St. Paul/Minneapolis Favorite: Midway Used and Rare Books

I ride the bus to and from work every day down University Avenue from St. Paul to Minneapolis. I pass by the same buildings, shops, even people. I notice when stores have closed down, or marvel at how fast they can put up a group of condominiums and townhouses, which seem to be growing like weeds these days. These days I arrive home in darkness, and deboard the bus at University and Snelling Avenues, the main artery to Downtown St. Paul and to the freeway, to the various neighborhoods that surround the area. I’m usually in a hurry to get home so as to start dinner, feed and spend some time with our three cats, and begin the process of unwinding from a hectic day at work.


My route home always takes me right by Midway Rare and Used Books, a three story building that occupies the NE corner of Snelling and University. I’ve always peered into the doors to see rows and rows of comic books, and the owner, clad in blue jeans and hippie headband, scurrying around like a squirrel collecting nuts and goodies for winter. I always checked out the displays on the outside, which change with the seasons, and would chuckle at some of the choices. There is the mannequin, sitting glamorously at an antique secretary, usually clad in a vintage dress, but also changes with the seasons. Sometimes she is a witch for Halloween, or an elf (albeit a glamorous one) to help Santa. Day after day, year after year, I peered in, chuckled, and made my way home. Until a few days ago.


Having left work a little early, I got off the bus at the usual spot and made my way across, intending to head home, feed the kitties, and kick back. As I passed by the front doors, I finally asked myself, “Why have I never gone in to this store before? I love bookstores, I should check this out.” So, I finally entered the store. Reading the “Leave bags and backpacks at the front counter” sign, I deposited my bag in the designated location and began looking around. This no Barnes and Noble. There isn’t the nice coffee counter, couches, and dark oak bookcases. This is a serious used book store. It’s not fancy, it’s no-nonsense, and designed for maximum efficiency. There is not an inch of space that isn’t used for holding the literally thousands of hardcover, paperbacks, magazines, and comic books. The front area is taken up by mostly new and vintage comic books or graphic novels, which then leads to the Science Fiction section. It is a maze of shelves and twists and turns, each section marked with hand written signs. The sheer volume of material is slightly overwhelming, but laid out as efficiently as possible. I could see that if you were a serious collector, or even if you just enjoy spending a couple of hours lost in a forest of books, this is the place for you.


Moving over to the magazine section, there are collectible copies of Life magazine, some dating back to the 1930’s and earlier, there are copies of Colliers, and Look magazines, many magazines I have never heard of, some dating to the 1910’s. Specialty magazines like Model Plane Enthusiast and pulp novels/collections like Ranch Romances are also to be found. Vintage sheet music abounds too, hearkening back to the days when your family entertainment was spent by the piano, as there was no radio or television. There is also an “Adult” section if you’re interested in some vintage erotica and erotic novels, or new and used copies of Playboy or other “Gentleman’s magazines” from the 1940’s and 50’s.


Make your way upstairs to where the literature and arts books are kept. It seems like the entire history of literature is located here. One minute you’re surrounded by Jane Austen and her peers, then you find yourself hanging out in New York with Jack Kerouac and the Beats. If you’re feeling daring, you can make your way to the basement which is more of an overflow, duplicates section, but also contains what I found to be an interesting collection of catalogs from museum exhibitions of art from across the country. Do you want to learn about that Kandinsky exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1983, or read about more obscure artists’ exhibitions? They’re all here.


After an hour or so of peaceful browsing, accompanied by the classical music playing on the radio, insulated from the hustle and bustle, I realized that I needed to finally get going. I collected my bag and stepped back out onto the sidewalk, buses and cars whizzing past, breaking the reverie of the past hour. I slowly re-acclimated myself to my normal life, walked past the displays, chuckled, and made my way home again.


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