“If I could have anything I wanted, I would choose story without end, and it seems I have lots of company in that.” ― Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Bear Boy has a best friend. They’ve been besties since they were not quite a year old. It helps that his buddy’s mama and I are good friends. We met, we liked each other, and that was that. It is especially darling that Bear often proclaims, “I love you,” to his bud and follows it up with a hug. There’s nary a trace of self-consciousness in his declaration, which I just love. When he started preschool a few years back and he’d meet someone he liked, Bear used to say to me, “I’m going to make him my friend.” So utterly guileless and uncomplicated. Once in a blue moon or two, I’ll meet a body to whom I spark in that way. It’s akin to the phenomenon of being smitten at first sight, but it’s nothing to do with physical attraction or romantic notions. It’s generally about a vibrant personality or a captivating talent or some other attribute that says to me, “Now there’s an interesting soul. I ought to get to know her.” Or him. The spark’s not gender exclusive. Kids these days (yes, I said kids these days…cue the old geezer shaking her head) even have a word for this sort of crush-that’s-not-a-crush-but-something-like-a-crush-just-without-the-crush-part. Squish. No really, squish. Apparently it’s a thing. According to the Urban Dictionary (definition number five), a squish is a, “’crush’ on someone that is not associated with a desire for a romantic or sexual relationship. The desire to get to know them and be important to them is purely platonic in nature. Characterized by admiration, respect and affection for a person.” That’s sort of how I feel about the Williams family.
James, Heather and their bright and handsome son Evan are good folks. They live on a hobby farm just outside of River Falls, Wisconsin (a hop, skip and a jump from St. Paul, Minnesota) with six chickens, three fish, two dogs and one grumpy guinea pig. Evan is a storyteller and artist, as Heather says, “True as true.” Heather is a wicked good crafter and has a small business making reusable cloth sandwich bags. And the coolest bit, to this particular booklover, is that James and Heather Williams are the owners of Sixth Chambers Used Books in St. Paul, Minnesota and Fox Den Used Books in River Falls, Wisconsin. The name for Sixth Chamber comes from the great English Poet, William Blake and his master work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake describes six chambers, each corresponding with one step in the creation of art. The sixth and final chamber is the one in which the art takes the form of books that are arranged in libraries. Fitting enough. The name for Fox Den, the newer of the two shops, is in part a tribute to Roald Dahl, a favorite of Heather. She says, “I love Roald Dahl, and really wanted to incorporate an homage to him somewhere in the name (Fantastic Mr. Fox). I wanted something that reflected nature in some way and also felt cozy and warm. It was Evan who came up with the name in the end. James and I were in 4th round of name discussions when Evan piped up from the other room with ‘It should be Fox Den Used Books. It’s so obvious.’ And it was.” The shops are as unique and wonderful as the neighborhoods in which they reside and as the fine souls who own them.
Back before I even knew my Dear Hubby and the kidlets were little more than unformed cosmic matter floating about in the atmosphere, I was a single woman living the dream. A veritable Mary Tyler Moore. I had a quaint apartment on Grand Avenue in St. Paul that just oozed character, um, that is to say, a dingy little efficiency with ancient, unregulated radiators and a Murphy bed with a questionable mattress hidden in the closet. The flat was pretty tiny, but in those days Grand Avenue felt sort of like an extension of my humble abode. There was a fine assortment of independently owned shops and services within a few blocks. In particular, there was a lovely little book shop just three blocks to the west, Sixth Chamber Used Books. It had a charming A-frame signboard out front and unpainted, floor to ceiling bookcases. I spent many a lazy weekend afternoon perusing the literature and poetry shelves. If you were to pull a random book from my shelves today, there would be a very good chance that you’d find the price marked inside the front cover – a tiny, feather-light notation in pencil, identifying it as a used book from Sixth Chamber.
The family book business originated with James. He’s pretty cool. I mean the guy just wanted to make a life out of being in the presence of books each and every day. James once told me that he worked in a big box bookstore while he was learning the business and building his stock. I asked James when he began thinking about his own shop and how this experience differed from the big box experience. James said:
Before I started working at Barnes and Noble, I formed the idea of opening my own bookstore. Previous jobs that I had had left me with no training for achieving this goal, so I applied and was accepted for the chain B-Dalton. I started working for this company as a bookseller and eventually moved the chain to the position of store manager. This experience left me with what I needed, a working knowledge of different aspects of the business – from the books themselves to the bookkeeping. The experience I had working for this big corporation was varied, the book business draws amazing people to work in it and I developed friendships that I still have today. The major aspect of the chain bookstore is a problem I have with all chains; they are the same wherever you go. For me, there is a soulless quality to this. What I enjoy about Sixth Chamber is that it is unique and not only that, it is a reflection of the community around us as the books we buy and carry come from our community.
