Birchbark Books, the independent bookstore that has been nestled in the Kenwood neighborhood for over 20 years, opened an event space inside Loring Corners called Birchbark Bizhiw, which means lynx in the Ojibwe language, in April. The bookstore is owned by Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Louise Erdrich, who is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.
Birchbark Lynx has already hosted events for Native authors and artists including Monique Gray Smith, author of “Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults,” and Sky Hopinka, multimedia artist and author of “Around the Edge of Uncircling Lake.”
Events are a time for readers and fans to connect with creators as well as buy Native books and art.
The Loring Corners building borders Loring Park. A benefit of the location is that it’s closer to downtown and therefore more accessible by bus than the Kenwood location, which is inside a neighborhood. Once inside, it’s a bit of a maze to find the event space, but event organizers place signs at every corner to guide attendees. Birchbark Lynx is lined with shelves of books. At Gray Smith’s event on April 19, a table of her books sat in the middle of the room. Another table had Native art and snacks for sale.
The event was free with an online RSVP ahead of the event. Future events will follow this model, though there’s a chance that will change.
Not enough space
When the pandemic hit in 2020, the bookstore’s sales skyrocketed. The brick-and-mortar shop was closed for a year and a half during the pandemic, so buyers relied on online sales.
“Local folks were very conscious of making sure that they were supporting us,” Treisberg said. “Our online orders through our website exploded, we just kind of had a whole new aspect of the business that we hadn’t really had before.”
The Birchbark store is small, and there isn’t a back room for storage. The store’s crew collected and packed orders from the store’s main floor, which was chaotic and cramped. When the store finally reopened its doors, online order materials got pushed under tables on the floor. They needed a bigger space.
The need for a delivery warehouse and packing area pushed them to a space at Loring Corners, which now houses some of the Native art they sell online.
Birchbark had already hosted events, but the bookstore is too small and oddly-shaped to comfortably host, so they usually had to partner with other local places to host. Opening an event space of their own meant having complete control over scheduling and organization. Having developed a good relationship with the building managers at Loring Corners, they decided to open their event venue in another space there.
The Kenwood shop
The Birchbark Books & Native Arts store in Kenwood is stocked with Indigenous art and literature across many genres and titles by non-Native authors. The online store sells only Native-written works. The store also fulfills orders for school sets of books. Store co-manager and event coordinator Halee Kirkwood said that one of the store’s roles is to amplify the voices of lesser-known Indigenous authors and artists in addition to the more well-known ones.
“To me one of the most important things about our store is to lift up voices across nations, across tribes, across genre and across visibilities,” Kirkwood said.
Kirkwood described the brick-and-mortar shop as a “destination bookstore,” meaning that customers seek it out instead of stumbling upon it. While the shop serves the local community, Indigenous and non-Native people from across the U.S. and Canada make the trip to see the store. It’s a fun space with a hand-made wooden canoe hanging from the ceiling, a cute loft for children and an artsy church confessional decorated with images of Erdrich’s sins.
“We’re providing books to Indigenous kids and Indigenous folks so they can see themselves in the books that we’re selling, but then we’d also like to view ourselves as a hub for education,” store co-manager Nadine Teisberg said.
One of Kirkwood’s favorite parts of working at the store is the people who walk through the doors. They get to meet authors they admire, authors they don’t know yet and customers with interesting backgrounds. Kirkwood once saw Dr. Angela Davis at a Birchbark event.
“When people come and they say ‘I’ve never seen someone from my tribe on a bookshelf before,’ it’s very emotional, and it happens actually quite often, like ‘I never thought I would see someone like myself in this busy bookstore,’” they said.
On the education side of things, the store sells materials to learn Indigenous languages, biographies, historical novels and more. The store provides accurate historical books about the Native American genocide without sugarcoating, but it’s also a place to read about the joys and pride in Native cultures and experiences.
“Just to be a place where you can learn about [the genocide], but then also feel like you’re supported in learning about it in a way that’s not just making you feel hopeless all the time,” Kirkwood said.
Events are fun for the shop because Indigenous people get to see authors and book characters that look like them and have similar life experiences. The first event at the new space was with Caldecott-winner Carole Lindstrom for her book “My Powerful Hair.”
“We’ve had a few events and to see these little kids show up with their big long braids,” Treisberg said. “That book is just to celebrate them, and that was really powerful to see.”
At the event for “Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults,” attendees had time to browse the author’s books as well as the shelves full of other Native books and materials, plus the table of Native-made arts. There were around 30 chairs set up and about 20 people in attendance. Birchbark seller Anthony Ceballos asked author Monique Gray Smith questions about the book and the writing process, then there was a question-and-answer session with audience members. Gray Smith closed the event by handing out a couple free copies of her book to a young reader and a teacher in the audience.
The event space is located at 1629 Hennepin Avenue #275, and the brick-and-mortar bookstore is at 2115 West 21st Street. A map with the entrances to the event space marked is available here.
This story was updated in Nov. 2023 to reflect that the event space is called Birchbark Bizhiw.