Through the Red Door: my weekend journey to explore communist bookstores and tattoo shops in Minneapolis

Opening the red door and stepping through I felt like I was like Alice falling into the rabbit hole. -Jeremy Griffith

By Jeremy Griffith
The American Millennium

 

So I was invited to do some exploration of the Minneapolis area recently by a close, close friend who was curious about finding out more about a socialist/communist enclave there. Apparently, where he lives he is seeing people with Russian Spetznaz tattoos and his curiosity was piqued. So was mine and I agreed to take a look.

It should be noted that this friend lives far, far from the Minneapolis area, so I was invited to investigate. He didn’t know much. All he knew was there was a communist bookstore in town and around a corner was a tattoo place where people indulged in getting the Spetsnaz tattoos. Spetsnaz are the Russian version of special forces operators and getting the tattoos I guess is a sign of support for anything communist or socialist. I don’t know why anyone who hasn’t served would want a military tattoo, let alone a special forces tattoo. If I suddenly decided to sport a SEAL tattoo, I think Karma would serve me and a real Navy operator would find out and kick my ass, and I would deserve the beating.  While I didn’t find evidence for the tattoos, I did find a book store or two that met the description of the starting point of where I was looking.

Apparently over on Cedar Avenue not far from the University of Minnesota campus there is a bookstore in the basement of a business complex that sells communist literature and propaganda. It’s called May Day books, presumably for the First of May celebration of the birth of Communism in Soviet Russia. They have a parade every year.  On street level at that building there are a number of businesses that rich hippy kids going to school would love to browse, an expensive bike store and a Mountaineering gear supply store complete with a climbing wall training area. All of the businesses on the main floor are connected and you can walk from one to the other. Except for the bookstore. That you had to access through a side exterior staircase that led into a dingy basement. A huge painted logo on the side of the building with yellow paint and bold letters announces progressive books are sold below.

Following down where the arrows point, you find the stair case with a bright red railing leading you down. At the bottom of the stairs is a red door, as red as can be, and through the door is May Day books. I felt like Alice in Wonderland falling through the rabbit hole. I opened the door and stepped inside. I would not have been surprised to see the Mad Hatter.

It’s a quaint little shop with shelves on every wall. It contains only one room and very well could be the meeting place for a failed Hillary Clinton campaign headquarters in that area. At the front door to the right is a rack of communist and socialist literature, most of it not terribly current. The election of Donald Trump has taken a bit of the wind out of young progressive sails, apparently, and nobody has the energy to write anything fresh. I started to browse. A store keeper was nowhere to be seen.

I normally love book stores and I have to say, while I would probably not purchase a lot of what the store had to offer, the titles and subject matter intrigued me. Here was a bastion of liberal and progressive thought, ground zero for the enemy’s propaganda and information operations campaign. This was it and I wanted to dive in and see what the left was saying about my beloved capitalist system and free markets.

A sign above the counter announced that the store hadn’t made a profit since its establishment in 1975, the year it was established. Not something most businesses would care to brag about. I started to look around. There was a lot of anti-capitalist tomes available and one even had the title, or something close to it, “Capitalism sucks and here are 10 top reasons why!”

I found one or two books that would be fascinating reading, no matter the content. One was, “Bible stories for the Atheist” and there was another on a female Palestinian hero who fought against alleged Israeli aggression. There was a lot of anti-Semitic propaganda books, a little on so-called Islamaphobia. There was a lot on the Vietnam war and some on the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of these decried the evils of American Imperialism squashing ancient Middle Eastern cultures to steal oil, or something like that. Any one of these stories would have been an interesting read. There was a whole wall of shelves committed to Malcom X. Interesting.

A store keeper came in eventually from a cave at the back of the store, greeting us politely. He was an older man with a crooked, painful looking twisted leg. He had me pegged as an old soldier at once, there was no hiding from him, even though I’d started to grow my hair longer. He was a communist, not an idiot. He asked me if I’d been in the service and I said yes. He informed me that he had been at Hue (pronounced Way, Vietnamese, I know right?) He asked me about what I thought about the current situation in Syria. I was non-committal, avoiding displaying my true feelings and talking about Trump.

“I think it’s a powder keg and it has always been a powder keg,” I said, and I left it at that. On the way out of the store the guy behind the counter gave me a leaflet on a veterans for peace organization. I accepted it politely and left. I was proud of myself that I actually made it out of a bookstore without buying a book. That rarely happens.

May Day Books. You’ll find old hippies hanging out there. The young hippies go upstairs and buy adventure gear.

My wife and I went upstairs and looked at bikes and canoes, many too expensive for me to afford right now. I appreciated the irony. Maybe I miss my guess, but the guy’s rent in the basement doesn’t pay for the building, the budding capitalists upstairs more than provide for rent and jobs and revenue for the whole block. There were some nice items there for young rich kids to buy with their monthly allotment from their wealthy parents. There was even a climbing wall in the mountaineering portion. Very cool. My hands sweated just thinking about it. I am not much of a climber.

We left that establishment and found another communist museum to a failed ideology. Boneshaker Books in the Seward neighborhood was our next destination. True to its reputation, they had a lot of books not often found in other places. They got me for about $40 for only two books. There was an Asian gentleman around the counter managing the place, and a young Caucasian woman eating some organic dish right in the middle of the store largely ignoring my wife and I. It’s a good thing we found the place because we hadn’t stopped all day and my wife and I both had to use the bathroom. (One of the bathrooms at the store was down, but the one we saw that still functioned was clean and well-kept.) It was either that or the laundromat down the street which my little Asian wife patently refused to use.

Boneshaker Books. The new progressives like a shinier package for their socialist and communist media options.

