Hit by a train: St. Paul bookshop faces death by light rail

As if independent bookshop owners aren't getting run over by enough trains already, a planned light rail line may spell the end of the line for Thomas Stransky in St. Paul, Minn. 

"We'll probably have to go out of business," Stransky says from behind the cash register of Midway Used & Rare Books on University Avenue, where a series of recent developments make it all the more likely construction will eventually start on a transportation project aimed at moving commuters between downtown St. Paul and its twin city Minneapolis on the other side of the Mississippi River. Stransky and an array of light rail opponents ranging from civil rights activists to government waste watchdog groups see the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit Project as a some $1 billion government boondoggle aimed at wasting taxpayer dollars and closing the book on local businesses.

To borrow a sentiment of a previous president, I can't help but feel Stransky's pain. I've seen plenty of mom-and-pop shops get pummeled by government transportation projects that claim to alleviate congestion and improve quality of life -- only to make both worse. 

I visited Midway Used & Rare Books during a trip to Minnesota in January. I was drawn in not only by the words "rare books" on his sign but words of protest written on his shop's windows. How often do you see a storefront that raises the question, "Who is John Galt?" 

I was also attracted to the store by the supply of on-street parking. I won't often make the effort to patronize a store if I can't park there. Not even a rare book store. I tend to buy heavy books or sets of books that are too bulky to lug around. 

Stransky knows I'm not alone. 

He is one of the business owners who has fought the project for more than two decades. If the Metropolitan Council gets its way, and it appears that's likely, the regional transit and planning agency will complete its $135 million-per-mile project by 2014. The Metropolitan Council will permanently eliminate all on-street parking and, if history around the country is a gauge, traffic will be a nightmare during the years of construction.

"It's tough to get people to walk anywhere in a Minnesota winter," Stransky says. "They're not going to walk from a transit station to get here. People aren't going to stop here when they drive by during construction, either. Traffic is going to be horrendous. They're just going to want to get home and they're not going to stop at a bookstore." 

The project continues to face strong opposition from people who will be hurt by the light rail project. Minnesota Public Radio is the latest entity to file a lawsuit against the project. Meanwhile, a coalition of civil rights activists, business owners and Rondo neighborhood residents have also filed a lawsuit to stop the project in its tracks. Stransky wishes them well and plans to do what he can to stop the light rail line from destroying his business. 

"I'll also keep putting up signs as close to obscene as I can," the frustrated entrepreneur says.

His feisty side turns to sadness when he reflects on the blow the Central Corridor will deliver to book lovers.

"A lot of customers tell us they remember coming here as a kid," he says. "They say, 'You brought the world of books to us.' They tell us that we show them there's something besides the Internet and chain stores. They find surprises here. Serendipity. You never know what you're going to find each time you walk in. That's the essence of what we bring to the community."