Ruminator Finds

Ruminator Finds

Ruminator Finds (originally known as Hungry Mind Finds) was part of the catalog of Ruminator Books (originally known as Hungry Mind Books), the publishing arm of Ruminator Books, a legendary St. Paul, Minnesota bookstore (originally known as Hungry Mind Books), which also published the literary quarterly The Ruminator Review (originally known as–you got it–The Hungry Mind Review). The story of Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books is a parable of how far a passion for books can take you … until simple economics kick in.

David UnowskyDavid Unowsky founded his independent bookstore, Hungry Mind Books, near the campus of Macalester College in 1970. Over the next four decades, the bookstore became the hub not just of the Twin Cities literary scene, but acquired a reputation as one of a handful of truly great American bookstores.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, Unowsky and his wife, Pearl Kilbride, decided to branch out into the publishing business. As Kilbride later recounted it, the departure of Andre Schiffrin from Pantheon was the tipping point. Mergers of publishing houses were leading the resulting conglomerates to trim backlists as a simple way to cut costs and, in their view, “Mid-list authors were falling out of what could have been good career paths.” Unowsky and Kilbride, along with Page Cowles, Margaret Wuertle, and Gail See created a partnership.

Hungry Mind Find logoAs Hungry Mind Press, they issued their first releases in January 1995, with a list that included Days and Nights in Calcutta a travel memoir written in two parts by the husband and wife team, Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee, and first published in 1975. Over the course of its nearly ten years’ existence, the press published 50 titles, with an emphasis on literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry, including a series of reissues of quality non-fiction under the rubrics of Hungry Mind Finds and Ruminator Finds.

In early 2000, they changed the company’s name to Ruminator Books after selling the name to Hungry Minds, publisher of the hugely successful [Fill in the Blank] For Dummies® series. Hungry Minds was later acquired by the technical publishing giant Wiley. Ruminator Books also became the name of the Hungry Mind bookstore.

Unowsky attributed the failure of the bookstore to a variety of causes, many of them rooted in his approach to the business. As he told the Macalester Today,

We never ran the store in a way to make money and so we didn’t build up any equity or cash reserve against the time when all the bad things happened all at once…. As the store got bigger, instead of making more money we lost more money, because our managerial skills weren’t set for that kind of store. We bought a new computer that cost a lot of money. And we had moved the textbook store down the street and that didn’t work either. So all those things combined cost us a lot of money. It was a gradual decline in the value or goodness of our inventory. So the store went downhill.

The Ruminator Books storeEventually, the store ran up a debt of $650,000 to its landlord, Macalester College. Unowsky tried a variety of creative ways to raise money, including spending his retirement savings, mortgaging his house, accumulating a $100,000 balance on his credit card, holding an eBay auction, issuing a public stock offering, and requesting a grant from the city. But in the end, in mid 2004, he found himself bankrupt and out of a job at the age of 62.

Although there was a possibility of keeping Ruminator Books going, Unowsky and Kilbride had to make a hard choice: “Ruminator Books was a full-time job. Ruminator Press was a full-time job. Ruminator Review was a full-time job. Something had to give,” Kilbride told Publisher’s Weekly. Unfortunately, the Review survived the bookstore by little more than a year, ceasing publication in the fall of 2005. Unowsky did eventually land a full-time job with Magers and Quinn, the Twin Cities’ largest independent bookstore.

Many of the titles below are still in stock with Amazon and other major online sellers as of August 2009. A couple are now out of print; others–A False Spring and Laughing in the Hills–have since been reissued yet again.

Black Tents of Arabia (My Life Among the Bedouins), by Carl R. Raswan

The remarkable story of a former German cavalryman who served in Turkey and Mesopotamia during the First World War and then travelled to Russia and the U.S., where he worked for a time as an advisor to the filming of the Rudolph Valentino classic, The Sheik. Raswan returned to Arabia in the mid-1920s and became an intimate of several Bedouin princes and an expert on Arabian horses. This book, first published in 1934, was one of several books he wrote about his experiences in Arabia.

