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Fargo's 'bookseller emeritus' dies

FARGO - To his customers, Duane Johnson's used book store at 506 Broadway was a treasure trove of books and magazines, and its proprietor, with his long white beard and electric gaze, a sage gatekeeper.

The problem was finding those gems amid the precariously packed stacks of paperback-packed beer flats and wine boxes.

He sold the store eight years ago, but memories of that voluminous maze remain for those who remember the late bookseller.

The 76-year-old Fargo man died Sunday in MeritCare Hospital Palliative Care Unit in Fargo. He was diagnosed with kidney cancer Dec. 31, said his "best friend of 23 years," Janet Syrup.

"The legacy is the number of people who spent any amount of time in Duane's searching through books," said Brad Stephenson, who bought the store in 2001. "Because it was the disaster it was, it was a site to visit."

And because it was a potential disaster, Johnson found himself getting one particular unwanted return visitor - former Fargo firefighter Jerry Crane.

"He had an issue with storage," Crane said. "He viewed it as merchandise. We viewed it as combustible material."

Johnson twisted the visits and subsequent citations into advertisements for his shop, Crane remembered. "Hurry, hurry to my pre-fire sale. Fire marshal says my business is going to burn."

"He was never antagonistic. I think he enjoyed the game," Crane said, adding that when he stopped by the store Johnson would ask, "How much time before I go to jail?"

Though fined, Johnson was never jailed. Even when the adversaries went to court, where Johnson served as his own attorney, Crane appreciated the color he brought to the hearings. When fined, he would ask to pay it by donating an acceptable amount of books to a worthy charity, thus thinning his stock for a good cause.

"He was an iconoclast. He was not one to follow the rules," said Stephenson, who moved B.D.S. Books to 1200 1st Ave. N. in 2007.

Although Johnson made manuals for employees, there was "very little" method to the shelving madness, excluding fiction.

"I used to tell him, 'At least put it on the shelf by color and make them

look pretty,' " Stephenson recalled. Johnson's system was simpler: "Oh, where they fit."

Johnson was born on his father's farm in Bertha, Minn., and left for college at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, Minn.

On his way through seminary in Pennsylvania, he gave up "The Good Book" for his first used bookstore. But when the spot was slated for urban renewal, Johnson walked away and the store was bulldozed, books and all.

"I've heard that, every once in awhile, the asphalt gives way as the books underneath it rot. That does my heart good," Johnson told The Forum in 1996.

Shortly after, he moved back to the Midwest and opened the Broadway spot in 1982.

After leaving the store, he distributed The New York Times and was a semi-regular letter writer to The Forum, signing his missives, "bookseller emeritus." In August, he was awarded The Forum's Golden Pen for best letter published in July.

There will be no formal funeral for Johnson, who donated his body to the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences' Deeded Body Program.

There will be a memorial service at a later date, after Syrup finds photos of Johnson in the house she said is every bit as packed as his store was.