From the Stands is a series that profiles comic book stores around the Twin Cities and talks about their histories, their offerings, and the communities they serve.
One of my earliest memories of my “fandom” is going to DreamHaven on Lake Street and gazing longingly at their antique books, my breath fogging up the protective case they sat in. Amongst many first editions and leather-bound volumes of sci fi and horror, there was a section containing early editions of the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Many of them were covered in dark leather and some were sealed in plastic, making the books themselves seem as ancient and strange as the horrors contained within their pages. They crouched, it would seem, like living creatures, inscrutable and horrible. A more realistic horror for teen-aged me were the price tags: affordable for some, but for a kid who was probably going to read more comics at the store than he was leaving with, the price of a classic Lovecraft volume produced in me a dread no shoggoth could engender. I was never going to touch these books, full stop. Regardless, I was fascinated at the weight of history the books possessed and the way it which that sharpened the effect their eeriness had on me.
A later memory I have of the store is hearing Neil Gaiman read his book The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish there upon the book’s rerelease in 2004. I remember maybe 35 or 40 people in the store, which can’t be correct—there must have been more than that to see Neil Gaiman—though I’m certain it was a number far smaller than you’d expect to see today, in the age of expanded cons, fandom, and the Internet social-media grapevine. Except for running into Gaiman a few weeks later at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival (and a few other places, actually—that was a weird summer), I wouldn’t see him again in the flesh until an MPR Wits show last year, crammed into the Fitzgerald Theater with over 1,000 other fans. That show was a little closer to what one would expect of a Gaiman sighting, where Neil is a smudge, his pale face and customary black clothes treating us to an impromptu and sparsely populated Mummenschanz show against the stage’s dark backdrop, not at all the mild, T-shirted man with the roiling mind, reading to us about the best deal you could get in a trade for your dad.
That idea of “magic” (the magic of books, the magic in books of fantasy, the magic of an unreproducible experience) is why DreamHaven exists and has continued to exist for nearly 40 years. Greg Ketter opened Star Lite Books in St. Paul on April 1, 1977, and, in his own words, it’s been a “checkered career” from there to here. Says Ketter, “The first few years we moved around . . . I moved to downtown Minneapolis on Hennepin Avenue and called it the Compleat Enchanter after the L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt series of books. I was [there] not even quite a year and the Jesus People Church bought the building and kicked me out . . . I was selling horrible things like comic books!” Ketter moved from there to the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis and ended up changing the store’s name to the now familiar DreamHaven Books and Comics. The store occupied several spaces in the neighborhood, increasing its floor space as business got better and competition moved away. Business was good enough in 1993 that Ketter opened a second location in Uptown, and in the mid-’90s he and his wife bought a building in Lyn-Lake to open a new front for the store as a “hedge.”
“They were going to do big road construction in Dinkytown,” says Ketter, “and we were afraid it would hurt us a lot.” The hedge eventually became the main and only location for the store and remained open until 2008, when Ketter, feeling the effects of the economic downturn of the late ’00s, got an offer on the Lake Street building and went looking for the store’s new home. He notes, “Things were going not very well at that point . . . the store had been doing poorly enough that I was actually facing bankruptcy, and I thought ‘Well, I’d better go with this sale.’ . . . I had to let a lot of employees go but kept the store going after that [and] it kept me alive.”
After that sale, store moved to its current location at 2301 East 38th Street in the Standish neighborhood of Minneapolis. Says Ketter of the neighborhood, “I was surprised how many people lived here that I’ve known for forever. Many of my old regular customers have said, ‘Oh, now you’re even closer to me than you were before.’” The new location offers less foot traffic, he points out, but is as easily accessible as the Lyn-Lake location (if not more so) and has ample parking.
The new location didn’t solve all of DreamHaven’s problems, however. In 2012, faced with continuing difficulties and running what was essentially a one-man operation, Ketter made the decision to cease regular business hours for the store, opening it only by appointment or on days when he would be in town and have the time. DreamHaven would continue its online business and at conventions, both of which make up the lion’s share of its business for collectible and rare items, but its physical location would effectively be closed. According to Ketter, “I looked it as more of a warehouse that I could open up and have people come in but still do my mail-order business and con business.” I was was living in St. Paul myself at the time, and it had been a few years since I’d been to DreamHaven; I can still remember my frustration and disappointment at finally finding the store’s new location and then seeing a sign on the door saying that they wouldn’t be open for another two weeks. Many in the community though it was the last days for DreamHaven, myself included. But the story wasn’t over just yet.
