Posted by: Dan Bergeson | May 31, 2011

River City Books 2002-2009

As a followup to my last post about the life cycle of small businesses, I want to call attention to a project of mine that lasted for seven years in downtown Northfield. The impetus behind the birth of River City Books was a desire to offer a  service to the community and have it be sponsored  by my employer, Carleton College. Independent bookstores  thrived on the streets of Northfield for most of the 20th century, but when Authors, Inc. folded in 2000 or 2001, the string came to an end. At the time, I was the Director of the Carleton College Bookstore, and since the citizens of Northfield were challenged to find our store on the campus, I decided to take the business to them.

We threw open the doors in 2002 and within weeks we knew that we had a winning formula that Northfield booklovers craved. As the years ticked by it was clear that we had increased the local bookbuying purchases by at least 30%. That was keeping dollars in the local economy that would otherwise have been spent online or at the big box stores in the south Metro. Unfortunately, the volume wasn’t enough to sustain the business plan that we required for long-term success.

After seven years of valiant effort by Manager Jon Lee and his staff, it was clear that we weren’t going to break into the for-profit column for many years and it became necessary to stop the blood-letting. It was a sad day for all of us involved in this labor of love to tear down what we had built, but we did what we had to do. I thought it would be fitting to post some memories of those years and highlight the good work of our booksellers. What could we have done if our little town had 40,000 inhabitants instead of 20,000?



  1. A good effort and a service to the community, indeed. And was that Jon Lee from up my way who provided oversight there? If so, I’ve known him for some time and engage his services each December and May in areas with which you are well familiar.
    Yes, sad to see that pass. And hasn’t the industry, I mean the trade book industry, changed along with buyer behavior. Hopefully there will always be the occasional good trade and used book store in or near college campuses and cultural centers of our nation and world. But it will surely take a mix of channels including web-based and some ongoing activity, author signings and more.
    And preaching to myself as much as any, why not USE that local store as your source for Internet hunting for used titles at good prices? I’d cheerfully share a couple bucks and some postage to have my local used store find me a copy. The obvious byproduct would be that warm, book-smelling place to enjoy a cup of tea or java while I read a chapter of my latest acquisition.

  2. Mike, the Jon Lee that managed the store still works at Carleton so I don’t know if he’s the person to whom you refer. He could be one of your buyback buyers, I’m just not sure. Yes, tectonic shifts continue in the book industry. It’s a continuing challenge to remain on one’s feet when the ground beneath is shaking so furiously.

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