In the middle of the night, as the roaring fire consumed his business, all Don Blyly could do was go home. He couldn’t bear to watch it burn. “There goes 46 years of work,” he thought.
Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore and its twin brother, Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore, were torched early in the morning of May 30, five days after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of a black man named George Floyd, who died. The ensuing protests were large, and, for two nights, destructive. Buildings were looted and burned.
Uncle Hugo’s, the oldest science fiction bookstore in the country, was reduced to a pile of bricks.
Blyly started the store in 1974 when he was a law student at the University of Minnesota. “I was bored out of my mind with constitutional law and I needed something to keep me sane,” he said last week.
Maybe a bookstore? Yes, a bookstore. From idea to execution took two weeks. He found a storefront on 4th Avenue S. that he could rent for $50 a month. Gopher News had a warehouse of books in Minneapolis, where he chose his favorite genre — science fiction and fantasy. They threw in the racks for free.
Blyly named his store after Hugo Gernsback, who started the first science fiction magazine in 1926.
“By the time I finished law school, it was obvious I wouldn’t be happy as an attorney, but I did love running a bookstore,” he said.
A few years later, he opened a mystery bookstore nearby and named that one for Edgar Allan Poe.
In 1984, both stores moved to 2864 Chicago Av. S. Customers entered the 1915 building that housed Uncle Hugo’s and walked through an archway to a separate, newer space that housed Uncle Edgar’s.
Authors held readings there, and customers made pilgrimages. With their stuffed shelves, piles stacked on the floor and knowledgeable staff, the Uncles weren’t just genre bookstores. They were book lovers’ bookstores.
Reopening waits for the insurance companies. “I don’t have enough numbers yet to make any decision,” Blyly said. “I’m 69 years old and I am developing arthritis in my hands. If I were younger, I would definitely want to rebuild. But I’m not sure how many more years I have available to me.”
For now, Blyly is switching to online commerce — as soon as he replaces his incinerated computer. He has bookstore T-shirts and sweatshirts to sell. He also plans to sell books from his own collection, as well as autographed books that authors are donating.
There is a GoFundMe campaign to help him pay off debt and rehire a part-time worker. Money, and memories, are coming in from around the Cities, the country and the world.
Dana O’Gorman, St. Paul Park: In the late ’90s, I picked up an unknown staff-recommended book called “Game of Thrones.” I devoured it, and then I saw that the author was coming for a book signing. There were not a ton of people at the signing for the relatively unknown author, and he (George RR Martin) was happy to sign my book and chat, as well as hint at where the series would wander. It’s definitely my favorite memory.
Eleanor Rosenthal, Minneapolis: I think the first book I purchased from there was Emma Bull’s “War for the Oaks,” a decade ago. I had this strange sublet in Loring Park and this soul-crushing job downtown, but at least I could walk home, pass Peavey Plaza, turn down Oak Grove Street, and go into my apartment and read my book.
In “War for the Oaks,” the main character walks home, has a magical experience in Peavey Plaza, turns down Oak Grove Street to go to her apartment. …
There were honestly a few moments there where I thought I’d somehow managed to step into a portal fantasy, and Uncle Hugo’s definitely seemed like it could make that happen.
Gina Munter, Little Canada: I was in Uncle Edgar’s, the mystery store, and was looking for a particular series but couldn’t remember the author’s name. I told the bookseller it was a series set in a bookstore and the author’s name was two female first names. He said, “Oh, you must be looking for Alice Kimberly.” Yep, that was it. Amazing!
Beth Kent, London, UK: I was a grad student at the U when I discovered Uncle Hugo’s. It was a treasure trove of used sci-fi and fantasy books, which fed my habit quite nicely while still allowing me to buy food.
One of my favorite memories is when our household decided to categorize our books by putting colored sticky dots on the spines. We had an eventual clear-out and sold a few bags of books back to the Uncles, and for months (years) after I would see those sticky dots on books there and occasionally buy them back.
Grace Thomas, Denver: Uncle Hugo’s was an important place to me in high school and college. Without it, I don’t think I would be a professional writer today. Reading through decades-old sci-fi anthologies, magazines and paperbacks from Uncle Hugo’s carried me through a very difficult time in my life, when I was dealing with the onset of my bipolar disorder, struggling to figure out how to live with it. Uncle Hugo’s was a calming place, a sanctuary where I could clear my head. I hope it is again one day.
Sofie Netteberg, Little Canada: For a class project I needed to read Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” and realized it right before businesses shut down. My parents recommended Uncle Hugo’s. The staff member I spoke to was willing to talk through the different editions in stock, figure out payment over the phone, and hand deliver the book to me outside the store with five bookmarks (that I’m holding on to as “collector’s items”).
David Gustafson, Hopkins: 1981, my first adult job, front desk clerk at the Radisson South Hotel, working for minimum wage. I always went down to Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore — their original location on 4th Av. — and bought one book. Gregg Press had printed a number of Fritz Leiber’s books in library-quality hardcover editions, and Hugo’s had them all. So each payday, I’d add one more to my tiny shelf of science fiction hardcovers. Got ’em all. And to this day, those 15 books are the cornerstone of my Fritz Leiber library.
Reuben Herfindahl, River Falls, Wis: When I was growing up in the 1980s my favorite show was “Doctor Who.” Before every show they would thank the sponsors, and Uncle Hugo’s was always one of them. My local bookstore carried maybe 15 sci-fi books in total, so the thought of a bookstore that carried only sci-fi was beyond my wildest dreams.
When I moved to the Cities to go to college in 1993, the first place I went was Uncle Hugo’s. It exceeded my wildest expectations. I’ve been a regular ever since. Still my favorite bookstore on the planet.
Chuck Welch, Sherbrooke, Quebec: I didn’t live in the Cities, but would often travel from La Crosse, Wis. No matter if I was there for a game or just to visit, I made time for a visit to Hugo’s. I could not walk in the door for a quick minute and I could not walk out with just one book. Just before I moved to Canada a couple of years ago, my gift to myself was a trip to the Cities for one last bookstore visit. I hope that I can someday return and find Uncle Hugo’s restored and thriving.
David Rowe, San Jose, Calif.: When I moved to the U in the late 80s, I found Uncle Hugo’s / Uncle Edgar’s. I would bike over from campus to get my fix of science fiction books. Entering the store crammed full of books and smelling of old books was a haven from the rush of college. Scott Imes and Don would ask what I had read lately that was good and were always ready with a recommendation. Even though I’ve moved away from the Cities, I visit the Uncles every time I am in town and they are still my go-to for ordering books.
Elaine K. Murray, Minneapolis: It was my mother’s bookstore. All the years she worked at Sears across the street she could go there and get her beloved vintage mysteries at a price she could afford. After she retired I would drive her there and buy her books for a Christmas or birthday present.
She has been gone more than five years, but I could still go there, find books from some of her favorite authors, and feel like she was still near me.
Now that’s gone forever and I can’t seem to stop crying.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org • 612-673-7302. Facebook: startribunebooks.