The Bielenberg story one man’s love of books
By Dave Healy
“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”
— Henry David Thoreau
If books are the wealth of the world, Tom Bielenberg is a rich man, and he’s made many others richer as well.
Bielenberg has spent his life in the book business, most recently as the proprietor of Micawber’s Books in St. Anthony Park. Before that, he worked at Hungry Mind in St. Paul, which became Ruminator Books in 2000. That store closed in 2004.
In 2003, with Ruminator co-worker Hans Weyandt, Bielenberg bought Micawber’s from its founder, Norton Stillman. Weyandt left in 2013; since then Micawber’s has been a one-man operation. And in April, Micawber’s closed permanently, following severe injuries Bielenberg suffered in a March 3 fall.
Bielenberg didn’t set out to be a bookseller.
In 1975, while a graduate student in journalism at the University of Minnesota, he took a part-time job at Hungry Mind. Owner David Unowsky joked that he hired Tom mainly to play outfield on the company softball team.
In the beginning, Bielenberg did a little of everything: unpacking books, stocking shelves, working the register. When the store’s main book buyer asked if he’d be interested in ordering academic titles, Bielenberg added another item to his job description. Eventually, book-buying became his main responsibility. Ordering books meant establishing relationships with sales reps.
“I enjoyed talking about new titles,” Bielenberg said. “Everybody I met in the book business cared about books, including the sales reps.”
Deciding which books to order means knowing one’s customers. Bielenberg started building that knowledge at Micawber’s, and it became one of the things that people most appreciated about the store.
Falcon Heights resident Lynda Morlock is a longtime Micawber’s customer who appreciated that Tom knew what kind of book she was likely to enjoy.
“Tom introduced me to poetry,” she said. “He recommended a book by Mary Oliver, and I loved it.”
Morlock described an experience that many people likely have had: going to Micawber’s with a book in mind but unable to remember the author or title.
“If you gave them enough of a description, chances were good they’d come up with it,” she said.
Margot and Bjorn Monson enjoyed attending events at Micawber’s, such as an appearance by Amy and Dave Freeman, who wrote “A Year in the Wilderness: Bearing Witness in the Boundary Waters.” The Monsons were also grateful for Bielenberg’s help in choosing books for a child who was a reluctant reader.
Beyond knowing books and knowing his customers, Bielenberg became comfortable talking with people.
“Hans [Weyandt] was very outgoing, and he became the face of the store,” Bielenberg said. “After he left, that responsibility was mine.”
The personal touch is what drew many customers to Micawber’s.
“People need a reason to go to a small bookstore, rather than Barnes and Noble or Amazon,” Bielenberg said. “I couldn’t match those places for inventory, so it was important to offer something else.”
In 2016, Micawber’s moved from its longtime street-level location in Milton Square to a garden-level space about a third the size of the original store.
“I missed being on the street and looking out the front window, watching people go by,” Bielenberg said. “In the years we were there, I watched kids grow up.”
He said the move meant a reduction in walk-in traffic, but regular customers, and some new ones, found their way to the courtyard location.
“People who saw the new space for the first time often said it felt ‘cozy,’ ” he said.
With less space for books, Bielenberg found himself doing more special orders. He ordered for neighborhood book groups, and his store also served as a meeting place for several of them.
The Sunday Afternoon Book Club met at Micawber’s for nine years. For member John Horchner, meeting in a bookstore meant feeling “the inspiration from all the people who have walked in and out of the place.” Horchner appreciated Bielenberg’s insights about whatever book the club was reading, describing him as “the real deal.”
“We certainly got our money’s worth, but it became obvious that it had ceased to be about money for Tom,” he added.
During the last year Micawber’s was open, Bielenberg benefitted from the assistance of Katherine Warde, who grew up in the neighborhood and was a Micawber’s regular from an early age. Later, Warde started her own bookstore, Addendum Books, and after she closed that store she started helping out at Micawber’s.
Although Micawber’s is closed, Bielenberg — who, at age 67, could retire — said he’s not ready to yet.
“Right now I’m focused on my recovery,” he said, “so I haven’t thought a lot about what might happen after that. But I know I’ll miss seeing the people who came into Micawber’s, and I’ll always be grateful for their support.”
On Sunday, May 19, at 3 p.m., an event will be held to honor Micawber’s and Tom Bielenberg. “Remembering Micawber’s: A Celebration of Words,” is scheduled at St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ, 2129 Commonwealth Ave., and will feature music and readings by noted writers.
Dave Healy is a former editor of the Park Bugle
A Celebration of Words
3 p.m. Sunday, May 19
St. Anthony Park UCC
2129 Commonwealth Ave.
Readings by noted writers
Music by Adam Granger