Bob Carlson: Businessman, Crusader or Smut-Peddler?

by Dave Hill | Sun Magazine July 15-16, 1970

Will the real Bob Carlson please stand up and identify himself? So far, there are conflicting reports about just who the real Bob Carlson is:

An enterprising St. Paul hustler who has made an opportune bundle as a publicity-wise smut-peddler;

A crusading champion of freedom who has been victimized by the harassment of St. Paul’s self-appointed guardians of public and private morality;

A modest, even earnest small businessman who runs a group of bookstores, putting in long hours of hard work, trying to make an honest dollar just like thousands of other men in the hardware, furniture or used car lines.

When the real Bob Carlson does stand up, the situation gets a little muddled. You see, to one degree or another, all three of those confusing caricatures seem to fit him, at least a little bit.

The first description is the most obvious and Carlson doesn’t hesitate to admit that there’s some truth to it.

“Sure, I make money — that’s what I’m in business for,” he says. “And I’ve done all right. The stock market is down right now, but when it goes up again, I’ll go right up with it.” He adds that the last vacation he took, two years ago, he spent in Japan with his stock broker.

He also says that the publicity arising from the period of 1967-1968 when he was being arrested once or twice a month didn’t hurt sales either. “The stores were packed then, and the business was never better,” he admits cheerfully. “I didn’t mind the legal fees involved — it was good publicity.”

The second description is one Carlson will claim at the slightest urging. “I feel people should have the right to read anything they want to read, and I don’t believe in any kind of censorship whatsoever,” he says. “If people want to read about sex, they have the right to, and I inter to give them what they want.”

In February 1968, for example, while the legal battle raged over what was and what was not obscene in St. Paul, Carlson had a sign in his bookstore which read: “We have eight court cases pending as whether these books are obscene or not. Read them and tell us your opinion.” Below were copies of the contested books, including The Way of a Man with a Maid, Business as Usual and Adam and Eve, which were later ruled obscene by St. Paul courts.

In a U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down the last week in June [1970], Carlson had this conviction, and a second conviction — involving five books and two of his employees, reversed. “I know how hard it is to even get a Supreme Court hearing,” Carlson says, “so I think it’s very significant that they not only considered the case, but acted as they did and completely overturned the decision, citing as a reason the fact that the state had erred greatly in upholding the St. Paul court’s conviction of me.

In spite of all the arrests and a few convictions, Carlson swears he will fight “to my last dollar” to operate under the First Amendment of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech. “Sex is as close to us as thirst and hunger. If a person wants to read about that, I will spend my last dollar defending the right of a person to read about sex.”

Finally we have the picture of a hard-working businessman trying to make his way in the harsh world of balance sheets and profit-and-loss columns. That too fits Carlson.

Perhaps by taking a longer look at this side of Bob Carlson and seeing how he emerged on the scene as “St. Paul’s top smut-peddler” (to quote one uncharitable critic) we can get a better idea of what makes a man like this tick.

“My folks spent their whole life working in a small grocery store,” Carlson says. “We lived in the back room of the store and my father never had a vacation. He used to take three hours off on Sundays, and that was it. Just before he died, he sold the store and went to work for the man who bought it. He worked all his life and never had anything to show for it. I want more than that.”

After graduating from Mechanic Arts High School and a service stint, Carlson went to work for a wholesale house in Minneapolis, first a as a truck driver, then as a salesman. “But I wanted to be my own boss, so I took advantage of my GI loan and went in with a partner (Joe Lee, who was also a partner at one time in the book store operation, but later sold out) and bought a shredded paper company.

And it was from this shredded paper  company which 30-year-old Bob Carlson ran down by the St. Paul Union Depot until 1960 that Bob Carlson, the man with all the questionable books, emerged in 1970 as the chief purveyor of titillation in the city of St. Paul.

“We got tons of magazines in with the paper to be shredded up,” he says, “and we opened up a used magazine store in the front of our factory. I started keeping track of what sold best and I found that sex sold the best, so we started selling mostly that. In those days, that was men’s magazines — Playboy and a lot that tried to be like it.”

Finally Carlson took the big jump. In 1960 he sold the factory and, with Lee, opened up the Wabasha Book Store, stocking sex, sex and more sex. But, as he explains, sex magazines then were not like sex magazines now.

“And for the next six or seven years we sold magazines and minded our own business and everything was fine. Nobody paid any attention to us and everything was perfectly all right.”

Wednesday, July 5, 1967, changed all that. On that day St. Paul police officers raided the Wabasha Book Store, arrested a clerk (Carlson wasn’t around at the moment), confiscated eight bags of material and issued a warrant for Carlson.

The great pornography war had begun.

The lines were quickly drawn, and the leading figures in what was to become one of the most interesting chapters in St. Paul moral history soon became clear.

First was Carlson, in his various roles as champion of freedom, harassed victim of oppression, hustler and out-spoken critic of St. Paul’s mores (depending on which newspaper account you happened to read).

Opposing him was Daniel Klas,  assistant Corporation Counsel for St. Paul, champion of the forces of light and purity, deadly earnest in his belief that pornography was a great danger to morality and that Carlson did, in fact, sell pornography all day long — and at an outrageous price. (Some interesting courtroom scenes emerged as the economics of Carlson’s business — wholesale cost and retail prices — were discussed.)

Supporting actors were found in plenty. There was St. Paul Corporation Counsel Joseph Summers who, among other things, read passages from a book ruled pornographic by courts to the Ramsey County Bar Association, then clarified his position by saying, “We are not seeking a new millennium, preaching Moral Rearmament, or trying to change the world. I believe in the little brother doll and I do not wear long johns in the shower.” But, he added, St. Paul was going to stop the sale of hard-core pornography.

