Two weekends ago, I visited St. Paul, Minnesota for the first time. I had a wonderful time seeing the sights, including the stunning St. Paul Cathedral and railroad magnate James Hill’s house on Summit Avenue.
Although my husband and I apparently brought the heat of the South with us when we came, there was still a stubborn remnant of what had been a 60-foot pile of snow that the plows built in the Sears parking lot over the winter. The St. Paul Pioneer Press even covered the story of the snow pile in the paper, which is how I knew what I was looking at when we happened to drive by the Sears parking lot later that day. My southern-girl mind can’t quite wrap itself around the idea of snow surviving a 90-degree day. But then, I’m also used to snow being white, not black from road scrapings and other dirt and debris that made up the remnant of St. Paul’s snow.
The article showed the results of a poll done in early March, in which 40% of the people guessed that the snow pile wouldn’t melt before June 1. They were right. On June 9, there was another article (the third about the snow pile in a week) telling of a longer-lasting pile of snow in Boston, along with a poll asking which snow pile was better, the one in St. Paul or the one in Boston. Bragging rights over who had the “best” pile of snow? I’ll stick to southern winters, thanks.
I really shouldn’t have been surprised, then – in a town that has winters unimaginable to me – that the people there really love summer and get passionate about their trees. During the weekend we visited, there was at least one story in the newspaper each day that centered around trees and/or featured prominent photographs of trees:
- One letter to the editor bemoaned the loss of a large tree’s branches that cost the writer a great bird feeder location.
- One article, picked up from an Associated Press story in Wisconsin, talked about a neighbor-against-neighbor lawsuit in which a man was accused of poisoning his neighbor’s tree through a root that had grown up in his own yard.
- An article about a park just outside of St. Paul waxed poetic about a cottonwood tree: “I’m pretty sure Hobbits or fairies or some other fantastical creatures come out of the knots and knobs in the moonlight.”The print version of the article featured a large photo of the magical cottonwood tree in question, but unlike the snow stories, that picture got booted for the online version.
Along with a celebration – or at least great interest in – trees and their stories, St. Paul has embraced its local writers, probably because winters there encourage staying inside and reading good books by the fire.
Across from our hotel was a park with sort of abstract statues of Peanuts characters – including Lucy leaning on Schroeder’s piano while he plays – scattered throughout, paying homage to Charles Schulz. (I know he was more artist than writer, but I like to think of him as a writer, too.) A more realistic statue in the park also pays homage to another writer who got his start in St. Paul: F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I was hoping that a town that celebrates its native writers in such grand fashion would have some great independent bookstores, and I was not disappointed. Just a few blocks from the cathedral, I discovered a fabulous bookstore downstairs from a coffee shop. The bookstore, Common Good Books, is one of those places where I can lose myself for hours. With lots of books you won’t find at chain stores and an ambiance that you can’t fake, this store was perfect for bibliophiles like me. I didn’t realize until later, when I was trying to find the store online, that the bookstore is owned by Garrison Keillor. So that explains the multiple shelves devoted to his writing.
The stories the local bookstores tell
When I’m traveling, I always try to find the town’s local, independent bookstores. They reveal the character, the sense of ‘place,’ of a town in a way that speaks to me. And I can always gauge how far I am from home by the flavor of the local authors’ books. I was far from home in St. Paul, but Common Good Books (and all those folks who love their trees) made me feel at home.
How about where you live? What would your town’s bookstore say to me? Does it give a clear voice to your town’s personality? Is it a place like St. Paul, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average” (G. Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion)? Or something quite different?
Or what about when you travel? Have you discovered a great independent bookstore that you’d encourage others to visit? Tell us all about it here. I promise to visit on my way through.