Last April, DreamHaven returned to normal store hours with the help of Alice Bentley, a former business partner of Ketter’s. The two co-founded the Chicago bookstore The Stars Our Destination in 1988, which Bentley ran by herself from 1994 until 2004, when she closed the store, moved to Seattle, and got out of the book business. Says Ketter of Bentley, “She had been out of books for a while, and she really wanted to get back in. So, she moved to [Minneapolis] from Seattle and she’s partnering with me . . . She’s very knowledgeable; in the last 11 or 12 years since she left, things have changed a great deal [but] she’s been very happily relearning the book business.” The two now run the business as partners, with Ketter as the “go-to guy for questions” and Bentley employing her “love of spreadsheets” to keep the business on track.
The business undoubtedly has changed in the years DreamHaven’s doors have been open, but Ketter remains optimistic, knowing that as one of the last true stores for “collectors,” he has his particular market covered. He says: “We have a good loyal clientele because we’ve been at it so long. Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, Alice bought a business [in Chicago] from an old bookseller . . . his clientele is now rolled into my clientele, because I bought her out when she closed up. So I do have a very loyal buying public, but they’re getting aged and dying off. a lot of collections, too, and I’ve established that, over the years, I’ve been able to buy more books locally and nationally because I know the people who bought them in the first place. Many of them bought them from me.” When asked about the disappearance of book stores nationally and competition from sites like Amazon, Ketter offers, “Nowadays, I’d like to have Borders back just because we’d like to have real bookstores. Of course, Amazon [is] trying to take over everything and every amount of business. So, we’ve had to adapt quite a bit and fill in niches for things they don’t carry. We offer personal service that they don’t offer; when it comes to mail order, we actually pack our books nicely so they don’t come damaged.”
As someone who has ordered signed and rare books online, I can confirm that, no matter what condition they’re listed as, the condition they arrive in is never guaranteed. Alongside the helpful and knowledgeable assistance Greg himself provides when in the store, DreamHaven’s list of services extends to their unique, exhaustive inventory. “We have more signed books than anybody in this area and possibly anywhere,” boasts Ketter. In addition to their rare and signed books, DreamHaven carries a glut of sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks and hardcovers, graphic novels and trade paperbacks, art books, crafts books, and more. The store also stocks movie posters and memorabilia, toys and collectibles, and what Ketter’s longtime friend and store supporter Neil Gaiman calls “vintage smut.” In the store’s long history, it’s played host to many authors for signings and readings; Gaiman himself has been a fixture at the store in nearly all its incarnations, and no less than Harlan Ellison himself has described it as “a book-seeker’s cave of miracles.” DreamHaven’s long service and impressive inventory has previously won the store the Will Eisner Spirit of Retail Award (an international award for outstanding comic-book retailers) and also netted it the City Pages “Best Of” award for Best Comic Book Store and Best Science-Fiction Bookstore. This approval extends to the store’s everyday customers, as well; anywhere you go on the Internet, people have good words to say about DreamHaven, some going back to the store’s earliest years.
When asked about those customers, Ketter is glad that his shoppers run the gamut in terms of demographics. “I was always pleased that we had a very perfectly mixed clientele, both male and female,” says Ketter. “Way back, we made an effort to find things that would interest women; I would say at least half our customers are women. We [also] do a big mail-order business; many of my customers there are quite old, 60-, 70-, 80-, 90-year-old customers that have been around with me for almost 40 years.”
Customers who haven’t been with DreamHaven quite that long may still have a chance to catch up, as the store seems in good hands with Ketter and Bentley at the helm, and Ketter has done well in weathering the storms in the economy and staying focused on the changing needs of his business. As an example, at the end of our interview, he reminded me that April 30 is Independent Bookstore Day and that DreamHaven will be participating with events (check the store website for details). Any independent bookstore that wants to chart a path of survival in the new retail waters of the 21st century would do well to emulate this establishment’s example of customer interface and adaptability.
As I’m leaving the store, thinking about experience, thinking about magic, my mind goes once more to those old Lovecraft volumes, and I wonder whether they’re still there . . . whether I should try to sneak a peek at them while I have a chance. But then I realize: there will be plenty of chances to see what DreamHaven has in the years to come. Looking in my wallet, though, that’s still the real horror.