Interview: Jay D. Peterson

Interview By Regan Smith     //    Photos By Louisa Podlich


For those of us that live in Minneapolis, Jay Peterson is best known as the unofficial purveyor of all things bookish. For over ten years he’s made his living reading books and booking author readings as the manager of the Uptown independent bookstore Magers and Quinn. With his lanky figure, Buddy Holly glasses, and long, blond tresses, Jay has become an undeniable icon in the Twin Cities lit scene. You may have never actually talked to the guy, but chances are you know who he is.

Jay reads voraciously: “I typically like long, sad stories and bleak, simple books.” Deals with famous people on a day to day basis: “Gary Louris from the Jayhawks complimented me on my shirt today. One of the Doomtree guys was in the store yesterday. Dessa popped in this weekend.” And really, really enjoys his work: “There are frustrations with any job, but mine just has so many damn perks. We have the nicest fucking customers. Part of it’s the city, the neighborhood, and book culture, but I can’t imagine going to an industry that isn’t full of people like that.”

These are the things most of us know about Jay, and this is who we think he is, based on that limited knowledge. Many of us, in Minneapolis particularly, are guilty of idealizing our hodgepodge cast of local icons—the Dessas, Andy Sturdevants, and Scott Seekins of any city—and creating an image of them in our minds that is based more on caricature than content. We ask them the same questions in interviews, we use the same taglines for articles, and we only recycle the quotes that serve our thesis. We build a persona that encapsulates exactly what it is we want them to be in the media, and are disappointed when they inevitably fall short in real life.

So, when Jay invited me over for dinner and a chat at his place in Uptown a few months ago, I went in expecting to merely flesh out the gaps in my hologram image of Who Jay Peterson Is. You know—reader, writer, strong opinion-holder on the state of the print publishing, that sort of thing.

After a really badass meal, a few glasses of red wine, and three hours of almost totally undirected conversation, I ended up coming out of it much more enamored with Who Jay Peterson Is Not.

Jay D. Peterson is NOT a natural-born leader.

At Magers and Quinn, Jay wears a lot of hats. He organizes events—sometimes as many as eight a week, helps with merchandise buying, and handles the online business. His main responsibility, though, is scheduling and managing the store’s small staff. While it’s obvious he loves the people he works with, Jay doesn’t take to the role of Mr. Manager quite as readily as, say, George Michael Bluth.  

“I’m really bad at it. I’m so shitty. I’m just so passive-aggressive. We have a bunch of really, really smart people, and everyone has their strengths and everyone has their weaknesses. It’s just a challenge to keep everyone happy and busy and working toward the same goals. We have very low turnover, though, which means I must not be that big of an asshole. But I’m pretty sure I’m an asshole.”

Despite his reticence as a manger, Magers and Quinn isn’t the only place where he’s found himself in that position. In 2009 Jay co-founded Rock Star Supply Co., a nonprofit that trains tutors to work with at risk youth and places them in Twin Cities high schools. As Board Chair, Jay has to keep a group of twenty- and thirty-something volunteer board members with full-time jobs on-task, engaged, and working toward the same goal.

“I have two jobs where I manage people; I don’t know how I ended up with that. With Rock Star I have to head a group of eleven people who are all my peers or older. They’re really passionate, really intelligent people, but everyone’s just fucking busy, because everyone works full-time already. I’m a pretty laissez-faire leader.”

Jay D. Peterson is NOT a celebrity.

I first met Jay in the summer of 2009. I was at the Red Stag with my much cooler, older boyfriend and his much cooler, older friends, feeling out of place and socially inept. There was a quiet, bespectacled blond guy sitting across from me—a mutual friend of someone in the group, and he was just unintimidating enough for me to say hi. We ended up talking for 45 minutes about books, writing, college, and life in the “real world,” with him graciously entertaining my 21-year-old, freshly graduated English major zeal.

It wasn’t until six months later—after Meghan, Jamie, and I started Paper Darts—that I realized who I’d been talking to that night. Jay Fucking Peterson: Face of Magers and Quinn, the epicenter of everywhere you want to be when you’re just starting out in the Twin Cities lit scene. For two years I remained star-struck, a book nerd in the presence of the Grand Ayatollah of book nerds, incapable of exchanging more than a few pleasantries every time we ran into each other.

When I told Jay about this during our interview and asked how he dealt with his minor celebrity status, he laughed. Apparently this is not something that happens often.

Even if Jay may not have to deal with a clamoring fan base, his job requires him to be pretty adept at interacting with writers who do.

“I like to have completely normal conversations with those people and joke around. I try not to talk about their work. I never fawn. But it’s a challenge not to suck up. Bill Holm is one of my favorite writers of all time. I chatted with him, introduced him at a reading, and he dedicated a poem to me. I guess I may have fawned a little bit with him. I can’t recall what we talked about, but I might have told him that I loved him.”

