Paper Trail

Craig Lassig

Rain, sun, snow, or sleet, there's always a Shinder on the street.

This, you can't help thinking, is what a big city should feel like at 10:30 on a Thursday night. The cramped aisles of the Hennepin Avenue Shinder's are crowded with browsers representing a tidy, if limited, collection of urban archetypes: a few career slaves with trench coats and briefcases. A guy in a grimy snowmobile suit toting a backpack. A couple of teenagers sporting nose and eyebrow studs and toting skateboards. An MTC driver. The usual assortment of mutterers, loiterers, and midnight cowboys.

Shinder's has taken the notion of "something for everyone" to almost frightening extremes. This is the library of Babel as retail business: You could scrounge the Internet until you're blind and you wouldn't begin to touch the comprehensive mix of information, entertainment, and sheer predilection that is the Shinder's signature. It all seems to be here: everything from the prosaic to the prurient, all the staples of American identity and obsession, fine-tuned to glossy absurdity. Fat Fendered Street Rods, LandRover World, Wallpaper, Modern Ferret, Big Fuckin' Tits.

Shinder's is the original wise-guy academy, the school of hard knocks and big knockers. But while they still have everything for the racing-form and Swisher Sweets set, they now also serve as news and information headquarters for wonks and wankers and wannabes of every sort. There is in every one of the stores an almost perfect balance between sophistication and seediness, class and trash. Blue-hair arts and crafts, home decorating and cooking, Asian cult cinema, word-search puzzles galore for the bus ride to the casino or the trip to the laundromat, and literally hundreds of automobile, hot-rod, and motorcycle publications. Magazines for crackpots, potheads, swingers, swing fans, body boarders, body artists, home brewers, and home schoolers.

Shinder's is geekdom's one-stop shopping--comic books and sports cards, Mad magazine, Star Wars and Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic the Gathering, candy bars, and Mountain Dew. For the gun nut in the family there is plentiful diversion as well, including Combat Handguns and Shotgun News. You can get Houseboat, Hot Boat, and Woodenboat. Or Dog World, Dog Fancy, Dogs Today, Dogs Quarterly, Pet Dog, North American Dog. You can pick up a videotape of Deep Throat, a $20 Dominican cigar, or a 1971 Pete Maravich rookie card for $89.99. For the homesick expatriate there is an unrivaled assortment of foreign newspapers and magazines, everything from British tabloids ("My Love For Nanny Louise") to Al Ahram Weekly; Die Aktuelle to three different Irish papers.

The porn is there, in all 13 metropolitan Shinder's locations, but its presence and accessibility feel almost like a tacit agreement between management and customer. The Yellow Pages ad for Shinder's makes no mention of it, and the "Adult Materials" section is a walled little corral in each of the stores, accessible through swinging doors downtown, a veritable anonymous fortress in the belly of the suburban locations.

"We're always more than happy to carry everything," says Clem Fortman, an 11-year Shinder's employee and now the manager of the Hennepin Avenue store. "Stuff takes off and we ride those booms whenever they come along, but over the long haul we really have to depend on the mix to survive."

And you really have to hand it to them. Through a combination of luck, timing, name recognition, unusual business acumen, and dogged persistence, Shinder's has survived two World Wars, a Cold War and a Depression, urban upheaval and suburban flight, family feuds, morals snits, major industry sea changes, and in the last decade it has taken to the suburbs without sacrificing the character of its Hennepin Avenue origins. The triumph of Shinder's is the triumph of old-city idiosyncrasy. It is almost a triumph over history itself.

AARON SHINDER WAS a junk peddler who emigrated with his family to North Minneapolis from Russia in 1911. The oldest of his five sons, Al and Harry, started selling newspapers on the avenue as boys; in 1916, when they were 17 and 15 years old, they bought a corner stand at Sixth and Hennepin, just outside the Walter Short Owl cigar store. They were eventually joined in business by their younger brothers, Hy, Daniel, and Bill. It was a good location, right in the middle of the then-thriving theater district, fronted by a streetcar line, surrounded by industry, and flanked on all sides by hotels, restaurants, speakeasies, and shops up and down Hennepin.

Throughout the vaudeville boom of the 1920s more than a dozen theaters along the avenue played host to everything from the Marx Brothers to Sarah Bernhardt, and right up until the market crash at the end of the decade downtown was roaring with prosperity. The Shinder brothers were right in the thick of it, working the sidewalk with a noisy spiel that was part carny, part oracle. They sold newspapers to gangsters, politicians, theater stars, munitions workers, immigrants just off the train and looking for work in the factories and warehouses over on First Avenue. Edward G. Robinson, Mae West, Burns and Allen, and Eddie Cantor were among the celebrities who stopped by to pick up out-of-town newspapers.  

"Newsboys in what they holler every day--even if they don't know it--actually record the city's history like no other method does," Harry Shinder wrote in the Minneapolis Star in the 1950s. "As I look back over some of the banner lines about which I've shouted I see a very clear record of Minneapolis, its vices, its beauties, its tragedies, its progress."