James had already begun the business by the time he and Heather met. She’s pretty cool too. The woman glows. I kid you not. She’s like a firefly, just more substantial in nature, and über creative. Heather has said that she married into Sixth Chamber, like one marries into a family. When asked how the two met, Heather explained
We met at Sixth Chamber. Actually, the first time we met at was Barnes & Noble. I was managing the used book annex at the Har Mar B&N and James stopped in to visit with a friend of his who was my store manager at the time. Joe had thought to introduce us, but I was running from one end of the building to the other to deal with an unhappy customer and stopped for the briefest of moments to shake hands. I didn’t remember him months later when I walked into his store. He remembered me, though. We are a bookstore romance.
In the eighteen years that Sixth Chamber has been in business, they have garnered a steadfast base of customers and become a genuine presence on an independent avenue once bursting with quaint character, though increasingly overwhelmed by national chains. I asked James about the sense of community on Grand Avenue and he pointed out that there had been six other independent bookstores on Grand when he opened up eighteen years ago. “Now, it is just us and the Red Balloon,” James said, “Although we are thrilled Common Good Books recently moved to just a block off Grand. In general, many independent stores have closed or moved out and the chains have opened. I remember when Blockbuster Video opened and what a fuss it caused, these days big chains are coming to Grand with hardly a ripple.” The shops may be changing, but James affirms, “The people and the neighborhood have not changed all that much, thanks I suppose to the many old private colleges in the community.” Of course, there have been some other major growing pains in the book world about which James has some strong convictions. One of the great reasons for the continued existence of brick and mortar book shops can be found in what James calls the serendipidty of browsing. As regards the rise of electronic sales, he says:
Growing pains is a mild way to put it all. The growth of massive online sellers which mark their books down to very low prices undercutting traditional book marketing have really stressed independent bookstores. As for the e-book, this technology seems to be having the same effect on the retail book industry that online music sales had on music stores. For us it has hurt, a person cannot sell a book to us that they don’t really even have. I have to say, apart from the obvious self-interest, I find it really disturbing that we are entering a world in which all forms of media are being controlled by a very few companies – a world in which people don’t really own these forms of media, they merely have a license to examine it on particular devices.
Despite or perhaps because of the many changes, the Williams’ personalities shine through in Sixth Chamber and Fox Den. Thankfully, their shops have grown and changed with the Williams family too. And their neighborhoods. This is no minor triumph. Often enough folks outgrow once favored activities, people, and places. A long time ago in the early 90s, there was a local band in the Twin Cities called The Delilahs. My friends and I tried to make each and every show. They played regularly at the 400 Bar at Cedar and Riverside. Then they disbanded in 1997 and The 400 closed last December. When I moved to St. Paul, my favorite hangout was a casually hip, little place called Chang O’Hara’s. Dear Hubby and I had our first date there (and our first kiss). Then I up and got married and had babies and we stopped going to Chang’s. Eventually ownership changed hands and my favorite hangout became The Happy Gnome (which, for the record, is also a super establishment, but when did everyone get so much younger and hipper than me?). Times change. I also used to run. A lot. And then I didn’t. I sang in a church choir. And then I didn’t. The point is that, we don’t always grow with our passions or they with us. Not so with Sixth Chamber and Fox Den. Dear Hubby wooed me with his special woo and the next thing I knew I lived in the suburbs. Not far, mind you, less than ten miles. Yet, I continued to make the pilgrimage to Sixth Chamber. Then I had babies and introduced Bear and Goose to the bright green, 52 foot long, stuffed snake that lives atop the bookcases in the children’s corner. And my sweet kidlets fell in sweet love with Sixth Chamber too. Seventeen and a half years after Sixth Chamber opened, James and Heather bravely opened Fox Den Used Books in River Falls. Twenty miles is an imminently do-able drive for a good book. So the kidlets and I made the trip. Lo and behold, the next wonderful change was that Heather instituted story time for wee ones at Fox Den. I mean, shut the front door. It just kept getting better. I started dragging friends and family across the river and into Wisconsin, just for this book store. One of the most entertaining activities the kidlets and I attended this winter was a birthday celebration for Dr. Seuss at Fox Den. There was one-fish-two-fish fishing, a decorated mattress for hopping on pop, rings for tossing on the gack, a game of pin the heat on the Grinch, storytelling, Thing One and Two cavorting in the crowd, and lots of props for taking silly photos.
