Stay Hungry

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

Unowsky also supports the varied, and sometimes radical, political activities of his own staff. A few months ago, for instance, salesperson Emily Lindell mentioned to her boss that she was living full time in the impromptu encampment of activists protesting the Hwy. 55 reroute in South Minneapolis. She asked Unowsky in advance for time off in the event that she was arrested; Unowsky promptly offered to bail her out of jail if need be.

Though Unowsky's employees paint a convincing picture of a basically amicable ex-hippie who disdains traditional managerial hierarchy and bureaucratic excess, they also admit that he is something of an ideologue. "He's a warrior," says Fuller, "The one thing he cannot forgive is disloyalty." Like any good general, he gives each incoming worker a lecture on the sad state of the book industry and the Hungry Mind's essential mission in preserving the survival of free society. Indeed, the common metaphor invoked by Hungry Mind boosters is that of a bastion of intellectualism under siege by corporate-led armies of ignorance.

 

From the beginning, David Unowsky has treated the literary business as a crusade. In 1964, shortly after graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in psychology, he was a newly married and underemployed young man who loved to read and who hated the war in Vietnam. He took a string of odd jobs, schlepping groceries for Applebaum's Supermarket and delivering Fuller brushes to traveling salesmen working out of their cars. He also worked as a shipping clerk in his father's liquor warehouse, which folded in the late '60s.

Eventually, as antiwar protest intensified, he began campaigning heavily for presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. He tamed his unruly hair, trimmed his sideburns, and lost his drooping mustache--going "clean for Gene," as the slogan went. Together with his then-wife, who unbeknownst to Unowsky was pregnant with the first of two sons, he drove to Whiting, Indiana, a depressed and depressing industrial town near Gary, and began door-to-door canvassing. As he describes it 30 years later, it was "a lesson in American civics." The residents of Whiting, who were almost all employed by either Standard Oil or U.S. Steel, had been herded toward the mainstream Democratic agenda by their labor unions. Unowsky saw people who had been marooned by an economic downturn in United States industry and who had also lost their political agency. "It was quite interesting," he recalls. "They all wanted to talk and they loved the attention. But they'd had all their options taken away."

Upon returning to St. Paul, Unowsky gravitated back to the area around Macalester College, which was then a center of antiwar protest and countercultural (read: hippie) activity. As he describes it, the idea of starting a bookstore began as a modest impulse: "I woke up one morning and decided I was going to start selling books." Yet, he says, it was also a political statement: Disseminate as many ideas and opinions as possible and give people their options back.

He found a storefront space across the street from the store's current location, and started the Hungry Mind. Although Grand Avenue was at its least grand at the time--boarded-up storefronts and tiny markets occupied the majority of neighborhood retail space--the burgeoning college campus next-door with its captive population of voracious readers kept business comfortably brisk. (Borders, it bears noting, shares a similar origin; the mega media merchant began with a simple campus bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the early '80s.)

When Unowsky opened his little shop, the major competitors in the Twin Cities market were department stores like Dayton's. Eventually, in 1968, however, the nation's first major chain bookstore, B. Dalton, appeared in Minneapolis. After a few shaky years in which one of the store's employees slept in the back room and Unowsky had to take a second or third job to pay the rent, he signed a lease agreement with Macalester and began a symbiotic relationship with the college. In '72, the Hungry Mind moved into a college-owned building across the street--a converted car-repair garage without a front window. Macalester acted as the store's landlord and accountant, and, in turn, the Hungry Mind became the campus bookstore.

Meanwhile, B. Dalton was swallowed by Barnes and Noble, and smaller discount stores like Pickwick folded within a few years of opening their doors. Unowsky recalls the July 4 morning in 1983 when Dayton's closed its unprofitable Pickwick stores--he was standing on the sidewalk out front, shaking his fist and hooting. Safe in the bosom of Macalester and located in what was fast becoming a profitable retail strip, the Hungry Mind grew steadily and continued to turn what he sardonically calls a "ridiculously low" profit.

Then the superstores hit town. When Barnes and Noble arrived in 1991, there were a dozen general-interest independents in the Twin Cities. According to Unowsky, the superstores, which are called "big-box category killers" in the esoteric parlance of the industry, began actively trying to bump off their Lilliputian competitors. He likens their strategy to that of Wal-Mart, which expanded aggressively into small-town markets, drove corner drugstores and grocers out of business by undercutting prices, and then raised prices back to profitable levels when they were the only merchant left standing. Because Barnes and Noble had the capital to take enormous losses in overstocking fees and marketing expenses, they could also afford deep discounting that would send an independent reeling into bankruptcy. In 1996 Odegard's folded quietly, followed a couple of years later by Baxter's Books in downtown Minneapolis.

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