Store Honors the History of Its Location 

1/17/14
 
The Purple Onion used to be a small pizza parlor in St. Paul, MN. The restaurant disappeared from the scene a long time ago, but locals still remember it as a place where a young Bob Dylan used to play for pizza back in 1959 and 1960.
 
When the Hamline University Bookstore opened in the old Purple Onion location, Manager Melanie Farley wanted to keep that memory alive. She created the Purple Onion Book Club in honor of the long-gone restaurant and featured two books written by the songwriter at the club’s first meeting.
 
“Bob Dylan was a Minnesota local and lived in the Twin Cities for a long time,” Farley said. “It’s some really cool local history that we’ve been lucky enough to get in on.”
 
Farley discovered the history of the building during renovations last summer, when construction workers uncovered the old pizza parlor floor.
 
“The flooring was torn off and you could see the old horseshoe bar and where the soda fountain was and where all the bar stools were,” she said. “Of course, we have our new flooring down and you can’t actually see the old floor, but that’s part of the reason why we have the name of the Purple Onion Book Club to keep that local history alive.”
 
Farley, an amateur bass guitar player, said her musical interests played a part in her desire to launch the club.
 
“If I hadn’t been as interested in music as I am, I still would have felt strongly about the history of this building and the excitement of being in a space that has a history like this,” she said. “I am a lifelong lover of all things music, but I’m also a book lover in general, so book clubs appeal to me.”
 
She founded the club to focus on local authors, but the first meeting featured Chronicles and Tarantula. Chronicles is Dylan’s autobiography, while Tarantula is a compilation of poems, narratives, and letters by Dylan that was widely bootlegged until it was finally published in 1968.
 
“Bob seemed to have some pretty fond memories of playing for pizza for a few dollars here, and then crashing in the back room when he didn’t have a place to go,” Farley said. “I feel he really was quite a literary genius. His writing is very, very good and I think it’s part of his success as a songwriter.”
 
The second meeting of the club featured John Brandon, a Hamline professor of creative writing and author of A Million Heavens. The next meeting is scheduled for March when the crime fiction of St. Paul native William Kent Krueger will be discussed.
 
“It was really fun to discuss his book with him as far as his motivations for some of his characters,” Farley said of Brandon’s appearance at the November meeting. “I would really like to continue in the direction of connection with local authors who can actually participate in the club.”
 
Farley gets the word out about the club and its meetings through the store’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. The club and the store have also been featured by a number of local media outlets.
 
“The press for this book club has been fantastic and has really helped the store,” she said. “We’ve had people stopping in just to ask about it, talk about the history of the building, and reminisce about times they were here.”
 
She wants to expand the club to a virtual audience with a blog that would allow followers to discuss featured books online. The Purple Onion Book Club has also opened a dialogue with Hamline faculty members.
 
“I’m always trying to think about how to connect with faculty and staff here at Hamline,” Farley explained. “When you can do things to increase business and awareness and connect with the community that are a little outside the box, I think that’s cool. I think people like it when history is hung onto because we look back with as much fondness as we look forward.”
 
Farley did attempt to contact Dylan about the club, but has yet to receive a reply.
 
“I didn’t feel like I would have much sway with it, so I connected the Hamline PR folks and they attempted to contact him, unsuccessfully so far,” she said. “We’re going to continue to keep that as a goal. It would be amazing if he responded.”

 

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