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.”