An entrepreneur's journey, from elementary school teacher to bookstore owner

Mary Taris
Mary Taris, a former elementary school teacher, is an avid reader. She owns Strive Bookstore on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis.
Chris Farrell | MPR News

Anyone who likes reading books loves browsing at independent bookstores — especially when the owners are passionate about the books they’re selling.

Mary Taris, a former elementary school teacher, is an avid reader and she owns Strive Bookstore on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis.

The shop opened in June of this year and it’s across the street from Target. Strive Bookstore is housed in the former Young-Quinlan department store building.

MPR’s senior economics correspondent Chris Farrell says he can’t resist a bookstore, and he recently visited Strive.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Anyone who likes reading books loves browsing at independent bookstores, especially when the owners are passionate about the books they're selling. Mary Taris, a former elementary school teacher, is an avid reader. And she owns Strive Bookstore on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis. Now the shop opened in June of this year, and it's across the street from Target. Strive bookstores housed in the former Young Quinlan department store building on the Nicollet Mall.

MPR's Senior Economics correspondent Chris Farrell says he cannot resist a bookstore. He recently visited Strive. Hey, how are you, Chris?

CHRIS FARRELL: I'm doing well. And you're absolutely right, I just can't resist the bookstore.

CATHY WURZER: Well, especially when you have a bookstore in such a beautiful space, that's a historic space.

CHRIS FARRELL: It is. It's a really cool Renaissance revival building. And the historic department store opened for business in its new building in 1926. Now, of course, the department store is long gone. But Strive occupies, Cathy, the part of the first floor. And it's this dramatic space I mean you have large windows, soaring ceilings, and these large white columns. And books are piled on tables and shelves. And there's plenty of seating when you see that book that you want to sit down and leaf through.

CATHY WURZER: Gosh, I talked to Kerri Miller about this. She says to the people she knows who own bookstores, there's kind of a romance in owning a bookshop. If they love-- for anyone who likes to read. So how did she end up owning a bookshop?

CHRIS FARRELL: So Cathy, like many life stories, the journey, it wasn't a straight line. So she was in elementary and middle school teacher, mostly in the Robbinsdale School District. And she launched a side business in 2016 called Strive Publishing. She was troubled by the lack of children's and young adult books that featured stories from the Black community.

MARY TARIS: Just kind of was after years and years of searching for books that represent our Black children, I thought somebody needs to do something about it. And so I decided I would start a children's book publishing company. And that's how I ended up having a life filled with books.

CHRIS FARRELL: So she says she's probably published about six children's books since 2018. And her publishing company's tagline, breaking barriers book by book.

CATHY WURZER: Love it. Love it. Publishing books, though, that's brutal, that's a brutal business.

CHRIS FARRELL: Oh. It's-- it's really hard to make a living. But you can. She saw that need and problem that she really wanted to solve, which that's really the definition of entrepreneurship. So I asked her, did you have a business background? And she said no.

MARY TARIS: And I never thought to run a small business. But I mean, when you see the need, and the need is just so striking and realizing how much it affected me over my lifetime, and then also I remember raising my children who are all grown now, I always had to go to the library to research and find books for them. I mean, I kind of had the feeling that they weren't getting what they needed at school. But once I started teaching, I knew.

CHRIS FARRELL: So she took an online certificate course in entrepreneurship from North Central University in Minneapolis. And she tapped into the resources from the Independent Book Publishers Association. And in 2019, Cathy, at age 55, she made the leap from elementary school teacher to full-time publisher with a focus on the Black experience.

And I met Teresa at that time because, as you know, I'm interested in how people launch their encore careers in the second half of life.

CATHY WURZER: Yes, you are. And boy, 55 years old. Good for her. So she's now a publisher and a bookseller?

CHRIS FARRELL: So, yes-- well, kind of. Let me explain here. She's gone through several pivots to keep her dream alive. And she learned she didn't have the financial resources for full-time book publishing, especially since books, they need marketing dollars to attract an audience. So she hasn't abandoned publishing. Her daughter is now head of Strive Publishing, while she focuses on being an independent bookseller.

It really comes down, I really admire her resilience and her willingness to take a risk in a new career.

MARY TARIS: I just jumped in, and I've been learning. As I go, I'm still learning, because now I'm pivoting to being a bookseller, which is the other side of-- it's the opposite of being a publisher. But my experience in the publishing industry has opened my eyes to the need to support independent book publishers.

CATHY WURZER: We're running out of time here. I have to ask you, did you buy a book?

CHRIS FARRELL: Oh, of course, I did. I bought Blend In or Fade Out. It's a memoir published by Strive about a biracial girl growing up in the Black community of South Minneapolis. And I also asked Harris what she had recently read.

MARY TARIS: Well, I just finished reading Keith Ellison's book, Break the Wheel. Not that I enjoyed it, but it was powerful, because he gave the behind-the-scenes account of the trial for the murder of George Floyd. And it gives you pause to think about everything that happened and how the struggle continues.

CATHY WURZER: Well, Chris Farrell, thank you for highlighting her story.

CHRIS FARRELL: Thanks a lot.

CATHY WURZER: Chris Farrell is MPR's Senior Economics Contributor.

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