Paper Trail

How five loudmouth newsies built an information dynasty.

Arguably the most sensational incident in Shinder's history came at the height of the Minneapolis City Council's attempts to declare pornography a violation of women's civil rights. On July 10, 1984, Ruth L. Christenson walked into the store at 628 Hennepin, doused herself with gasoline, and lit a match. The headline in the Star Tribune read: "Woman who set herself afire blamed troubles on pornography."

Through all the public squalls, however, Shinder's thrived. There is an irony--and perhaps more--in the fact that Shinder's newsstands were expanding into the suburbs even as old-school porn peddlers like Ferris Alexander were being hectored into extinction. Their customers needed an alternative, and Shinder's discreet, by-the-book approach left few openings for even the most dedicated anti-porn crusaders. The suburban locations still attract the occasional demonstration, but Shinder says the last decade has been mostly quiet.

"People seem to have gotten smarter about what the real problems are," he offers. "In a bookstore the access is always going to be limited to people who really want to view these materials. But now, with the Internet and phone lines and satellite television, it's much more difficult to control accessibility in the home. How are you going to police something like that?"

Craig Lassig

MINNEAPOLIS ROCKER Curt Almstead (Curtiss A) started working at the Hennepin Avenue Shinder's the afternoon Ruth Christenson set herself on fire. "It was kind of an ominous beginning," he now remembers. "That was always a wild place to work. They fired me--and they don't tell you the reason why they fire you, although there could have been many legitimate reasons; let's just say my attitude and comportment were not exactly exemplary."

You hear that kind of story a lot when you talk to people who have worked for Shinder. It's a fox-in-the-chicken-coop thing: The company depends on the niche expertise and the enthusiasm of its young employees, and they inevitably end up eating a few eggs. And then lots of eggs. "It's real easy to rationalize stealing from them," says another former employee. "I started working for them on credit when I was 14 years old. They'd give you like $3.00 an hour store credit. All the kids who worked on credit were called the Angels--probably because we were a gift from God.

"Anyway, they basically teach you to lowball customers on stuff like sports cards and comics, and then you'd see their markup on stuff, and what they're paying you, and it wasn't hard to do the math. It just really fostered a climate of indifference. I mean, after four years there I was making $5.50 an hour, so what did I care? Everybody was in on it; we called it 'The Game.'

"You'd learn all sorts of new tricks from the other people who worked there, till games, stuff like that. We'd play poker using unopened wax packs of baseball cards. Everybody would open their pack and whoever had the highest total book value in their pack got 'em all. It's funny, though, because the guy who basically taught me how to steal is a guy who ended up going downtown and becoming some kind of big shot."

But keep former employees talking long enough, let them bitch and tattle and grouse, and you'll virtually always eventually hear the same refrain. "Despite all the bullshit you have to put up with, and despite the fact that I got fired," one Shinder's alum says, "it was still the funnest job I've ever had, hands down. You get to listen to music, wear whatever you want, and hang out with cool and interesting people. It's a total boys' club." One former employee in a suburban store remembers his experience as "a real sort of Oliver Twist scene. This pack of wild boys with a pretty elaborate pecking order and series of initiations. It was a very crude, fun place to work."

"I loved the job," Curtiss A says. "I love efficiency, for one thing, and those guys are total efficiency experts. There's always so much to do that time goes by quickly, and you couldn't beat the characters down there on Block E. You can learn so much Jeopardy stuff just hanging out in there.

"You go in there and you see these guys, these employees, who look like members of Jim Rose's circus. Anybody that goes in those stores can see that he gives people a chance to work for him that would fit in almost nowhere else."

IN 1988 JOEL Shinder lost his battle to preserve the original family newsstand when Block E was finally razed. He had by that time resigned himself to the wrecking ball's eventuality and quickly finalized relocating his Block E stores downtown (to the corner of Eighth and Hennepin in a former Burger King space, and a block over on Nicollet Mall). He had also begun an ambitious expansion into St. Paul and the suburbs. There are today 13 metropolitan Shinder's stores, from Eden Prairie to Inver Grove Heights.

The five original Shinder brothers are all now dead, and whatever family feud there once was is buried with the rubble of Block E. But the sign in the entryway of the Hennepin Avenue store still says, "The Original Shinder's--Since 1916." It's a hint that despite his suburban prosperity, Shinder--who runs the business from offices above the store on Nicollet--holds out hope for the avenue.

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