Northlandia: Lake Superior beachside cottage bookstore more than just a pretty space
Drury Lane Books in Grand Marais may have a picturesque location, but what keeps people coming back is the tailored selection and the sense of community.
GRAND MARAIS — For Northland readers, it's like the end of the rainbow.
If you walk east down Wisconsin Street, Grand Marais Harbor with its iconic lighthouse visible on your right, you'll pass Java Moose, the Gun Flint Tavern, Sven and Ole's Pizza and the World's Best Donuts. A view across hundreds of miles of open Lake Superior water beckons ... and at the end of the road, there's a cottage full of books.
"This is about 650 square feet of selling space," said store manager Gwen Danfelt, standing in the stacks earlier this month. "I have about 5,000 books packed in here."
Drury Lane Books was founded in 2002, amid a precipitous decline in retail bookselling. Between 1995 and 2009, according to membership data from the American Booksellers Association, the country lost over three-quarters of its brick-and-mortar bookstore locations.
Founder Joan Drury had faith, though. "I don't think it felt risky to her at all," said Drury's daughter, Kelly Kager. "Amazon provides such a different thing than an actual community bookstore provides."
Joan was a great boss and a great mentor in the couple of years that I got to work with her. I'm not a ghost person, but you feel her spirit in this store.
Kager and her brother, Kevin Kager, now own the bookstore. Joan Drury died in 2020 after a remarkable lifetime of entrepreneurship and advocacy.
"Mom was all about words and feminism," said Kelly Kager. "She had the feminist (publishing house) Spinsters Ink, which used to be in Duluth," part of the Building for Women.
Drury grew up in the Twin Cities suburb of Richfield, but had a connection to the North Shore that started during childhood summer escapes, said Danfelt. Norcroft, a Lutsen writing retreat for women, was among Drury's many projects focused on feminism and the literary world.
"Joan was a great boss and a great mentor in the couple of years that I got to work with her," said Danfelt, who's been with Drury Lane for seven years. "I'm not a ghost person, but you feel her spirit in this store."
On a springtime Tuesday morning, Danfelt paused to greet customers as they entered. Among them were a family with young children who needed to be coaxed away from the kids' section when it was time to leave, and a regular who asked about Danfelt's father. ("Has he given up on the Tigers yet?")
Despite the ups and downs of a seasonal tourist economy in Grand Marais, Drury Lane stays open year-round. Locals are mainstays, said Danfelt, especially during wintertime when the pace slows down and people have more time to read.
Then, starting with a spring break influx, summer is peak season. That means Full Moon Readings around a bonfire and Saturday morning storytimes with Kevin Kager. As kids head back to school and fall colors appear, it's time to get ready for the holiday shopping rush.
All that activity doesn't leave much time for staff to enjoy the scenery. "People are like, 'Oh, you've got a great view!'" said Danfelt. "I'm like, oh, yeah, I'm looking at my email inbox."
For Joan Drury, said Kelly Kager, founding the bookstore "was really about providing a service to the community: a place for people to find books that they wanted, and have events to help inform and entertain and educate people."
The building that's home to the store has a long history, explained Danfelt. "This is one of the oldest buildings in Grand Marais. When you're outside it looks like a little house, and it was built as a settler's house right around 1905." The chinked-log structure is sturdy. Despite its proximity to the lake, the basement is still dry.
"When the opportunity came up for that building, that was just such a perfect location, and the right time in her life," said Kager about her mother.
The structure has been home to a series of businesses since the 1960s, said Danfelt. Most recently, it was the location of Sivertson Gallery, now located a block west.
"From the outside," said Danfelt, "we're so cute that some people assume it's a children's bookstore." In fact, it's a general-interest bookstore that's kept especially well-stocked with titles of regional interest and books by diverse voices.
Danfelt is the store's book buyer, and she has to choose carefully. With Joan Drury's background as both an author and publisher, she determined that her store would not participate in the widespread practice of returning unsold copies to publishers — who are then on the hook to refund the books' wholesale price.
"That's pretty heartbreaking for the author, and frustrating for the publisher," explained Danfelt. She admits that "I've made a few errors over the years, and we do have a 50% off rack, but in general, I've learned what people are interested in."
Kelly Kager said there was never a question as to whether she and her brother would carry on their mother's legacy and continue running Drury Lane Books. "There was no other choice to be made," said Kager. "The bookstore is, we feel, an essential part of our community."
"You hear great conversations," said Danfelt about her life at Drury Lane. One couple will come in and call to each other over the tall shelves as they browse. Kids will come in, drop their digital devices, and get excited about books.
The store has a rocking chair, which was a favorite spot for Joan Drury. "She spent so much time sitting in that rocking chair that I can still kind of picture it," said Danfelt.
Now, especially during those quiet winter days, Danfelt continued, "one person might come in by themselves, and they sit down in the rocking chair, and you're kind of like a bartender. You're here to listen and talk with them."
A bookworm is different from a barfly, though. "You get the person that wants to come and hang out at the bookstore in the middle of the day," said Danfelt. Even in a little lakeside cottage, it seems, "everybody's thinking big ideas and sharing them."
For information on Drury Lane Books, including its activities planned for National Independent Bookstore Day on April 29, see drurylanebooks.indielite.org.