Venerable Minneapolis science fiction and fantasy bookstore Uncle Hugo’s and its sister store in the same building, Uncle Edgar’s, which specialized in mysteries, were both burned to ruins last Friday night by rioters.
The store took its name from two major awards in the genre fields, science fiction’s Hugo awards, and mysteries Edgar’s. Independent bookstores are a threatened American institution, and Uncle Hugo’s was considered a flagship operation. Owner Don Blyly was noted for his ability to adapt to modern bookselling conditions and serve an audience of devoted genre readers. With most independent book shops, the margins are low and often owners are in the business as much for love as for money. For Don Blyly, it doesn’t matter anymore.
The books are burned. His shop is gone.
“There was a call from the security company around 3:30 this morning that the motion detector was showing somebody in the building. I threw on clothes and headed over there,” said Blyly in an email. “When I was 2 blocks away, I received a call that the smoke detectors were showing smoke in the store. Every single building on both sides of Chicago was blazing and dozens of people dancing around.”
Uncle Hugo’s was located at 2864 Chicago Avenue, in Minneapolis. Blyly pulled into the parking lot belonging to the dentist office next door to his shop. Flames were already leaping out the front windows of the Uncle Hugo’s side of the store.
“It looked to me like they had broken every window on the front of the Uncles and then squirted accelerant through each broken window. It looked hopeless to me, but I went around to the back door to see if I could get to a fire extinguisher. As soon as I opened the back door a wave of very thick black smoke poured out, so I quickly closed the door again.”
Blyly then heroically rushed over to the nextdoor office building. It’s garage-door style side entrance had been opened and he entered to try to extinguish any fire. He made it to an inside break room, but when he opened a door to the main clinic, smoke poured out and he had to evacuate. Outside, he observed that his own store was entirely engulfed in flames. He turned his attention to getting away from the area.
“Some of the rioters were busy breaking every pane of glass in the transit hub,” Blyly continued. “The former Sheraton did not seem to be on fire yet, and there were guests who were staying there. It looked like somebody may have broken a window on the first floor along Chicago and started a fire, but it could have just been a reflection of the flames from the Uncles.”
The Uncles is how Blyly refers to his bookstore.
“I didn’t notice anything going on yet at the Global Marketplace, but the rioters were headed in that direction. There is no way a mere fire could bring that building down, but it could wipe out all of those businesses, and there are hundreds of people who live above the Global Marketplace who could be trapped by the smoke.”
Blyly considered several possible exit routes.
“Since Chicago Avenue was full of dancing rioters, broken glass, and flaming debris, I went down the alley and took Lake Street home. There were blocks of Lake Street where every building was blazing. No sign of any cops, national guard troops, or any help.”
Blyly expressed doubts that insurance would cover his loss. “I’m pretty sure the insurance policy excludes damage from a civil insurrection, so I suspect I won’t get a cent for either the building or the contents.”
Uncle Hugo’s was known in the often politically contentious science fiction community as a place where good books and good storytelling was prized above all else. Blyly took a decidedly nonpartisan stance when it came to what he sold. The physical store supplied a wide mailing list as well, with often hard to find first and special editions of books.
Author-signed copies, particularly first editions, were an Uncles specialty. Everything was destroyed by the rioters’ firebombing of the establishment. As of Saturday morning, the Uncles appeared entirely gutted, and lay a smoldering ruin. Countless specialty books, priceless to readers and collectors, had been burned to crisps and cinders.
There are already fundraising efforts underway, and Blyly has the pluck to rebuild given funds and the opportunity, but a neighborhood institution like Uncle Hugo’s is difficult to replace under any circumstances.
We all know who burned Uncle Hugo’s. It wasn’t “Nazis,” or the cops in some kind of conspiracy to cast blame. It was the Minneapolis rioters. Book-burning scum, in other words. Or, as my wife reminds me, misguided children of God for whom we should pray.
The political moral to draw is obvious and banal. But when a cultural institution like a good bookstore is burned, the damage goes beyond the physical. It is not really possible to merely clean up and rebuild, as you might a Target or a police station. The bustle of the street, the fabric of the city itself, is damaged. The destruction of a bookstore hurts people’s souls, even if they don’t realize this.
“A city cannot be a work of art,” Jane Jacobs writes in her seminal book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” By this she means that a city is not like a statue. It is an unplanned web, a crazy network of individuals doing productive, artistic, crazy, and interesting things, all at once. It pulsates with life and change in some areas, accretes tradition or staleness, or both, in others. It’s never the same.
The hustle and bustle of the street, the shops and restaurants and churches and halfway houses and all the rest engender this hustle and bustle. When you burn such places down (or, as was Jacobs’ concern, plough them under with ill-conceived top-down urban projects), you are not clearing for renewal. You are destroying the very possibility for growth and change in a community. You are killing hope.
“The economic value of new buildings in replaceable in cities,” Jacobs writes. “But the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time. This economic requisite for diversity is a requisite that vital city neighborhoods can only inherit, and then sustain over the years.”
Cities stripped of places like Uncle Hugo’s become pits of despair, barbarism, and danger because the businesses are gone and buildings are burned. Don Blyly may rebuild with our help.
But no amount of money or good wishes after the fact can renew a city that has stood by and allowed its own heart to be ripped out. Or worse, that rips out its own heart and calls it justice.