By JAN WILLMS
For Hamline’s new bookstore, to say that Dylan once slept there would not be an exaggeration.
When Minnesota icon Bob Dylan wrote his 2004 autobiography Chronicles: Vol. 1, he mentions towards the end of the book playing guitar at the Purple Onion pizza parlor in St. Paul, and later notes that he slept there in a back room before heading out one day in the early 1960s for New York City.
Melanie Farley, general manager of the Hamline University Bookstore since August 2012, learned at one of her interviews for the job that the bookstore, which had been housed in the Bush Center on the Hamline campus, was going to be moving to the former site of the Purple Onion at 722 Snelling.
“I heard about it as I was touring the building during my interview,” she said. Farley said that while the building was being refurbished, the big horseshoe bar was still there and on the old wood flooring underneath, the round bottom marks of the bar stools were still visible.
“That made it more real and solidified it,” she said.
For Farley, who prior to Hamline managed the bookstore at the University of Wisconsin in Fon du Lac, this information tickled her musical sensibilities.
A musician herself, she plays bass guitar, tinkers with keyboards and played saxophone in high school. And she is thoroughly immersed in musical history. After hearing about Dylan’s playing at the Purple Onion, she read Chronicles and found his references to the location.
According to an article written by Harold Lepidus on examiner.com, Purple Onion owner Bill Danielson said the young Dylan would often be paid in pizza. “My sisters and I used to play hide and seek with Bob Dylan at my dad’s pizza place,” says Sheryl McGuire, eldest of Danielson’s three daughters. “My dad would say, ‘He sang for his supper.’ ”
“The bookstore moved to this location July 8,” Farley said. “The store moved as part of a Hamline University 10-year plan, and we are happy to now be more visible in the community.” The store is on the very corner of the campus.
Once the store was fully moved, a plan for a book club based on the history of the new location surfaced.
“We surveyed students about starting a book club, and we had our first meeting in October 2013,” Farley said.
The Purple Onion Book Club, which meets the first Monday of the month at 6:15pm at Gingko coffee house right across the street, kicked off with participants reading either Chronicles or Tarantula, a collection of existentialist poetry by Dylan written between 1965 and 1966.
“The writing in Chronicles was so amazing,” Farley said. “It read more like a story than an autobiography.”
Dylan, who plans to write three volumes describing his life experiences, won the National Critics Circle award for Chronicles: Vol. 1. Whether he is describing growing up on the Iron Range, or his admiration for Woodie Guthrie or the snow-covered streets of New York, Dylan exhibits the same heartfelt writing in his book as he puts into his lyrics.
At one of their first discussions of the book club, Farley explained, they had a local historian present who was interested in the history of the building.
The book club is focusing on local authors and Hamline authors. Occasionally, a writer whose work is being discussed will be in attendance.
The Purple Onion book club is open to students, faculty, local historians and community members. The group has been on hiatus over the holidays, but will start meeting again the first Monday in March.
She said she has not had much time yet on planning the next meeting, but she is thinking the group will read a book by local author William Krueger.
“There’s not enough work out there for us just to read Dylan,” she said with a smile.
She said the club is loosely organized with participant-led discussions. “It’s an organic process as we discuss a book,” Farley said.
“So far it has been a lot of fun,” she continued. She said the book club has been unanimous in its praise for Dylan’s poetics and his literary voice.
“His literary voice is so outstanding, and his commentary has made him an icon,” Farley said.
“He is an amazing songwriter,” she added. “But there are mixed reviews on the quality of his singing voice.”
She said the book club has been kind of hoping it could connect with Dylan’s PR people, but so far has just run into road blocks. But she is optimistic.
“We will meet in March, April and May,” Farley explained. “Whether we meet through the summer will depend on the community response, since there may not be that many students around at that time.”
Currently about six students and a couple community members participate.
“Our hope is to definitely strengthen the bond between campus and community with the club,” she stated.
Farley said she would like to continue to get the word out about the Purple Onion Book Club and that it is open to anyone to attend, and the Hamline University Bookstore offers an option for anyone to buy, sell or read local works in general.
“We are looking forward to adding local authors to our collection,” she claimed. “If anyone out there is a locally published author, get in touch with me to see if we are interested in buying copies of your books.”
And meanwhile, if you are browsing through the bookstore, take time to listen. There may be faint echoes of the songs that Dylan wrote at the beginning of his career, as he played at the Purple Onion pizza parlor.