ROCHESTER – Anna Smith was more than a little angry at her husband, Andy, last December.
The Smiths, who owns Gray Duck Theater & Coffee House in Rochester, decided to tour an old Carnegie Library building in Zoombrota after Andy learned it was on sale for $150,000. Andy told her we should just look at her. He said: It will be fun.
The Smiths started a second-hand bookstore just two months before their home next door to their small theater, and Anna had already decreed that there would be no new business until 2023. After meeting with the building’s owner, the two found themselves facing a new opportunity on the return drive.
“I said, I’m so angry now,” Anna recalls, while Andy reminded her that she used unsupervised language to describe her feelings at the time. “I’m so angry because this is so perfect that we have to do this, but this is not a good time!”
That’s how the Smiths ended up opening in July at the Zumbrota Literary Society — named for the local group of writers that asked philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for money to build a library in the city at the turn of the 20th century. It’s the second bookstore the couple has used in less than a year after jumping into the book industry. Their timing is good, as industry experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the rise of independent bookstores after years of decline as consumers move away from online retailers like Amazon.
“This seems to have piqued people’s interest in following their values and doing what they want to do,” said Carrie Aubrey of the Midwest Independent Biographical Society.
Book sales in almost all areas increased in 2020 and 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels as people stuck at home searched for ways to entertain themselves. Data from market intelligence firm NDP Group shows that about 827 million books were sold in 2021, an increase of about 9% over the previous year.
Aubrey said the association has added 52 new bookstores since the pandemic began as more people are drawn to bookstores.
He met Al Smith at graduate 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 up around independent films.
They were not looking to expand until the same real estate agent who found them showed them the location of the theater the building next door.
The Smiths reached out to Fair Trade Books at the Red Wing about whether they wanted to expand to Rochester. While Fair Trade eventually 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 Garden Party Books opened in October 2021, aided by an online fundraiser and book donation drives that offered in-store discounts.
Anna worked part-time at the Rochester Public Library, where she learned how to clean and repair books. The Smiths also acquired book stock and shelves from a closed local bookstore.
Garden Party has already turned a profit, and Al Smith has three part-time employees. They have also hired a creative director for both libraries.
The Smiths say they won’t open any more businesses for a while — Anna claims until 2040 — though Andy is running for state representative at House District 25B this fall. However, they are backed by the residents of the area who embrace the brick-and-mortar storefronts.
“While Amazon is definitely convenient, there is something really nice about a local place that you can really go and talk to people,” Anna said.