ROCHESTER — Anna Smith was more than a little angry with her husband Andy last December.
The Smiths, who own the Gray Duck Theater & Coffee House in Rochester, decided to tour an old Carnegie Library building in Zumbrota after Andy heard it was for sale for $150,000. We should just check it out, Andy told her. This will be fun, he said.
The Smiths had just opened an antique shop next to their microtheater two months ago, and Anna had already decided to stop doing any new business until 2023. After meeting the owner of the building, the two found a new opportunity on the return trip by car.
“I said, ‘I’m so angry right now,'” Anna recalled, while Andy reminded her that she used more uncensored language to describe her feelings at the time. “I’m so angry because this is so perfect that we have to do it, but this isn’t a good time!”
Eventually, in July, the Smiths opened the Zumbrota Literary Society—named for the local book group that solicited philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for the money to build a library in the city at the turn of the 20th century. It’s the couple’s second antiquarian book store in less than a year after entering the bookselling industry. Your timing is good, as industry experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a surge in independent bookstores after years of decline as consumers turn away from online retailers like Amazon.
“It seems to have got people interested in following their values and doing what they want to do,” said Carrie Obry of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association.
Book sales increased almost everywhere in 2020 and 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels as people stuck at home looked for ways to entertain themselves. Data from market information firm NDP Group shows that about 827 million books were sold in 2021, up about 9% year-on-year.
Obry said the association has added 52 new bookstores since the pandemic began as more people are drawn to selling books.
The Smiths met at grad school in California and came to Rochester about three years ago to open Gray Duck, in part to be closer to Anna’s family in Cottage Grove. Andy, who grew up in Los Angeles, loves cinema and the community that grows around independent film.
They didn’t want to expand until the same real estate agent who found them the theater location showed them the building next door.
The Smiths approached Fair Trade Books in Red Wing about expanding into Rochester. While Fair Trade ultimately declined, the owners encouraged the Smiths to run their own bookstore.
“It wasn’t necessarily that we wanted to open a bookstore ourselves, we just wanted that space to be occupied,” Anna said.
The Smiths opened Garden Party Books in October 2021 with the help of an online fundraiser and book fundraisers that offered in-store discounts.
Anna had worked part-time at the Rochester Public Library, where she learned how to clean and repair books. The Smiths also acquired book inventory and shelves from a local bookstore that was closing.
Garden Party has already turned a profit and the Smiths have three part-time employees. They’ve also hired a creative director for both bookstores.
The Smiths say they won’t be opening any more stores for a while – Anna claims until 2040 – although Andy is running for state representative in House District 25B this fall. Still, they’re worn by area residents who embrace brick-and-mortar storefronts.
“While Amazon is definitely convenient, there’s something really nice about a local place where you can go and actually talk to people,” Anna said.