FARGO — Brad Stephenson went into business to sell books. Now he’s hoping to sell more than he ever has — his entire inventory.

“I’m serious,” said Stephenson, who owns B.D.S. Books at 1200 1st Ave. N. “Somebody come and buy my store. I’m wanting to retire.”

It might be tempting to think one of the largest remaining sellers of used books in the metro area has been driven all along by a love for literature and a passion to find new homes for the most forgotten titles, but the truth is Stephenson was desperately looking for a steady paying job after his career as a civil servant ended in 1995.

With a farmstead 30 miles south of Moorhead, Stephenson lives closer to the Wahpeton-Breckenridge area, and a chat with the community development folks there made the entrepreneur aware of the desire for a local bookstore. He toyed with the idea of calling it B.S. Books, but felt he couldn’t pull off that kind of humor in Wahpeton. So, he stuck in his middle initial, and B.D.S. Books was officially born.

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“I knew nothing about books at all,” he said. "I just needed a job. If they would’ve said a hardware store, I would’ve been in the hardware business.”

He stayed on the corner of 4th St. and Dakota Ave. in Wahpeton until 2001, when his lease ran out and his landlords doubled his rent.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to pay that kind of rent in Wahpeton,’” he said.

Undeterred, Stephenson moved to downtown Fargo in the spring of 2001, buying the inventory — and former Broadway location — from the late bearded-iconoclastic-bookseller Duane Johnson.

Brad Stephenson bought Duane Johnson Bookseller, a used bookstore at 506 Broadway in Fargo, in 2001. Johnson is pictured in the store in this file photo from 1996.
Brad Stephenson bought Duane Johnson Bookseller, a used bookstore at 506 Broadway in Fargo, in 2001. Johnson is pictured in the store in this file photo from 1996.

“Because Fargo was so depressed, I knew what [Johnson] was paying for rent,” Stephenson said, “and it was about half what they wanted down there.”

Things were fine, he said, until the renovation along Broadway doubled his rent again. Forced to move or close, Stephenson found an unlikely business partner in one of his customers.

Michael Dohman, a sugar beet seed company sales manager with a passion for paperback thrillers and mysteries, had been hoping to unload some books on Stephenson, but when he explained he was cash poor and likely going to have to shut down, Dohman’s response was swift.

“We’re not going to lose the bookstore,” he told Stephenson.

Good to his word, even though his wife humorously threatened divorce, the men found an old pool hall on First Avenue North. The building was ideal with its 6-to-8-inch concrete floors and working trolley lift. Stephenson borrowed against his farmstead to pony up his half of the investment. Tongues firmly in their cheeks, they legally christened their partnership House Divided Properties, and by the spring of 2007 the place was ready to open.

“I call it the best-kept secret in the region,” Dohman said of the bookstore.

Brad Stephenson hopes a new generation will takeover his role as a used book salesman when he retires. Stephenson and his business partner, Michael Dohman, own B.D.S. Books at 1201 1st Ave. N. in Fargo.
Brad Stephenson hopes a new generation will takeover his role as a used book salesman when he retires. Stephenson and his business partner, Michael Dohman, own B.D.S. Books at 1201 1st Ave. N. in Fargo.

That’s not the only reason he bought into the venture. It was a personal ambition to own property near downtown, he said, and the building has also been home to other interesting tenants throughout the years: a hobby shop specializing in model airplanes; a woman who made slipcovers; and a collector with a fetish for all things paper. A&E Beauty Supply & Antoinett Hair Salon is the only other current occupant.

But, the bookstore has always been the mainstay, and Stephenson said he's been able to pay his bills. Dohman still helps out around the store.

“We didn’t do it with the intention of getting wealthy,” Dohman said.

The goal was to consistently offer things folks couldn’t find anywhere else in the metro area.

“And that’s still true today,” he said.

It’s also true that Stephenson, 65, wants out, and a recent broken leg — courtesy of changing storm windows, hidden ice, and a nasty fall — hasn’t helped matters.

“I don’t like to be slowed down,” Stephenson said.

Still, if it’s time to do that on a more permanent basis, both owners are hoping the right person walks through the doors, just as Dohman did years ago.

“If we can help out someone,” Dohman said, “to realize their dream of owning their own business, then that’s what we’ll do.”