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Midway Rare and Used Books celebrates 50 years

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

“We love books” say owners Tom and Kathy Stransky

Reporting and Photos by TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN

Midway Books 2Long before they owned Midway Used and Rare Books, the bookstore was shaping Tom and Kathy Stransky’s lives.

As teenagers, the two book lovers used to go to bookstores on dates.

One day they walked into Midway Books, and in the basement they found a $5 copy of Alice in Wonderland that was illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

It was the first book Tom bought Kathy.

A few years later, they wed, and in 1980 they bought the bookstore. In June 2015, Midway Books celebrates its 50th anniversary.

“We spent our lives building this collection,” said Kathy.

Midway Books 3Housed in a Streamline Moderne building located at the corner of University and Snelling Avenues in St. Paul, Midway Used and Rare Books started off as a small paperback trading store.

Today it is overflowing with 50,000 books.

The bookstore will celebrate by holding its annual anniversary sale from June 13-24. Everything in the store, except for new comics, will be 30% off.

Caretakers of books
The couple views themselves as caretakers of the thousands of books in their bookstore and the 4,000 more at their home.

“You hold them for the right person,” Kathy remarked.

She needs many more lifetimes to read all the books she wants to. “How can there be so many worlds? How can there be so many things I don’t know about?” she wondered.

When asked how many books he reads a year, Tom replied, “Not enough.”

Midway Rare and Used Books specializes in science fiction and fantasy, children’s illustrated books, photography, art, military, philosophy and science, and old and new comic books.

“We like to spread information,” remarked Tom. “All the information isn’t on the Internet and there’s a lot of misinformation on the Internet.”

He pointed out that it’s hard to cross reference stuff online. “There’s so much information out there you don’t know what is true or false.”

The Stranskys buy books every day and encourage anyone selling to use the parking lot in the back of the building (accessible off Sherburne). They have so many books in the store that some remain boxed in back rooms.

“When books give me shivers, either reading them or handling them, I have to buy them,” Kathy explained.

In building their collection, the Stranksys have become experts in many fields. “I don’t care for fishing and hunting,” Kathy confessed. But when they bought 68 boxes of fly fishing books, she learned how to appreciate the hobby.

Some of their specialties have occurred by happenstance. When the Hackers decided to sell their bookmobile packed with art books, they bought the whole bus. “It was the best education I got,” said Kathy. “We became known as having the best art selection in the Midwest.”

Old and rare
One of the oldest books in their store dates to 1561. It’s a book about Martin Luther King written in Old German. One of the things Kathy loves most about it is the notes and drawings written in the margins by former readers. Today, readers use post-it notes to mark a place, but back then they used a quill to highlight text.

“You see these things come through, and someone’s got to preserve it,” remarked Kathy. And so they had the cover and binding fixed.

Another old and rare item in the bookstore is a page from the Nuremberg Chronicle dating to 1493. They also have a page from the first King James Bible from 1600.

They started selling books online almost as soon as it was possible (in 1995) and have shipped books all around the world.

They also crisscross the country selling at various comic book shows and book fairs. One of their biggest is near home, held each June at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.

A bookstore owner who still goes to the library two times a week, Kathy explained, “I love to read.” This summer, she’s finally opening up Proust, a wordy French writer she never thought she would find the time for. “There are books that wait for you,” Kathy observed.

‘I wish people appreciated books as much as we do’
“We always say to each other, ‘I wish people appreciated books as much as we do,’” said Kathy.
Their 4,000 square foot house is full of books–so full that Tom’s military collection and Kathy’s photography collection are kept at the bookstore.

Paid in books
Tom and Kathy are dedicated to books. When they were young, a man who owned the bookstore in Stillwater hired them to go through the books in his South Minneapolis garage to alphabetize them. “We did it in winter and no heat,” recalled Kathy. But they were paid in books, and that made it worthwhile.

After graduating from college with a degree in psychology, Tom realized he didn’t want to pursue that career, and instead got a job at the Nicola bookstore at Nicollet and Lake in Minneapolis. He had always loved comic books, reading Spiderman and Batman as a kid. At the time, only drug stores were carrying comic books, but Tom saw an opportunity there. He began ordering new comic books for the store and starting building up the archives.

In time he became the manager at Nicola, and then Al Kremer, who owned Nicola and Midway, hired him to run the Midway location. As he had at Nicola, Tom added a strong comic book section.

Meanwhile, Kathy was working part-time at both the University Hospital and Marly Rusoff’s bookstore. She was just about to buy Rusoff’s when Kremer told them that if they wanted to buy Midway, he would sell it.

“It wasn’t our dream place, but it was open and running,” said Kathy. Tom had already been there for 10 years.

They were young, and both felt ready to take on the challenge, Kathy noted. She kept her job at the hospital for a few months, and then dived in and started working full-time at the bookstore with Tom. Their two kids grew up at the bookstore.

Better inventory than a library
At the time, there were three to four other used bookstores within a five-mile radius. It didn’t hurt any of them to be so close, but instead they drew customers who stopped by all the stores during an excursion, drawn to each one by their various specialties, said Kathy.

Midway Books 1Photo left: Tom and Kathy Stransky have known each other since they were 16 and 13, respectively. They grew up in the Nokomis neighborhood in South Minneapolis, and their dates involved visits to bookstores. They’ve owned Midway Rare and Used Books for 35 years. This photo ran in the Monitor in the 1990s.

Now they’re one of a handful of used bookstores in the Twin Cities, evidence of how owning a bookstore has changed over the 35 years they’ve been in business.

Today, folks are buying fewer of the “bread and butter” books–priced between $20 and $100–that the Stranskys relied on, and instead go for either the very cheap or expensive ones, according to Tom.

Kathy challenges the idea that books will disappear with the advent of electronic readers like the Kindle. She has noticed a trend in the last five years of young people buying books.
Amazon has made things much more accessible, she observed. “But you can’t get what you can get from walking in here,” she said.

She encourages people to slow down, come in, sit down at one of the many chairs sprinkled throughout the bookstore, and pull out a book. Kathy loves talking to people who come into the bookstore. If you give her an author or genre you like, she’ll direct you to other books you might enjoy.

“We have a better inventory than the library does,” Kathy stated.

Despite the ups and downs of the business, what drives the Stranskys can be summed up in three words.

“We love books,” said Tom.

Discovery Club