Heather has really embraced the business and it’s clear to see her hand at work on the shelves. She has a passion for creative, ecologically sound toys and buying locally, and has incorporated these into the business. I asked her if she ever imagined she’d be as invested in this business as James is and what her approach to the business is.
I love the stores. I’ve worked a lot of jobs – everything from wedding dress consultant to managing a bed & breakfast. I’d never loved going to work every day like I do now. Helping someone find something that can change an opinion, open empathy, guide through heartbreak or leaky water faucets or potty training or artistic endeavors, entertain, sooth, or take you to another world entirely – that is awesome. I love the customers and the real open human-ness of finding the right thing for the right person. My base in literature, though, comes from my mother. My mom is a career elementary teacher, now retired, and can often be found at the Fox Den helping some young bright-eyed person to find their next literary exploration. She brought to me a love of kids’ books. So when I came to Sixth Chamber, the children’s section was a natural fit for me. Still is. In so many ways, the stores have grown along with our lives and our family. When James opened the store, it was young and hip and so was he. As we have moved on through life, the store has evolved, grown, added a kids’ room and we had a kid to put in it. The toys came slowly as our son was growing. We had a hard time finding safe quality toys, opposed to how easy it was to find cheap plastic junk. We know we weren’t the only ones who were looking for an alternative. I’m really picky about what I bring into the store. I focus on safety, education, creativity, uniqueness, imaginative and active play. I love the toys and games we carry and what they have added to the stores.
Heather and James say that both the St. Paul and River Falls folks who visit their shops are interesting, gracious and warm. Heather waxes sentimental about their patrons,
We truly do have the best customers. I think that people who shop in a bookstore these days do so with intention. We have been on Grand Ave. for 18 years now. We have seen children turn into adults, and the community has become extended family with regulars that we’ve celebrated and mourned with. When we opened Fox Den, it was such a gamble. You can bring your passion and inspiration to your work, but that doesn’t mean that anyone else will want what you are offering. River Falls has been incredibly welcoming. I delight in saying that we have quite a few regular customers now. I get giddy when someone walks in the door and my first thought is ‘Oh, a regular.’ I also get teary-eyed way too often. I am a complete sap, but the truth is, I am so utterly grateful to the community for the support.
It’s been my experience that listing my favorite books of all time is tough and changes with age and interests. That said, I did ask both James and Heather to give me a list of five books to which they return to again and again and what draws them to those texts.
The Five Books to Which James Returns Time and Again
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – One my earliest and most substantial literary experiences was when my mother read The Hobbit to me, in fact I liked it so much that she went on to record both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for me on cassette.
- Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers by Roy Moody – This is a story about a boy growing up on a hard scrabble farm in early twentieth century Colorado. The location of this book was close to where I grew up.
- The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies – A magical story, smart and funny, so richly layered that it can be read again and again.
- The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch – An incredible intellectual and revelatory book, I first read it at a difficult period of my life and it changed me forever.
- The Works of Richard Russo – This is cheating a bit, but for some reason I find the general themes of middle-aged white guy trying to find a place in a complex world to be incredibly fulfilling and rewarding.
The Five Books to Which Heather Returns Time and Again
- Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, decorations by E. H. Shepard. My first literary love.
- Collected Poems by W.H. Auden – He was my North, my South, my East and West,/ My working week and my Sunday rest,/ My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song…I love Auden.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Better every time I read it.
- The Frog and Toad stories by Arnold Lobel – I snort-laugh every time I read the ice cream story.
- Jane Austen – Yes, I am one of those. My favorite, if forced to choose, might be Mansfield Park, but I would probably give a different answer tomorrow.
- As an addition, the most recent book that I’ve read and really enjoyed was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I expected it to be fluff, and was happily mistaken. I especially loved her passages about the type of person who works in a bookstore.
They’re hip (the kind of hip before the hipsters came along), they love books, and they champion independent and locally owned businesses. Now you see why I think they’re so nifty. I encourage any of my local readers to check them out in person (or online). For those a bit farther afield, don’t you fret, you can order online and have your treasures shipped.