Uncle Hugo’s Bookshop Works to Rebuild After Minneapolis Unrest

On May 29th, riots erupted in Minneapolis, Minnesota following wide-spread protests over the killing of George Floyd. In the violence that followed, rioters damaged and set Uncle Hugo’s Bookstore, a long-standing fixture in the community, on fire. Now, the owner faces a long road to rebuild the store.

The riots followed intense outcry against police brutality, which has culminated in wide-spread protests across the United States. While a majority of those protests have been peaceful, some have escalated, resulting in extensive property damage in cities like Minneapolis. Uncle Hugo’s Bookstore is one such casualty.

Founded in 1974, the store has been claimed as the nation’s oldest dedicated genre bookstore. According to owner Don Blyly, the fire began sometime around 3:30 in the morning.

I could see that flames were leaping out the front windows of the Uncles. It looked to me like they had broken every window on the front of the Uncles and then squirted accelerant through each broken window. It looked hopeless to me, but I went around to the back door to see if I could get to a fire extinguisher. As soon as I opened the back door a wave of very thick black smoke poured out, so I quickly closed the door again.

Speaking to Tor.com, Blyly explains that the store is a “complete loss.” When he was allowed into the building after first responders extinguished the fire, he found that the basement had been turned into a “swimming pool,” and that the building’s structural integrity had been compromised. The roof had collapsed. An aluminum ladder that he used to get to the roof had melted in the heat of the fire.

The store, he explained, contained around $400,000 in inventory: 100,000 books, two-thirds of which were used. “We did have a significant number of collectable books, many signed, some by deceased authors, with prices up to $350.00.” Nothing, he says, is salvageable, and in addition to the lost books, he also lost the store’s fixtures, computer systems, and business records.

Blyly notes that in the short-term he hopes to set up a mail-order business, explaining that his store’s point-of-sale system does seem to have automatically backed itself up. He also indicated that he had recently placed an order of store shirts, which are set to arrive in a week or so. “I’m hoping a lot of people will be interested in buying them, both to remember the store and to financially help out.”

Still, there are significant hurdles to cross before the store opens again — if it ever does. Blyly notes that the timing of the fire came at the worst possible time: the store’s insurance had run out, and while he had a new policy agreed to, he had only been issued an insurance binder. The insurance company will also have to assess the damage, and Blyly notes that “If the insurance company calculated the replacement cost accurately and if they are willing to pay the claim, I should be able to rebuild. If problems arise we might have to sue, and I might end up with nothing but a big attorney’s bill.”

He’s also not sure if or when he’ll be able to reopen a physical storefront. Other stores in the city were damaged during the riots, and finding a space to rent will be difficult, he says. But he’s also getting older, and explains that while he enjoyed seeing regular customers, he’s been doing it for nearly half a century, and is fed up with shop lifting. “The idea of spending several years just doing mail orders from home has a certain appeal.”

In the meantime, some individuals have stepped up to help, although Blyly has asked them to hold off on launching GoFundMe campaigns to help out the store, citing the need to sort out the insurance situation, and his lack of knowledge about the platform. One campaign has since launched, which Blyly says has been handed over to his son, and that all donations pledged thus far will be handed over to the store.

Since the fire, Blyly notes that he’s gotten an outpouring of support from customers and readers.

The people who have been responding via e-mail have pointed out how safe and comfortable they feel surrounded by all those books, how many great science fiction books and authors they discovered because of our recommendations, and in many cases about Uncle Hugo’s being a multi-generation tradition for their families.

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