Boneshaker Books is a little bigger than May Day and has a tiny collection of rare books and art. On the door is a sign decrying their need to love diversity, being good liberals that they are, that read: “We embrace our Muslim brothers and sisters. All are welcome! Stop Islamaphobia!” I wonder if the bookseller would be as welcoming if they knew I was a diehard conservative with libertarian leanings? My wife and I didn’t fail to notice that there were definitely Somali and Muslim influences in the neighborhood. We entered a grey stucco building covered with elaborate vines and we were not disappointed. I put several books back on the shelves not for wanting to have them, but just to preserve my hard-earned cash. I have too many books as it is.

Off one corridor was a conference room where it appears they had meetings where young liberals talked about whatever young liberals talk about. I didn’t see a sign for the Hillary Clinton Election Failure support group, but I didn’t look that hard. I imagine some of that is going on. To one side close to the entrance I saw a rack of propaganda almost exactly like the one at May Day. Apparently, they’re on the same distribution list. I didn’t take anything this time. On the walls above the books were several drawings by local artists for sale, many of them very nicely done. One thing liberals often do better than we conservatives is art, literature, and poetry. They’re wired that way and they are very good story-tellers. Unfortunately, much of the stories they tell are fantasy fiction. It doesn’t work in real life. But, looking at the art and pursuing the books, I couldn’t help being impressed. I put several books back which I would normally have been very interested in, like history, war, insurgency and that sort of thing. There was a copy of 1984 and Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, which I thought was interesting. (All of these young kids should actually read 1984 rather than just stock it on shelves, but I digress.)

I actually picked up two titles that I hadn’t heard of before. One was a graphic novel called “Pride of Baghdad” by Brian Vaughan and Niko Henrichon. It’s the story based loosely on a true event that happened in Baghdad during the 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. Apparently, we bombed a zoo, the lions got out, and we shot the lions. End of story. I didn’t care much for the dialogue, but the art of the panels and the premise of the story were intriguing. I give it a 7 on a scale of 1-10.

One of my favorite panels in the graphic novel “Pride of Baghdad”. The story idea of this book is intriguing, the art panels are excellent, the dialogue is kind of lame. I give it a 7 out of 10! -Jeremy Griffith

The other one I picked up was called, “Narco-Economics, How to Run a Drug Cartel” by Tom Wainwright. I think it will make an interesting read and will go along with my binge TV watching of Breaking Bad on Netflix. In my mind, I think it will provide some information for research I’m doing on another story line I’m working on. Wait and see. It’s written by a guy who apparently has done journalistic work for The Economist in their Mexico City office, as well as for the Guardian, the Times and Literary review. I’ll let you know how it is.

I made my purchases at the counter and the store keeper offered us free buttons. “Fuck Trump” they said. That’s why they were free, nobody would take them. My wife and I politely declined and left the building.

An unintentionally funny panel in the graphic novel “Pride of Baghdad”. Instead of generating sorrow, it’s good for a laugh. I imagine this is what happened to progressives who found out Trump won the presidency. First they become incoherent, then their heads explode.

The next stop on our journey was a little shop around the corner, at Tattoo establishment. A tall thin man with ink and piercings came out from the other room. I think we largely wasted our his time, for which I apologize. It was evident to him from the beginning we weren’t interested in getting tattoos, we didn’t seem the type. I was much more interested in seeing if he had any evidence that that was the store where the Spetznaz tattoos came from. I asked a couple of questions about art and pricing, which he politely indulged, and then we left him to his real customers. I was impressed with the artwork that he had on display. If the actual tattoos look anything like the art displayed on the walls, then the workers really know their business.

The rest of the day my wife and I spent shopping at Asian groceries in Minneapolis and St. Paul. My wife is Filipino and once a month I indulger her in her quest for seafood. There are a couple of nice shops that are usually well stocked, but this time were not. Must be a bad time of the year for sea fish? We visited Shaung Hur off of University Avenue which had nothing, so we migrated to the store of the same name off of Nicolette. There we actually did get some fish and shrimp, which made my wife extremely happy. My wife pointed out a weird looking fruit she likes called Durian. It looks like a big, green, spiky alien head. I imagined that if you cut it open, an alien baby would pop out and eat your head like in the classic horror movie, Aliens. They make a Durian drink like a milk shake that is actually a very sweat, white frothy concoction with a green aftertaste. My wife and I stopped around the corner to try one at a little Vietnamese kitchen. Then we went over to a Mexican restaurant next door and had lunch. It was expensive, but the food was good. I had a Cerveza Dos Eqius, which is uncharacteristic for me. I usually don’t drink beer in the middle of the day.  

At the end of the day, I was struck by the oddity and contrast of our little mission to Minneapolis. So many contradictions. Communists decry the horror and unfairness of capitalism, but all around them capitalism thrives, the mountain bike store, the Mexican and Vietnamese restaurants, the Filipino and Asian food stores, all of them thrive because of free markets. Even the communist and socialist books stores thrive from the free market place of ideas. Some would say that their goal is to shut down the debate of competing ideas. I am a free speech guy. Let them try to spread their failed ideology. They can forever be a case study in the museum of wrong thinking. I agree with Sean Connery who said in a movie once that we should be reading books rather than burning them. How else do we challenge our closely held beliefs?

The communists didn’t win me over, and I didn’t win over any of them. But I had a good time exploring enemy territory. Too bad there aren’t any conservative bookstores in that neighborhood. 

For further reading:

http://www.citypages.com/arts/top-7-bookstores-in-the-twin-cities-6576379

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/apr/22/iraq1

http://www.boneshakerbooks.com/

http://maydaybookstore.org/

 

 

 

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