The store itself is a curious blend of past and present. On one side of an aisle, antiquated American history texts, dust jackets faded and musty with time, are crammed into bleached hardwood shelves. One table is dedicated to Jesse James and his gang, and another is devoted to war history. Sketches of James Joyce, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway hang from the walls of one of the store's back rooms, and Tolstoy's "War and Peace" looms down from the top of a shelf.
Yet, if a visitor delves a little deeper into the aisles, he will find "The Little Engine that Could" standing proudly at the front of the children's section. To make the purchasing decision even more difficult to make, the owner, Dick Waters, admits that his science fiction collection is one of the largest sections in the store.
Waters, who founded the business 11 years ago, says his passion for operating the store stems from his lifelong love of books. He and his wife, Jeanne, work side by side collecting American history texts and classics, outdoor guidebooks, science literature and science fiction novels.
Book selling was not always Waters' primary job; he took an early retirement from his work as a parish priest to open As Time Goes By. Waters' love of books developed while he was in college at St. Olaf. As a sociology major, he had access to a number of classic texts, and his professors encouraged his interest - - history became one of his favorite genres when he was in grad school in Boston: "Out there I was surrounded by history, so an interest in it came naturally," Waters said.
Here in town, however, he is still immersed in his passion. "I'm surrounded by good friends here," Dick Waters said, gesturing to the bookshelves around him.
My second stop on the tour, Bookfellows, is a recently opened, family-run business. The interior of Bookfellows is warm and comfortable. In the back of the store, there is a reading nook with ready-made Indian tea, and intricate chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The store itself specializes in children's books, and sells books ranging in price from 50 cents to $1800.
"It's exactly like a mom-and-pop store," said Chanti Austvold, an employee at the bookstore. Bookfellows was a realtor's office until September of 2003, when Chanti's mother-in-law, Patty Austvold, converted the building into a used bookstore. Chanti, 29, recently moved to the United States from India, and enjoys working at Bookfellows because she gets to read as much as she wants.
Chanti and I aren't the only ones who enjoyed the store, either. Bookings the cat lays sprawled on a chair next to me.
"Bookings is here to keep me company," Chanti informed me. Ask her how the cat got its name, and a sentimental association ensues: "When my mother-in-law was sorting and cataloging all the used books that were going into the store she would shut herself into her room and, if anyone asked for her, we'd tell them that she was booking.
Opening a bookstore has been a passion for the whole Austvold family. "We thought we'd do something we like," Chanti said. "[Opening a bookstore] is more like reading a story, and we love sharing in the passion of reading."
To find the spirit of a city, visit its used bookstores. There, surrounded on both sides by musty history and old children's books, dig deep and you will discover what is truly important in a town.
Spend some time gathering local history at As Time Goes By, and then enjoy Northfield's warmth and relatability at Bookfellows. Come away from the experience knowing that you have found something less tangible than used, rare, or out of print books. Come away knowing that the one thing Northfield's used bookstores will give away, but never sell, is the character of the city.