Photo Credit: Light Grey Art Podcast
Image Credit: Ken Fletcher
Photo Credit: Uncle Hugo's website
Photo Credit: Gregg Cotton
Photo Credit: Uncle Hugo's & Uncle Edgar's Facebook page
Gif credit: Moira Manion
Gif credit: Moira Manion
Gif credit: Moira Manion
Written by Don Blyly
Starting Uncle Hugo's
Uncle Hugo's opened to the public on March 2, 1974, but the concept started about 10 days earlier. I was sitting in the law school library, bored out of my mind by constitutional law, and decided that I needed something fun to do to take my mind off of law school. The idea of owning a science fiction bookstore came to mind. I had tried for years to get a part-time job working in a bookstore, with no success, so I decided to start my own store. I started making a list of what I would need, and started looking for solutions. I needed a space to rent, and I found a tiny spot to rent that only cost $50 per month, with utilities provided, that was only a block from my apartment. (The Electric Fetus used most of the building for storage and for manufacturing bongs, but didn't want the small space in front where the public could see in.) I needed books and bookshelves. Gopher News was a magazine and book wholesaler in town. They recommended that I not open, and especially that I not open in that neighborhood, but they were willing to sell me books and provided the bookshelves for free, as long as I paid the bill every week. Since I was a full-time law school student, I needed somebody trustworthy and with knowledge of science fiction and fantasy to work the hours I was at school. Ken Fletcher had just moved back to town and was looking for a job. I needed cash, but I had about $1500 in student loan money that I hadn't spent yet. So, everything came together and Uncle Hugo's opened 10 days later.
Expanding the Business
The thing about a bookstore is that there were always more books that I wanted to add to the selection, so for years I couldn't live off of the store. Every spare dollar went into expanding the selection, and then expanding the store to hold the every-increasing number of books. By the time I finished law school and passed the bar exam it was clear that I would not be happy working as a lawyer, but I was happy in the book business. So I kept working on graduate degrees and taking out as much in student loans as I could for several years. But that came to an end in the middle of 1980, when I was booted out of the Ph.D. program, and at the same time a bunch of extra space opened up in the building that was Uncle Hugo's second location. First I was able to tear down a wall and double the size of Uncle Hugo's. Next, I organized the Upper Midwest Booksellers Association. Then, on December 1, 1980 I opened Uncle Edgar's Mystery Bookstore next to Uncle Hugo's, but with a load-bearing wall between the spaces so that they had to be separate stores. People had been telling me for years how much they liked the concept of Uncle Hugo's and wished there was something similar for mysteries because other members of their families were as hooked on mysteries as they were on sf. I tried for a few years to talk somebody else into opening a mystery bookstore, without success. Then all the pieces came together (including a friend who knew mysteries and was looking for a job).
The Chicago Avenue Space
Back in 1977 I had started Books Galore, a full-line shopping mall store, which did well for several years, but then took a nose-dive during a recession and did a very expensive job of going out of business in 1984. I was able to salvage enough from the crash of Books Galore to come up with a down payment on 2864 Chicago Ave. Because of the layout of the building, it seemed best to keep Uncle Hugo's and Uncle Edgar's separate. The other option would have been to put all the new books in the front and all the used books in the back, but I didn't like that option as well.
Scott Imes: A Manager Like No Other
From 1977 to December 11, 2001, Scott Imes was the manager of Uncle Hugo's, and he had the most amazing memory I've ever encountered. He knew thousands of people by name, what each of them liked to read, the names of all their kids, where their kids were going to college, what their kids were studying at college ,etc. He was dedicated to getting people to read more sf and fantasy, was always making recommendations, and always asking for recommendations. Once a customer came into the store and said “I've been out of the country for two years. Give me the best 100 books of the last two years.” Scott remembered what he had sold them two years before, asked them how they had liked various of the books from two years before, and then proceeded to pile up the best 100 books of the past two years for their tastes. A couple of weeks later another customer came into the store and “I've been out of the country for two years. Give me the best 100 books of the last two years.” Scott also remembered what he had sold to that customer two years before and asked them how they had liked various books from two years before, and I realized that the “best 100 books” from two years before had been very different for the two customers, and the new piles of the “100 best books of the last two years” was very different for the two customers. When Scott died suddenly and unexpectedly at home on December 11, 2001, it was a great personal loss for everybody who knew him, but also a great loss for the store. We all tried to help people find good books to sample, but nobody could do it as well as Scott.
Ecko Enters the Scene
Ecko became the store dog about 4 ½ years before the fire. She was originally surrendered to a shelter in Missouri, but they couldn't get anybody to adopt her because she was so timid. She was brought up to Minnesota and put through a foster family and special training and then adopted to a new family. The new family brought her back after about a year because they couldn't cope with her being so timid, so she went through more training. I adopted her and she was delighted to ride home in the car with me, delighted to explore my back yard, but refused to go into the house because she thought I was going to put her into the basement. I had to carry her up some stairs to the kitchen, at which point she mellowed out, but didn't want to explore the house for over a week. She got used to going in and out of the back door, but it took weeks before she was willing to go out the front door. The shelter had warned me that she was so timid that I shouldn't take her anyplace but home for the first week, but then they gave me a coupon for a free first visit with my vet that had to be used in the first week. So I made an appointment with the vet for the next day. Ecko loved going to the vet and was well behaved towards all the humans and the other animals, so on the way home we stopped at the store so that she could meet the staff and explore the store while on a leash, and she handled that very well. A couple of days later was New Year's Day, with the store closed to customers but me working on tax stuff for several hours. She came along and I let her explore the store off leash. She thought that sitting in front of the door watching people walk by on the sidewalk was great fun. From then on she spent part of most days at the store, although most of the first year she spent on a leash at her bed. If a customer came in that she was already friends with, they could visit her at her bed, but I only let her off the leash if we were out of customers or there was only one customer in the store that she already considered a friend. After a year, I started letting her off the leash a lot more, but only when I was nearby. She came to love being the store greeter, and I only rarely had to put her on a leash in the back room, usually when a loud toddler tried to be TOO friendly. For a while she became nervous if the store became too crowded with people she didn't know, but eventually she adjusted to that. It was interesting to watch her during author events. She would greet people for a while, then start to get nervous and would walk behind the signing table next to the author, calm down, and then walk back into the crowd to greet more people before retreating behind the signing table again. I think she may miss going to the store and interacting with customers more than any others of the staff.