The Depression was Hennepin Avenue's first serious kick in the teeth, and throughout the 1930s and '40s many of downtown's most storied theaters, bars, and hotels disappeared. The Shinder's newsstand, however, continued to expand. Economic collapse, labor strife, war, even local newspaper strikes were all good for business. Four times a day the Shinder brothers would make trips to the post office or the railroad station to pick up incoming papers and magazines, and at least one of them was out there on the corner at Sixth and Hennepin 24 hours a day. By the mid-'40s they were selling upwards of 3,000 daily newspapers and 900 magazines a day.

Morton Silverman remembers the Shinder's newsstand as one of Minneapolis's postwar focal points, during the avenue's last real boom days. The brothers were Silverman's uncles on his mother's side; his father, Ruben, was the owner of the huge Great Northern Market on the same corner of Hennepin as the newsstand. "There were at least five full-service markets on Hennepin Avenue back then," Silverman says, "and my father's store had a meat case 100 feet long, with 100 butchers working side by side. Everything was full-service in those days. My mother Mary was a Shinder, and my father was very close to my uncle Hy in particular. They did a lot of things together, both socially and as businessmen.

"There was then no such thing as Minnesota Nice. Minneapolis was at that time a hotbed of anti-Semitism. Jews couldn't belong to certain clubs, and my father found he couldn't get a job with a chemistry degree. So Jews basically had to create their own opportunities, and in doing so they made a lot of good things happen on Hennepin Avenue. People like my uncle Hy and my father really broke down a lot of the barriers. They'd throw big parties at the Grain Belt brewery for the police department, as appreciation for the work the beat cops did on the avenue. And my father and Hy were both very active in the Masons--there was a lodge right downtown then, Minneapolis 19, the Sunlight Lodge--and they'd put on big turkey dinners for Christmas.

"Shinder's was just a tremendously important force on Hennepin Avenue, and there was still such a vibrant scene down there then. When you got on the streetcar to go downtown there were a lot of different languages being spoken. My parents wouldn't think twice about letting me take the streetcar downtown on my own from North Minneapolis. It was completely safe, and as soon as I got off that streetcar on the avenue everybody knew my name."

In 1946 the Minneapolis Tribune observed the brothers' 35th anniversary of selling newspapers on Hennepin Avenue. "Few popular men can count as rich a cross section of people as friends, acquaintances and customers," the article noted. "'We know bankers, grain merchants, clergy and the underworld as well,' Albert admits. 'Nobody knows the trouble we've seen on this corner.' The Shinders watched Moss Hart and Roy Rogers engage in a running gun battle along Sixth Street, observed the truck drivers' strike, saw men fall from buildings to their death in suicide jumps, witnessed violent traffic smash-ups and sold papers during hundreds of parades."

BY THE LATE 1950s the Shinders' business had expanded to include a lunch counter Daniel ran inside the old cigar store on Sixth Street and a magic and novelty store Al had opened across the avenue. But already downtown Minneapolis and the news business were changing in ways that would ultimately make both all but unrecognizable to the brothers themselves.

"There was a lot of rapid growth after the war," Silverman recalls. "There were huge demographic changes in the city's core, and the cities were spreading out, taking the population and the jobs further out of the city as we knew it. The buses that were introduced after World War II were proving to be more flexible and more efficient than the light rail." The "Great White Way" downtown model of the boom years was giving way to a sort of creeping Times Square squalor, and new developments like Apache Plaza in the Northeast and Southdale in Edina were providing places for people to shop in the areas where they now increasingly lived.  

In 1958 Al, the oldest of the Shinder brothers and the first to sell papers on Hennepin Avenue, joined the suburban flight and opened a newsstand in Southdale. Hy was now clearly in charge on Hennepin, and announced plans to expand the newsstand inside, taking over the diner that was being run by his younger brother, Daniel. Soon thereafter, Daniel broke away from his brothers to open his own store on the opposite corner of Block E.

From then on, media reports of the Shinders' various milestones and accomplishments regularly alluded to a "family feud" between the brothers. Though no one seems entirely clear about the reasons anymore, they probably had something to do with the fact that it had become unrealistic for all the brothers and their progeny to make a living off one family newsstand.

In 1964, Harry's son, Dale, sued his uncle Hy over a purported failure to honor a verbal agreement and for alleged termination "without justification." According to court papers Hy Shinder was at that time the sole owner of the family business, which had a "stock value" of $100,000. By 1967 Harry was dead and Hy had retired to Arizona; his son Allan took over the newsstand, moving it indoors permanently and cutting back its hours. For the first time in more than 50 years, Shinder's would no longer be selling newspapers on the corner 24 hours a day.

But there was still another Shinder on the street--Daniel, doing business on the opposite end of Block E as Shinder's ReadMore Books. And so the cold war continued until 1983, when Allan finally gave up and closed the store on Sixth and Hennepin--allowing another second-generation Shinder to pick up the lease and unify the family operations once more.

AT FIRST GLANCE Joel Shinder would seem an unlikely candidate to take the family businesses into the 21st century. Daniel Shinder's only son had spent much of the 1960s out East, earning a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard and a doctorate from Princeton. Along the way he learned to speak more than a handful of languages, including Turkish, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, and German. From 1971 to '75 he was an associate professor of history at the University of New York-Fredonia, then returned to Minneapolis to attend law school.

