ROCHESTER – Anna Smith was more than a little furious at her husband, Andy, last December.
The Smiths, who own 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 look at it, Andy told her. It’ll be fun, he said.
The Smiths had started a used bookstore just two months before next door to their micro theater, and Anna had already decreed no new businesses until 2023. After meeting with the building’s owner, the two found themselves with a new opportunity on the car ride back.
“I said, ‘I am so mad right now,'” Anna recalled, while Andy reminded her that she had 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 is not a good time!”
That’s how the Smiths ended up opening in July Zumbrota Literary Society — named for the local book group that petitioned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for the money to build a library in the town at the turn of the 20th century. It is the couple’s second used bookstore in less than a year after jumping into the bookselling industry. Their timing is good, as industry experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a rise in independent bookstores after years of decline as consumers move away from online retailers like Amazon.
“It seems to have galvanized people’s interest in following their values and doing what they want to do,” said Carrie Obry of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association.
Book sales increased almost across the board in 2020 and 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels as people stuck at home looked for ways to entertain themselves. Data from market information company NDP Group shows about 827 million books were sold in 2021, up about 9% from the previous year.
Obry said the association added 52 new bookstores since the pandemic began as more people are drawn to selling books.
The Smiths met in 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 springs up around independent film.
They weren’t looking to expand until the same real estate agent who found them the theater location showed them the building next door.
The Smiths reached out to Fair Trade Books in Red Wing about whether it wanted to expand to Rochester. While Fair Trade ultimately declined, the owners encouraged the Smiths to run a bookstore of their own.
“It wasn’t necessarily that we wanted to open a bookstore ourselves, it was just that we wanted this space to be occupied,” Anna said.
The Smiths opened Garden Party Books in October 2021, with the help of an online fundraising campaign and book donation drives that offered 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 closed.
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 open any more businesses for a while — Anna claims until 2040 — although Andy is running for state representative in House District 25B this fall. Yet they’re buoyed by area residents embracing brick and mortar storefronts.
“While Amazon is definitely convenient, there is something really nice about a local place where you can go and actually talk to people,” Anna said.