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A Line or Two: SubText's Mysterious Literary Mural

The other day--a sultry day, like most days recently--I was idling with an iced latte at one of the tables in front of Nina's Coffee Café at Selby and Western on Cathedral Hill in Saint Paul, when it struck me that I ought to drop down below ground level and see how the SubText bookstore was coming along.

SubText, as our Development Editor, Anna Pratt, reported a few weeks ago, occupies the space formerly known as Common Good Books. Common Good, owned by radio icon, author, and Prince-level Star-of-the-North celebrity Garrison Keillor, has decamped to a space at Snelling and Grand. Sue Zumberge, who managed Common Good before it moved, decided to strike off on her own with SubText.

I've been a fan of Sue ever since she and her staff arranged the one and only local public reading of a book of mine in 2008. So I like to drop into SubText from time to time to say hello, get some book recommendations (Sue likes history, and is particularly into the recently published "secret history" of World War II by Herbert Hoover), and buy something to add to my overburdened bookshleves. The last time I had visited, Sue was waiting for her bookshelf carpenter to recover from, of all things, a sawdust allergy, so most of the books were still in boxes.

Orwell to Borges to Babbitt

On this latter occasion, though, I could see that SubText was well on its way to becoming the bookshop/café fusion--and extension of Nina's--that Sue envisages in her partnership with Nina's owner, June Berkowitz. There were sizable tables and comfortable chairs throughout the space--coffee welcome--and if there were fewer books on sale than in the Keillor days, they were well selected, with an emphasis on the best literary fiction. More to come.

And near the cash register, artist Jeff Nelson was working on a remarkable chalkboard mural (see photo) that looks at first glance like a fusion of Tolkien and H. P. Lovecraft, but on closer inspection reveals allusions to a wider range of books. There's a pig in an eighteenth-century hat (Napoleon the Stalinesque über-pig in Orwell's Animal Farm) and a baseball (a probable homage to W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe and its film version, Field of Dreams, but also to baseball-loving poets, of whom there are many). An open book reveals the enigmatic word "Uqbar," from Jorge Luis Borges' story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." And the water tower marked "Zenith, Winnemac" celebrates Minnesota's own Sinclair Lewis and the fictional town and state in which he set Babbitt, his sendup of midwestern mores.

Jeff Nelson, whose nom de web is the delightful "jephemera.com," does colorful chalkboard art all over town, including the menu board upstairs at Nina's.

If you can figure out all the literary allusions in Jeff's SubText work, which is still a work in progress--I'm still puzzling out the myriad hot dogs--you qualify as one of the better-read citizens of a well-read community.

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