But while Joel now claims it was "an accident" that left him in charge of ReadMore Books after his father's death in 1977, it appears in retrospect that he was the ideal man for the job at the time. An articulate and passionate proponent of urban diversity and free speech, he was well aware of the battles to come.

"You had three solid blocks downtown without a conceptual framework," he says. "The two Shinder's store on Sixth and Seventh were the bookends on Block E, and everything in between was disaster, a horror section. Downtown still hadn't responded to the realities of the '50s and the challenges of the suburbs. Nicollet Mall was a response to the flight, but Hennepin Avenue was neglected, and the urban mix on the avenue became something that was more feared than appreciated. The suburban theater crowd was no longer comfortable strolling downtown at night.

"I could see that we were going to have to be a chameleon to survive. In a sense we were lucky, but we were also responsive to opportunities, and I suppose there's a wisdom in seeing an opportunity and seizing it."

Daniel Shinder had recognized some of the coming changes in the years before his death and he had taken guarded steps toward diversifying his inventory, broadening the mix to include more books, a wider selection of counterculture materials, and, most importantly, collectible comic books and sports cards. His son would expand those experiments into full-blown components of his stores' identity.

"When I came into this it was apparent that news was already a vastly different business," he says. "With radio and television, and now computers and fax, there was really no need for people to seek out a newsstand for the news of the day. Even magazines today fulfill a different function. And at the same time there's more publishing now than ever before. We carry more titles now than we did in 1976. The collectible-comic-book market was more or less invented in the Twin Cities, and we got into that in the late '70s. And that flowed into sports cards, until the sports cards lost the gum and became the tail that wagged the dog."  

Even as he attempted to fine-tune the selection to the growing diversity of his clientele, Shinder was faced with the possibility that city leaders would sweep his stores under the rug with the rest of the "problem spots" on Block E. In a 1981 guest column in the Minneapolis paper, he made an impassioned plea for another approach to urban revitalization. "Hennepin Avenue must not become our very own Vietnam," he wrote. "Carpet bomb it, say some. Search out the good, save it and destroy the evil, say others (who will choose?). Do nothing, let it rot, says a third crew.

"Some of us are hostile to Hennepin's variety. Some fear its adventure. Still more distrust the freedom it reveals. A street that stirs such controversy can't be all bad. Let's keep it."

IN THEIR YEARS on the avenue, the Shinders knew and stirred their share of that controversy. In 1961 the Minneapolis Police Department's morals squad arrested a clerk in a downtown bookstore for selling Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. After the city attorney's office ruled that the book could be sold, Shinder's moved 2,000 copies of the paperback version in one week. "Whoever created that book, I ought to buy him a cigar," Harry Shinder was quoted as saying at the time.

In 1967 Minnesota began to legislate against the sale of adult materials, passing a law limiting the sale of pornography to individuals 17 or older. According to the state's definitions of pornography at the time, such materials included "a picture of a female breast with less than fully opaque covering of any portion thereof below the top of the nipple." George Scott, the Hennepin County attorney who helped draft the bill, noted that "the legislation is not aimed at responsible dealers like Shinder's, who operate within the law and try to police themselves."

By 1970 community concern over the sale of adult materials was escalating, evidenced by a headline in the Star: "Looked lately? 'Girlie' mags 'girlier.'" The Minneapolis Police morals squad was busy through much of the decade, staging raids up and down Hennepin Avenue and Lake Street. Daniel Shinder's store was an occasional target, and after one raid in which materials were seized he defended himself in the press. "Women have come in and thanked me for selling this stuff," he said, "because sometimes their husbands need a little outside interest to make them more compatible in their marriage."

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?"

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.

"I still believe that the taking of Block E was the biggest mistake the city ever made," he says. "The truth is that condemnation is what forced us to the suburbs, and today downtown Minneapolis is totally a servant to the suburbs. But when you think of the city you still think of downtown Minneapolis. And when you mention the mayor people still envision the mayor of Minneapolis. So in a sense people still do look to downtown for leadership."

Shinder says that if he ran the zoo he would use Block E to link the Twin Cities once again with Hennepin Avenue. "I remain a proponent for a vital urban core, and I still have faith that something good will develop in downtown Minneapolis. I don't believe that you can tear down unless you have a clear vision. I think people find emptiness as intimidating as any rough-and-tumble environment."

"There's nothing sadder than a downtown where there's nothing happening," says Curtiss A. "If we didn't have Shinder's this city would be so much less cosmopolitan. They have everything because Joel realizes that all these people out there have their weird little lives. Everybody's got their own deal, and that's what Shinder's is all about. Freedom. The good with the bad, the Jello and tuna-casserole people and the bondage crowd. I sold plenty of Satanic Bibles when I was working down there, but I don't think I ever sold even one Holy Bible. And whose fault is that? Are you gonna blame Joel Shinder for that? Nah, that's just good old American commerce. That's just the nature of the beast."

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