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RALPH KINGSBURY: GF should take action on bookstore

Capitalism is a great economic system. In fact, capitalism is the only system that delivers what the majority of the people want at the least possible cost, sort of, most of the time -- at least when it is not distorted by a government agency or ...

Ralph Kingsbury
Ralph Kingsbury

Capitalism is a great economic system. In fact, capitalism is the only system that delivers what the majority of the people want at the least possible cost, sort of, most of the time -- at least when it is not distorted by a government agency or by a market run amok.

What has got me so tied up in knots? My immediate concern is the bookstore market and how it is developing in Grand Forks. It has me so discouraged that I sat down last weekend and wrote my next Herald column about it. Then, I opened Monday's paper and found that Herald editorial page editor Tom Dennis had written much the same in his editorial ("Seek and Grand Forks might find a book superstore," Page A4).

You might consider today's column repetitive, but this is an important issue many in Grand Forks are concerned about.

Shouldn't we capitalists just let the market do its thing? If the market is working as it should, then the answer is yes. But consider these things:

First, I was in Minot's Barnes & Noble bookstore recently. Most of us have also been to the Barnes & Noble in Fargo. Bismarck has a Barnes & Noble, too. For a few years, we had a disappointing store on the university campus. It was nothing like any of those, and besides, now it's gone.

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Then, we hear it is going to get even worse in Grand Forks. Waldenbooks, owned by Borders and located in Columbia Mall, is closing. Borders has chosen not to build superstores in North Dakota, but Barnes & Noble superstores are in the other three big North Dakota towns.

True, Fargo and Bismarck have a larger population; but then again, Bismarck and Minot each have a college population about one-third the size of UND, and Minot's total population is only about three-fourths of the total population of Grand Forks.

Don't compete; just quit. That apparently is Border's decision now that Target and Wal-Mart are going to have a limited low-priced lineup. It appears it is also Barnes & Noble's decision about a superstore in Grand Forks.

The superstores have received a lot of criticism for the way they ran over the small independent bookstores in the past. Some of that criticism was valid, but in the end, capitalism created a market for huge bookstores that sold books at reasonable prices. It created a better system then had ever been there before.

There are certain things we must have to be a complete community. One of those is an events center. We call that place the Alerus Center. It has been an important part of the recovery and growth of Grand Forks.

Another important part of a destination city is a complete shopping venue. I cannot imagine that definition not including a large bookstore.

Recently, I was talking to a middle-aged farmer who had gone many miles with his wife for a day of shopping in Fargo. When I asked him why he had driven right by Grand Forks, he said that as long as he could spend a couple of hours in a good bookstore and go to a place such as Lowe's or Menard's, then enjoy a night eating out and staying at a motel with his wife, he'd be happy. Well, Grand Forks almost met his requirements, but it didn't have a good bookstore.

We also need to remember that we are the first opportunity our neighbors from Winnipeg have to experience American shopping. Winnipeg has some excellent independent bookstores, but they don't have the discounted chain shopping that we have.

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I think not having a large bookstore here is one more excuse for Canadians to continue on down Interstate 29 to Fargo.

Some at the Chamber of Commerce are worried about criticism if they recruit retail stores. That recruitment probably should be approached with caution, but when you are dealing with a market that is not here (or is not being served well by the out-of-state stores that are here), I think the recruitment would be welcomed by area residents.

I also think these chains listen to their customers. I e-mailed Barnes & Noble about this. The response was the standard "We will forward this to our development department," but imagine if the company got many similar e-mails.

I also think the "Destination City" program that the mayor has run so successfully needs to put the recruitment of a bookstore in its sights. Shopping in Grand Forks will suffer without such a store.

Reach Kingsbury at kae@invisimax.com or 738-4810.

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