For those of us who admit to experiencing a sort of contact high from the book smell of libraries, spent our early teen years scribbling lines of poetry on the bottoms of our sneakers, and enjoy the aesthetic of ring-shaped coffee stains on the pages of textbooks, the corner of Selby and Western in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood feels a little bit like paradise. Home of the Blair Arcade building containing Nina’s Coffee Café (pronounced Nye-Nah’s by those who know) and the former site of Garrison Keillor’s bookstore Common Good Books, this little throng of literary pleasure is surrounded on all sides by dramatic brick architecture, historical landmarks, and even sidewalks stamped with poetry, courtesy of Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk: a community art project engineered by St. Paul’s Artist-in-Residence Marcus Young.
Nina’s (named for Madame Nina Clifford who ran a brothel on present-day Hill Street during the prohibition era) is a bustling coffee shop usually filled with regulars. A well-known supporter of the literary arts, Nina’s keeps a sign-up sheet next to the front door where people who have worked on writing books while sitting in the Café can jot their name along with the title of their book. If you’re not too busy authoring the next great American novel, you can always rent a vintage scrabble board by leaving your I.D. with one of the baristas.
When Common Good Books relocated to Snelling and Grand in April, Nina’s handed out survey sheets to customers, harvesting input about the new bookstore that would be opening downstairs. Now, almost three months later, that new bookstore— christened SubText— is all set up and already has two in-store poetry readings under its belt.
Five Minnesota Poets read at the inaugural event on Wednesday, June 13th. An eclectic mix, Carol Connolly (Poet Laureate of St. Paul), Shannon Gibney, Ed Bok Lee (recent Minnesota Book Award Winner), Jim Moore and Juliette Patterson represented the vast array of poetry styles and voices rising the Twin Cities today. Wine and snacks were served from a large red-tufted bar while neighborhood folks and other literary enthusiasts seated themselves on chairs and couches scattered amongst cardboard boxes and half-filled bookshelves. After all poems had been read, Juliette Patterson concluded the event with a found poem made of fragments from every reader of the night scribbled charmingly on a blue napkin.
On Wednesday June 20th, I wandered into the fully-assembled SubText and stumbled upon an event with poet Todd Boss reading from his book Pitch. A new poet to me, Todd Boss surprised me with his quiet but out-of-the-ordinary style. Musical, effortless and precise, his poetry struck me as almost a little old-fashioned. Boss grew up on a farm, and a good portion of his poetry centers around that part of his life. Touching on a range of subjects and styles with ease, Boss has written a series of 35 short poems (35 words each) about the 2007 35W bridge collapse, some of which are featured in Pitch. The entire collection will appear periodically in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
According to Sue Zumberge, owner of SubText, the bookstore will be hosting a literary event every Wednesday night, though I have yet to find a comprehensive schedule. Word on the street is a grand opening celebration will take place sometime in September.