Stay Hungry

Surviving the book wars and outfoxing the wolves with the Hungry Mind's David Unowsky

His success and the survival of his Hungry Mind rest on the long-shot proposition that he can expand his small, tidy store into a small, tidy empire without becoming one of the corporate juggernauts he loathes, that the incursion of chain stores and, more recently, Internet retailers will never wipe out independents, and, most important, that the people who buy books from him will continue to see the survival of indie bookstores as the same sacred crusade against intellectual tyranny that he has long held it to be.

The irony of the situation is that just as chains once captured the market by copying the atmosphere of indies, independents like the Hungry Mind may survive only by learning to act like superstores.

In the chaotic world of bookselling, David Unowsky is widely regarded as something of a savant. He is a "warrior" to his staff and "one of the most creative minds in the industry" to fellow independent Joyce Meskis, who runs the Tattered Cover Book Stores in Denver and who served with Unowsky on the board of the ABA in the late '80s. Stu Abraham, a book buyer with Twin Cities-based Abraham and Associates, calls him "one of the smartest and most principled people in the book industry left in the country," with a gift for "thinking of everything before it happens." Who better, then, to explain what the shifting dynamics of the industry might mean for independent bookstores?

Christopher Henderson

A week after the end of Book Expo, Unowsky agrees to a meeting in the Table of Contents restaurant adjoining his bookstore to talk about the Hungry Mind empire. Unowsky conducts his business over coffee because he doesn't have an office. According to his employees, he operates out of the pocket of his shirt and co-opts the space in which he happens to be standing at the moment as his headquarters. There is a desk for the store owner wedged into a corner of the small upstairs accounting office, but it is of the dimensions usually reserved for elementary school children and is often cluttered with an impossible mountain of unopened mail. When Unowsky arrives, the notoriously cantankerous don of independents seems in relatively high spirits. "Need coffee," he mumbles.

Taking a table near the window, Unowsky slips into media-relations mode. "It's an upswing for independents in a lot of ways," he begins. "A lot of us feel like we've weathered the storm and come out the other side."

"Of course," he adds quickly, "there are some of us who think we're just in the eye of the storm, and the other half is still coming. There's a sense that we've gotten through the tough times, but there are still some of us who could go under tomorrow. Who knows what the hell the future's going to be?"

At 57 and 29 years old respectively, Unowsky and the Hungry Mind both exude an aura of scruffy vitality. Broad-shouldered and bespectacled, Unowsky looks as though he would be equally comfortable in command of a factory floor or a steel mill. He has a round, serious face and a demeanor that tends toward casual irritability. His slightly tousled gray hair and informal attire, jeans and an unbuttoned button-down shirt, reflect the rumpled, no-nonsense persona of a man that some Hungry Mind staffers describe as "a bear with a heart like a marshmallow." He speaks in clipped phrases and gesticulates generously, especially when talking about books, which he likes, baseball, which he loves, and chain bookstores, which he loathes.

Despite the presence of new Barnes and Noble superstores almost within spitting distance of the Hungry Mind, Unowsky notes that business has been good. There is usually a lag in revenue when his neighbor and landlord, Macalester College, goes on vacation, but sales are up slightly from last year. The 5,000-square-foot main bookstore on St. Paul's Grand Avenue stocks around 100,000 titles and does a respectable three million dollars in business annually. The Expanded Mind, a smaller bargain book outlet down the block, is also prospering as the campus bookstore for Macalester College. The Hungry Mind Press, which Unowsky founded in 1995 with his second wife, Pearl Kilbride, is chugging along, and the nationally circulated Hungry Mind Review, which he started in 1986, is finally turning a small profit after more than a decade in the red. In addition, plans are in the works for a new 3,500-square-foot, 40,000-book satellite store in downtown Minneapolis, in the new Open Book literary center on Washington Avenue between Tenth and Eleventh avenues. With an uncharacteristically overt pride in his gravelly voice, Unowsky also mentions that he has been selected as Honorary Grand Marshal for this year's Grand Old Day Parade.

That the Hungry Mind is not only surviving but expanding would appear to make it something of an anomaly in the indie world. Certainly, quarterly cash infusions from Macalester students (who have been known to call the store "The Hungry Wallet") has something to do with it. But a casual poke around the store's narrow aisles also reveals a calculated marketing strategy. The book selection is eclectic and expansive, including everything from thick volumes of academic esoterica and limited-edition poetry collections from small presses to Lolita on tape and Martha Stewart's latest textbook for the domestically challenged. Handwritten staff recommendations provide context for the conscientious browser, from intimidating minidissertations written in the neologistic jargon of comparative lit grad students to simple raves like "What can I say about a book that changed my life."

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