A Book of Own’s Own: People and Their Diaries, by Thomas Mallon

Mallon’s first book is a study of some of the best- and least-known diaries and diarists of the last three centuries. It’s an entertaining survey that is almost impossible to put down without experiencing an irresistible urge to go out and buy at least a few of the books he covers. Thank God searching for old books was a slow and manual process back when I first read it in 1984.

Days and Nights in Calcutta, by Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee

In 1973, after 14 years away from her native India, Mukherjee returns with her husband Blaise, a Canadian writer. The book is written in two parts: the first by Blaise, the second by Mukherjee. It’s a book that operates on a remarkable number of levels: a travel book; an autobiography; an analysis of Western and Indian cultures; even as a philosophical inquiry into one’s place in the world.

A False Spring, by Pat Jordan

One of finest books ever written about baseball. Jordan recounts his recruitment into major-league baseball as a promising fastball pitcher, only to wind up as a failure in a AAA club before the end of his first season. This is one of those special books whose writing is so fine and effective that it’s a critical disservice to consider it “just” a sports book.

Honey From Stone: A Naturalist’s Search for God , by Chet Raymo

The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage, by Chet Raymo

Raymo, whose novel is included in Karl Bridges’ 100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read is also an astronomer and professor of science who was something of a favorite of Ruminator Books, which published a number of his titles. Honey From Stone and The Soul of the Night are both meditative works that collect essays in which Raymo attempts to reconcile the rationalism of his profession with the Christian tenets he was raised to believe in.

Laughing in the Hills, by Bill Barich

In 1978, nearly broke, suffering from a string of family tragedies and rejected novels, Bill Barich took a room in a cheap motel near the Golden Gate Fields racetrack in the Bay Area and devoted himself to the study of horse racing. Ten weeks later, he returned with notes he turned into a series of New Yorker articles and later this book. Laughing in the Hills was an immediate critical and popular success and has since been acclaimed as one of the 10 best sports books (there goes that qualifier again) of the Century in an poll.

Midnights: A Year with the Wellfleet Police, by Alec Wilkinson

In 1978, with a degree in music and no hopes of finding a job to use it, Wilkinson took a job as a patrolman with the police in Wellfleet, a small Cape Cod town. This book, first published in 1982, is a wry and honest account of his bumbling attempts at learning the job of law enforcement in a situation some have compared to that of Barney Fife and Mayberry.

Moonshine: A Life in Pursuit of White Liquor, by Alec Wilkinson

With his second book, published by Knopf in 1985, Wilkinson travels to rural North Carolina (Mayberry land) and befriends one Garland Bunting, a 57 year-old state Alcohol Board of Control veteran. Bunting teaches Wilkinson about the ways of moonshine producers, backwoods stills, coon-hunting, and high-speed chases on back roads. A fine account of something most American only know through myths and Hollywood stereotypes.

Our Like Will Not Be There Again: Notes from the West of Ireland, by Lawrence Millman

This book is, as the jacket blurb puts is, “An elegy to the loss of traditional life in the west of Ireland, the book details the region’s vanishing communities and landscape with deep reverence and precision.” Millman learned Gaelic and captured the stories and language of the Gaeltacht, which at the time was in danger of vanishing completely.

A Passage to Ararat, by Michael J. Arlen

A successor to Arlen’s well-regarded memoir, Exiles, about the lives of his parents after they fled the Armenian genocide, Passage won the National Book Award for 1976. It’s a moving account of Arlen’s attempt to recapture the family and cultural legacy his parents abandoned when they tried to assimilate into sophisticated English and American society.

The Tree Farm: Replanting a Life, by Robert Treuer

Treuer, who came to America as a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s take-over of Austria, bought a tree farm in Bemidji, Minnesota after work as a teacher and union organizer. While the farm proved to be as much of a business challenge as his previous ventures (Treuer joked that, “My farm has many colors, even if the green of money is sometimes scarce”), the experience opened him up to the beauties and realities of a life in daily contact with nature.