There’s something Pavlovian about entering the Corner Book Shoppe at 5th and State St. The bell jingles above the door, and a jolt of adrenaline triggers a salivating response as I walk in and scan all the book titles I can take in at one glance. The red tartan wallpaper that crowns the dark bookcases makes me feel like I’ve literally stepped inside a large gift box of infinite possibilities. It’s all here: mystery, fantasy, romance, history, science fiction, popular fiction, westerns, nonfiction—you name it. If you love to read, you’ve walked into a book lover’s dreamscape.
The Corner Book Shoppe is a refuge in an increasingly mad-paced world of electronics and 21st-century gadgetry. For someone who’s spent her career writing about technology, this beautiful bookstore across from Kessler’s grocery store is a treasure island without wires that can calm the mortal soul with the flip of a page. Quiet and unassuming, the bookstore has anchored Aberdeen citizens through many years of economic ups and downs.
How many years? Well, going on nearly two decades now. Store proprietor Elizabeth Svensen always dreamed of owning a bookshop. She was supported in her desires by her late husband, Dr. William Svensen, the popular town veterinarian. Together with their son, he even built all the stained wooden bookshelves you see in the bookshop that cascade back through the store in a maze of twists, turns, and alcoves. Yet, make no mistake– the success of The Corner Book Shoppe belongs to Elizabeth Svensen, her staff, and her loyal customers.
Where turnover in retail businesses in Aberdeen has been a challenge in recent years, the Corner Book Shoppe’s resilience can be attributed to the loyalty of its customer base, the in-depth knowledge of the staff, and the care taken with the books themselves. As a used bookshop, each book cover is inspected, pressed, and carefully sanitized with a 70% alcohol solution before it goes on the shelf. This practice was put in place well before COVID-19.
The pandemic put a small dent in the shop’s business. The shop had to close for a few weeks, but Svensen credits strong support from the community keeping the store open in the form of Chamber of Commerce gift certificates and a supply of hand sanitizer and masks for customers. She is grateful to the generous bookshop patrons who’ve donated books to the shop, as well as Olaf Hanson at Dacotah Bank, who helped secure a forgivable Payroll Protection Program loan to help see them through the 2020 economic downturn. “We are now looking forward to the coming year with enthusiasm and renewed optimism,” she said.
Customers grew up with The Corner Book Shoppe. One customer I spoke to, Maria Esser, said, “I’ve been coming since almost the beginning.” As a toddler, her son used to play with the toys that are always left for children under the bench beneath the front window. He’s now 15. She said she comes by at least once every couple of months. Linda Nelson, a shop employee, said customers come from 100 miles away because they’re here for their doctor or dentist appointments, but they always stop by. “New customers,” as she looks behind her, “are surprised when they discover there are 15,000 books back there.”
Kelly Face, the store manager and longtime employee of the bookshop, joined Svensen a couple of years after she opened. Face has an encyclopedic knowledge of nearly every one of the 20,000 or so books in the shop. With a B.A. in English and library science, a master’s degree in the book arts, and a love of reading that matches Svensen’s and Nelson’s, Face makes it her business to help every customer find exactly what they came in for that day. When I asked her what she liked best after all these years about working at the bookshop, she said without hesitation, “Oh, book people are the best. I don’t even have to try and sell. They’re prone to buy.”
I asked Face if she thought ebooks hurt the market. She had an interesting response: “The Kindle has found its level,” she explained. “Some people will use it a little; some all the time. But it’s not a new toy you need to play with. The online sales will always be there. Quite a few people like hunting the bookstores; they like browsing. They like to meet the books when they’re going through, and look at them, see them, and get to know them before they buy them.”
A great place in Aberdeen to get to know books is the Corner Book Shoppe. No doubt about that.
Elizabeth Svensen on the Love of Books
“Like many others who like to read, I had long thought of owning a bookshop. When Duane and Karen Mewing, the owners of Remember When, an antique shop located in a hundred-year-old building (it had most notably been the site of George and Elizabeth Kessler’s first Kessler’s Grocery), were ready to retire, I bought the building. I was very fortunate when Kelly Face, who had worked at Courtney’s Books and had recently returned from serving in the Peace Corps in Botswana, South Africa, agreed to work at the shop. And equally fortunate when Linda Nelson agreed to join us. Mary Elsen Svensen would later become our indispensable bookkeeper and book scout. They all love to read and to share that love with others.
The bookshop is now entering its 18th year. We have always placed great importance on children’s books, and we now have parents who were brought in by their parents bringing in their children. School librarians also come by to replenish their libraries. There is a book written by Munro Leaf (the author of Ferdinand The Bull) in the early 1940s that we especially like to recommend. How To Behave And Why is a much-loved classic, illustrated with charming stick figures, that teaches proper behavior to young people. We think it serves as a gentle reminder to adults as well in these fractious times. Mary first discovered this book, and we go to great lengths to keep it on our shelves.
I am often asked what my favorite book is. I always reply Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Martinez. It is a richly-detailed accounting of the fifty years, nine months, and four days of Florentino Ariza’s unrequited love for Fermina Daza. I also like to read the novels of John Le Carre and Daniel Silva, an author that an attorney from Britton recommended to me. Robert Crais is another author whom we all like, especially his book Suspect and the K-9 Corps German Shepherd dog Maggie featured in the book. I am also very fond of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin mysteries. David McCullough is one of my favorite historians as well as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Walter Isaacson, and I recently enjoyed reading The Wright Brothers and The Pioneers. Linda especially loves reading books on history. She and I always say Kelly reads everything.
On a personal note, having recently turned 81, I believe more firmly than ever in the importance of reading. Books not only enrich our lives, but they expand our world. They expose us to other points of view. They inform us and entertain us. And they can comfort and soothe us in troubled times.”