Stay Hungry

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

All of it is designed to let customers know that the Hungry Mind is more than an alternative to the chain stores. It is a store with an ideology, and spending a bit more to shop here is also a political statement. Unowsky and his staff actively perpetuate the store's mythology: The in-house reading series and Hungry Mind Review are all designed to lure the local cognoscenti with the promise of an authentic literary experience.

"For book lovers," says Nancy Gaschott, administrative director of the Loft, "the Hungry Mind holds a special place in the heart, not just as a bookseller, but as a presenter of literary events." Indeed, the Hungry Mind Reading Series, which brings in 250 authors annually for book signings and public readings in either the back of the bookstore or Macalester's Weyerhaeuser Chapel, has become a touchstone for the local literary community. Like the non-profit Hungry Mind Press, which publishes mostly out-of-print literary nonfiction such as New Yorker scribe Lawrence Weschler's A Wanderer in the Perfect City, the reading series and the Review give the bookstore the added gloss of a cultural institution.

Accordingly, when the Hungry Mind opens its new Minneapolis store, it will not be so much an expansion of the business as an expansion of Unowsky's sphere of influence. The Open Book center--a joint project with the Loft, Milkweed Editions, and the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts--is, Unowsky admits, something of a financial gamble. "I'm being very cautious about this. History is full of people who opened a second store and went down the drain."

Christopher Henderson

As if expansion were not in itself a risky enough wager, the location of the new facility, near the Metrodome, is generally considered a retail dead zone, with little parking and almost no pedestrian traffic. There is also a gargantuan Barnes and Noble a short jaunt away. "People who walk in the skyways downtown are fickle about going ten feet out of their way," says Abraham. "Opening a bookstore down there certainly isn't something you do to make a fortune."

Yet for Unowsky, it looks like a good bet. The Hungry Mind's vitality depends on its image as a community nexus, and even if the new store does not draw business from Barnes and Noble, it will draw the attention of the literary crowd.

Atmosphere sells the Hungry Mind, and that, too, has a lot to do with David Unowsky. Melanie Miller, a ten-year veteran of the store, likes to tell the story of a fresh-faced college kid who walked in a few years ago and inquired about a job. With the artless candor of a college kid, he asked Unowsky about the dress code for employees. Unowsky looked him over and rumbled, "Cover yourself." And that was it: casual, gruff, pragmatic. Here was a place where employees could go barefoot if they cared to, bring their dogs in for visits, and collect fees from bounced checks to buy beer for the refrigerator in back. "He hired me because I could lift 50 pounds of potatoes," Miller claims. "That's just the kind of guy he is. If there ever was a person whose bark is worse than his bite, it's David."

Everyone who works in the Hungry Mind talks about the influence of the store's curmudgeon in chief. Most also do a passable Unowsky impression, which generally involves growling and crowding words into short, blunt phrases. Yet when they talk about Unowsky, the staff members mix their affectionate caricatures with a near-reverence. According to Carolyn Kuebler, who worked as a sales clerk and an editor for the store newsletter before cofounding Rain Taxi Review of Books, even the low-wage part-time employees who receive St. Paul Saints tickets in lieu of health insurance have a healthy regard for Unowsky. "He knows how to pick out employees with guilt complexes. That's what keeps the store running. He makes you feel like you're saving the world if you put in extra hours doing the books."

Richard Fuller, a small, intense man with a mane of gray hair and a well-tended beard, has been working as Unowsky's left-hand man and de facto steward for 11 years. As we talk, he is standing in the cramped and dimly lit rear office, near the back alley where staff smokers congregate and where Unowsky has been known to conduct meetings. Fuller offers a "free association" judgment of his boss' character. "The marketplace is both a commercial location and a place where free ideas are exchanged between free people." He pauses for a breath before launching into another sound bite. "David is very constitutionally minded. He's a believer in free speech who would risk death to defend it."

"In the classical sense, though, not the neoliberal Nazi sense," adds another young staffer, who disappears into the labyrinth of books and cardboard boxes without elaboration.

"Yes," continues Fuller, "without being authoritarian. He expects you to be honorable and decent. He's got a '60s social conscience." Among the virtues that store staffers praise--including Unowsky's uncanny ability to add large numbers in his head and quote from an encyclopedic knowledge of old movies--his iconoclastic politics rank among the first. Fuller recalls a decision a few years ago to stock Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, after Barnes and Noble stores had pulled it because of bomb threats. (The Rushdie incident is an oft-cited bit of the indie rhetorical vocabulary. Andy Ross of Cody's Books in Berkeley also remembers the Rushdie controversy: His store, too, refused to pull the book and ended up with a Molotov cocktail thrown through the front window.)

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