARON SHINDER WAS a junk peddler who emigrated with his family to North Minneapolis from Russia in 1911. The oldest of his five sons, Al and Harry, started selling newspapers on the avenue as boys; in 1916, when they were 17 and 15 years old, they bought a corner stand at Sixth and Hennepin, just outside the Walter Short Owl cigar store. They were eventually joined in business by their younger brothers, Hy, Daniel, and Bill. It was a good location, right in the middle of the then-thriving theater district, fronted by a streetcar line, surrounded by industry, and flanked on all sides by hotels, restaurants, speakeasies, and shops up and down Hennepin.

Throughout the vaudeville boom of the 1920s more than a dozen theaters along the avenue played host to everything from the Marx Brothers to Sarah Bernhardt, and right up until the market crash at the end of the decade downtown was roaring with prosperity. The Shinder brothers were right in the thick of it, working the sidewalk with a noisy spiel that was part carny, part oracle. They sold newspapers to gangsters, politicians, theater stars, munitions workers, immigrants just off the train and looking for work in the factories and warehouses over on First Avenue. Edward G. Robinson, Mae West, Burns and Allen, and Eddie Cantor were among the celebrities who stopped by to pick up out-of-town newspapers.

"Newsboys in what they holler every day--even if they don't know it--actually record the city's history like no other method does," Harry Shinder wrote in the Minneapolis Star in the 1950s. "As I look back over some of the banner lines about which I've shouted I see a very clear record of Minneapolis, its vices, its beauties, its tragedies, its progress."

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