Ancestry Books: a convergence of literary cultures

Northside entrepreneurs offer a ‘third place’ to build community

Photo courtesy of Ancestry Books
Photo courtesy of Ancestry Books

Ancestry Books ( unequivocally is a boon to writers, readers, and the Twin Cities at large, not in the least because it is located in North Minneapolis (intersection of Penn and Lowry). It is an invaluable enterprise in a day and age of corporate juggernauts overwhelming and banishing small and alternative bookstores to oblivion, running them out of business by a principle of greed trumping need.

It is an important social statement in giving people one more thing to point to in this part of the Twin Cities and cite something besides criminal and otherwise unsavory activity, focusing on the fact that there is much more good than bad going on in that part of town. Ultimately, it sustains a newly created — recently celebrating the inaugural anniversary — aesthetic oasis unique to all of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Chaun Webster
Chaun Webster

Founders poet Chaun Webster and educator Verna Wong, husband and wife, have put an investment where their mouths are, instead of merely peddling p.c. lip service. On Ancestry Books’ shelves, cultures literally converge in a collection of titles authentically reflecting the diversity for which this region is renowned.

Just a few examples are Happy Hair by African American author Mechal Renee Roe, Native American author Erika T. Wurth’s Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, and Who We Be: The Colorization of America, by Asian American author Jeff Chang. At the website you can get an idea just how wide the range is.

“We wanted something,” says Webster, “that would focus on re-centering the narratives of indigenous authors and [those] of color, understanding that these authorships are extremely marginalized in the industry of literary production from the publishing houses to the bookstores, even the independent ones. [It] was envisioned as more than a bookstore where commercial acts happen around consumer interests.

“It was envisioned to be a place-based project in organizing a ‘third place.’ The terminology of third place comes out of sociology and is generally used to mean a place outside of home and work where people can come to find shared meaning and build community.”

On top of so many stores, large and small, shutting down, Internet outlets have greatly encroached on the marketplace, making it all the more important readers have somewhere like Ancestry Books where they can step in and browse. “In a lot of ways, this is an effort to bring out things that we have not seen,” Webster says.

He is also director and curator of literature at Free Poet’s Press (FFP,, a small press dedicated to, as the website reads, “Empowering Black and Brown artists to control their own images. FPP began with publishing poetry and has since expanded while keeping consistent with a commitment to radical politics.

“Finding its roots in the Black radical tradition, Free Poet’s Press has looked to the Black Arts Movement and presses from that era,” Webster explains, “notably Broadside Press and Third World Press, as a foundation.”

Ancestry Books has, he says, done well in its first year. “We’ve been very well received. We’ve been able to partner with the Lowry Café for our events. They allow us to use their space.” That’s to accommodate the number of people who show up and otherwise would overwhelm the store’s capacity.

“Ancestry Books as a community space has held over 80 events since our opening. We regularly give workshops from anything to the story of this place and what we do, to the importance of indigenous communities and communities of color controlling their own images, and more.”

Of course, there also are readings, as well as storytelling, musical performance and installation art. “The closest you’ll otherwise come to this sort of community resource in certainly audience accessible. And [a place that] readily promotes literature but isn’t a book store is Golden Thymes Coffee & Café in St. Paul. [This is a place] where, for instance, Papyrus Publishing, Inc. enjoys an association, by which Mahmoud El-Kati and other authors with that publishing company have reached their readers and attracted new ones with book releases.

There are over 50 independent bookstores in the state of Minnesota,” Webster continues, “but prior to Ancestry Books opening in June 2014 there wasn’t a single bookstore in North Minneapolis. This was another reason why we decided to open up Ancestry, because of what we weren’t seeing in North Minneapolis, where we live and [which we] love.”


For more information about Ancestry Books, visit their Facebook page at, or call 612-521-4090.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.