By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
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By Michelle LeBow
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In his family and his suburb, Ayotte was a square peg. His dad was a colonel in the Army and his brother wanted to be an airborne Ranger. A bit of a nerd, Ayotte felt at home among the misfits at Shinders.
"It was always a place where I would go where people understood you, who knew about things that are important to you," he says. "I've been going there every week since."
Seventeen years later, when Ayotte started working toward a degree in comic art at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he went to work at the downtown Shinders. He didn't care that he made just $8 an hour.
"We were all geeks from the suburbs and we got to work for a cool store in the heart of the city," he says. "I would do anything for those guys."
But soon the geek nirvana may be no more. Thanks to the fallout from owner Robert Weisberg's legal entanglements and a recently concluded civil case brought by creditors, the books and magazines chain has been put in the hands of a court-appointed receiver. In recent weeks, four of its 13 metro-area stores have closed.
Weisberg is a well-known criminal attorney and the owner of several businesses, including a collection agency and the Adult Only Superstore, a porn shop in Minneapolis's warehouse district. He bought the 91-year-old Shinders chain in 2003 from the Shinder family.
Weisberg's attorney declined to comment for this story, as did a Shinders spokeswoman, who refused to talk unless City Pages would guarantee "sympathetic" coverage. But Weisberg's collapse and his employees' struggles to keep the business going are detailed in several Hennepin County District Court files.
On June 14, officers from the Anoka-Hennepin Drug Task Force pulled Weisberg over near the intersection of highways 169 and 55 in Plymouth. Inside his white Dodge van, the cops found a digital scale, needles, three tablets of ecstasy, and 6.1 grams of meth. Behind the front seat was a .40-caliber submachine gun.
Weisberg was charged with possessing meth and ecstasy. He pleaded not guilty and was released on $30,000 bail.
Shortly afterward, he failed to submit a required financial report to Wells Fargo, which had loaned him $500,000 to keep Shinders afloat. Wells Fargo sent an auditor to survey Shinders' inventory, which served as the loan's collateral. Employees barred the door, saying they were under orders not to let the auditor inside. Wells Fargo turned to the courts, which appointed a receiver, Timothy Becker of Lighthouse Management Group, to find the money to repay the bank.
The books showed Shinders had lost $884,247 in the first eight months of 2006, and had transferred $238,391 to Weisberg's Adult Only Superstore, according to court documents. Becker asked Weisberg to return two company vans and turn over his keys to the offices, but Weisberg asked if he could "come by the office after hours to clean up his office before letting anyone inside because, he said, it was embarrassingly messy."
A few days later, Becker discovered that the warehouse had been broken into. Missing was a snowblower, a computer, several dozen DVDs, and many cartons of cigarettes, according to a report Becker filed with the court. Employees also said a large amount of sports memorabilia had been stolen, including signed Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky jerseys.
A lock had been broken and the rear door damaged, but the alarm had not gone off. A call to the alarm company revealed that five months before, Weisberg had asked for a "ghost code" that would disarm the system but not show up on its logs. The alarm company's records indicated that the ghost code was used at 3:59 a.m. on the day of the robbery.
Because the inventory was already the subject of Wells Fargo's civil case, Minneapolis police didn't pursue the matter. The receiver sold some of the remaining inventory, valued at $1 million, and repaid Wells Fargo $474,581. The state collected $48,331 in taxes, and the court approved Lighthouse Management's $58,636 fee. About $55,000 was left for Shinders.
In March, Weisberg asked the court to suppress the drug evidence found in his van, arguing that police had no probable cause for the search. A month later, he failed to show up for a hearing in his drug case. A warrant was issued for his arrest; a spokeswoman for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office says efforts are being made to bring him into custody.
Today, Shinders doesn't have enough merchandise to keep anyone browsing for long. On a recent weeknight, a rack near the register at the downtown store held two copies of James Frey's fake autobiography A Million Little Pieces, marked down by half. On the magazine stands, single copies of Men's Vogue were fanned out to make the sparse rack look full. The crafts section held four quilting titles, but precious little else.
Ayotte, who left Shinders to take a catering job, hopes that the chain somehow manages to survive. When he was growing up, his parents would take him downtown and let him visit the flagship newsstand on Hennepin. It was a hive of people with tattoos and Mohawks, with lives more exciting than his own, he recalls. "God, I could be in there for hours."