ROCHESTER – Anna Smith was more than a little furious with her husband, Andy, last December.
The Smiths, owners of the Gray Duck Theater & Coffee House in Rochester, decided to visit a former Carnegie Library building in Zumbrota after Andy learned it was up for sale for $150,000. We should just take a look at it, Andy told him. It will be fun, he said.
The Smiths had opened a second-hand bookstore just two months before the next door to their micro-theater, and Anna hadn’t already decreed any new ventures until 2023. After meeting the owner of the building, the two are found with a new opportunity when returning by car.
“I said, ‘I’m so angry right now,'” Anna recalled, as Andy reminded her that she had used more uncensored language to describe her feelings at the time. “I’m so angry because it’s so perfect that we have to do it, but it’s not the right time!”
That’s how the Smiths ended up opening the Zumbrota Literary Society in July – named after the local book group that petitioned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for money to build a library in the town at the turn of the 20th century. This is the couple’s second used bookstore in less than a year after getting into the bookshop 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,” said Carrie Obry of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association.
Book sales rose almost everywhere in 2020 and 2021 from pre-pandemic levels as people stuck at home sought ways to keep themselves entertained. Data from market intelligence firm NDP Group shows around 827 million books were sold in 2021, up around 9% from the previous 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 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 is created around independent cinema.
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 contacted Fair Trade Books in Red Wing to see if they wanted to expand to Rochester. As 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, it was just that we wanted that space to be busy,” Anna said.
The Smiths opened Garden Party Books in October 2021, using an online fundraising campaign and book donation campaigns that offered in-store discounts.
Anna had worked part-time at the Rochester Public Library, where she had learned 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 also hired a creative director for both bookstores.
The Smiths say they won’t be opening any more businesses for a while — Anna claims until 2040 — although Andy is running for state representative in Home District 25B this fall. Yet they are supported by area residents who embrace the brick-and-mortar storefronts.
“While Amazon is definitely convenient, there’s something really cool about a local place where you can go and talk to people,” Anna said.