Jay D. Peterson is NOT a writer.

An English major at Minnesota State Moorhead, Jay’s formative experiences mostly included skateboarding and seeing music with friends. He credits one of his professors with spurring his interest in poetry, but becoming a novelist himself was never really on the docket.

While he might not be penning the Great American Whatever anytime soon, Jay did have a brush with journalistic fame back in his hometown of Granite Falls, Minnesota. A starter on the high school golf team and an aspiring journalist, Jay published his own weekly column, The Tee Times. It was a hit with the adults in the town of under 3,000 people, and Jay carried on for two summers reporting news from the golf course.

“It was like the early stages of me trying to be sarcastic and funny writing about golf, utilizing the thesaurus and splicing in all these enormous words I thought I knew. Pretty hard-hitting journalism. Once or twice I wagered a fellow golfer that if they beat me I would admit it in my column. I faced off with this kid who was a year or two older than me and he won so I had to write about it, but I sort of found a way to make fun of him anyway. Then we had a rematch and I beat him, so reporting that took up the column for like three weeks.”

During his senior year Jay got busted drinking and was kicked off the team for two weeks. As the only person on the newspaper who could cover the golf beat, the seventeen year old had to report his own suspension.

“I had to write the story for my first match back. So here I am like ‘Jay Peterson returns from a two week hiatus and shoots an 86’ and I thought how fucked up is this that I’m writing about my own delinquency. Who gets that opportunity? I’m the sportswriter who’s also in the criminal report. I got a minor, so that was in the paper alongside the column I wrote.”

Jay D. Peterson is NOT surviving the apocalypse, zombie or otherwise.

Though his impeccable style might give you the impression the man was born in a J. Crew catalogue, Jay’s roots are decidedly more rough-and-tumble. The son of a farmer, he grew up helping his parents raise beef cattle, corn, and soybeans on their 500-acre plot in Granite Falls. After two tornadoes and a flood destroyed much of the property, Jay’s parents no longer farm for a living. But the land is still there and the memories of a childhood peppered with adventure, open space, and a lot of “shitty work” are something he clearly cherishes.

“I see kids now and they’re eating sushi at age seven. Cell phones at age 10. I don’t get it. Our farmland sits cozily along the Minnesota River—out where you can really see the stars. It's certainly not the most scenic place in the world, but it’s ours and we love it. In retrospect, I wouldn’t trade that upbringing for anything.”

While he may have done both hard labor on the farm and hard time on the golf course, Jay’s Achilles’ Heel will keep him from ever being the person you’d want sitting next to you on Oceanic Airlines Flight 815.

Those trendy Buddy Holly coke bottles he wears? So much more than a fashion statement. They are his lifeline, his pulse, the thing that keeps him, for all intents and purposes, a live, functioning human being.

What would happen if Jay were in a bar fight? “I’d be totally helpless.” Lost on a deserted island? “Completely fucked.”

Jay’s eyesight is so miserable he’s been advised not to have laser surgery. Contact lenses aren’t even an option. When he brings his prescription into the ophthalmologist’s office, employees gather in the back to point and guffaw.

“Basically, bad vision is the story of my life.”

And for someone whose livelihood more or less depends on those wee eyeballs stretching and straining across the page day in and day out, it’s tough not to feel like the man’s very own anatomy is a ticking time bomb.

Jay D Peterson is NOT going to be here forever.

Don’t get your panties in an uproar just yet, he didn’t mention any immediate plans of escape. But as the bookstore finds a steady groove and Rock Star working towards being acquired by 826 National, the nonprofit tutoring organization founded by Dave Eggers, Jay admits he’s drawn to the prospect of starting over.

“There’s something about digging in and working on something to build it up that I enjoy. My dad was a farmer, he just fucking kept at it, you know? If you look at where the bookstore was at ten years ago and where it is now, as a group we’ve made it a pretty impressive institution. I don’t necessarily want to run the next 826, I just want to bring it here. I want to see it flourish and make this huge impact. Then just jump off and go do something else.”

And, finally, Jay D. Peterson is NOT dreaming small.

So what does it all amount to for Jay? In the end, it seems, a return to his beginnings.

“My parents will pass the land in Granite Falls down to me and I’ll own it. I don’t want a lake cabin in the Northwoods, I just want to go back to the land and have a spot there. I’ll have a little yurt for the clubhouse, build a par three to play on, get a sauna out there for the winter. We need a gazebo—gazebos are in now. We could have a little concession stand, sell hotdogs and things. Now you’re talking. We’ll have our yurt, our gazebo, and our golf course. Just me and my friends. My life is settled. That’s my dream.”


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