(Summers was subsequently offered a job at Notre Dame and named Young Man of the Year by the Jaycees, both at the hight of the anti-pornography crusade, though no mention of a connection between the two was ever made.)

A host of others played various roles in what soon became a running battle between Carlson, his defenders, and Klas and his supporters.

There was Public Safety Commissioner Eilliam E. Carlson who, at one point, personally visited the Wabasha Book Store and purchased a book titled Sex Life of a Cop, as the basis for one of many arrests of Bob Carlson.

There was Police Sargent Robert Kunz, who in his business of arresting Carlson’s clerk, kicked in the front door — which resulted in the charge being dropped in that arrest.

The chronicle of arrests is far too involved — and too boring, for that matter — to detail here. By the end of 1967, St. Paul police had made at least 15 arrests of book dealers in St. Paul, all but five involving Carlson.

And a few convictions resulted. The courts managed to remove three books from circulation. Carlson simply replaced them with three different titles and kept right on selling books. Any conviction was automatically appealed to the higher courts, and Carlson still has a dozen or two appeals pending at this moment.

A lot of other things happened during the pornography war. At one point Corporation Counsel Joseph Summers took a photograph of a nude woman — a picture he had used as a basis for a charge against Carlson, arguing that it was obscene — and sent it through the mails to the president of the Civil Liberties Union. (Federal law prohibits the mailing of obscene materials.)

Then there was the matter of the missing magazines. After the court had ruled the July 5, 1967, arrest invalid because police had kicked open the door and had not had a warrant, the city returned to Carlson the material confiscated.

Most of it, that is. It seemed that a number of magazines were missing. Carlson put the figure at $93 and threatened to sue the city. He alleged that Klas had taken the magazines home. Klas admitted showing them around the office, but attributed the apparent loss of the magazines to an “error in inventory.”

If 1967 was the year of arrests in the war, 1968 was the year of legal maneuvers. The ratio of arrests slackened, and most of the activity on both sides was devoted to intricate moves in the courts.

At the very end of the calendar year — December 30, 1967 — St.  Paul launched a new assault on Carlson. After a dozen arrests and a paltry two convictions — $100 fines each — the city decided to try a new tack. Carlson was charged with operating a public nuisance.

After a few months of legal wrangling, this ploy failed too. The city did win a moral victory, however. It developed that Carlson’s lease on the Wabasha Book Store expired and the owner of the property — revealed to be the St. Paul YMCA — decided not to renew it.

Carlson moved across the street into larger quarters. He also opened up the enlarged version of his “Downtown Book Store” which deals in quality paperbacks and general interest magazines — no sex as such — choosing a large area in the basement of the Capri Hotel on Seventh Street.

“That’s where I like to spend my time,” Carlson says. “I get bored very quickly in the sex store. After you’ve seen that stuff, it’s all the same. But a store like this is a real challenge.”

Today he bills the Downtown Book Store as the largest and best-stocked in the state. WIth over 15,000 paperback titles, and better than 500 monthly magazine titles, he’s probably right. “If you can’t get a paperback or magazine here,” Carlson says, “you can’t get it anywhere.”

He candidly admits that he has been able to operate this store only because of the financial success of his sex store.

Carlson isn’t one to sit still, waiting for business. He looked around, decided both Duluth and Rochester needed book stores, and quickly opened branch stores there, naming them both “Wabasha Book Store,” and stocking the same mixture of sex, sex and more sex that had done him so well in St. Paul.

In addition, he opened a Downtown Book Store in Rochester, stocking quality paperbacks, and brought his total of stores to five.

It didn’t take the provinces as long to react to magazines like Teenage Nudist and paperbacks with titles such as Hot Stud for Hire as it had taken St. Paul. Hardly had Carlson opened up in 1969, than he found himself in court in both cities.

In Duluth he fared as he had in St. Paul, and still has some cases pending. Rochester was not so hospitable. There, earlier this spring, Carlson found himself sitting in the Olmstead County Jail for 29 days.

“I originally got a 90-day sentence upon conviction,” Carlson says, “with a lot of conditions. The sentence would be suspended on condition that I exhibited no magazines with a picture of a woman with her tongue hanging out. Well, we looked over the magazines, and they all seem to have pictures like that.

“So we told the court we couldn’t comply, and we went to jail, and did 27 days. I’ve still got 63 days hanging over my head down there, so I don’t know how that’s going to come out. The store is still open, and I haven’t changed my stock, but I don’t know…”

In the meantime, he had expanded operations in St. Paul. Seeing how well stag films sold, Carlson installed a battery of coin-operated movie machines in his St. Paul store and did a thriving business — for a while.

Then the police moved in and confiscated the machines this spring. “I counted eight policemen hauling out my machines,” Carlson says with a touch of bitterness. “Yet my store has been burglarized six times in the past 18 months — they come right through the front window. Never seems to be a policeman around then.”

The case of the confiscated movie machines is still in the courts, on appeal, though Carlson has paid $1,900 in fines. He has new machines ordered, but can’t get licenses to operate them. “I don’t know what I’ll do there.”

Outside of occasional newspaper headlines, Carlson leads a quiet bachelor’s life. Divorced, he points out that he spends every sunday with his two sons. “I don’t smoke, almost never drink, and I’ve gone with the same girl for three years. My idea of a wild night on the town is dinner for two and a good movie, with maybe coffee afterward.”

As far as the future, Carlson wants to open more bookstores. “Duluth could use a quality book store, and I’d like to open a quality store in the new IDS building in Minneapolis. Other than that, I’m happy doing what I’m doing — and I do intend to keep right on doing that too — selling the kinds of books that the public wants.”

***

I had to type this, so there’s probably tons of errors + autocorrect fails. Sorry for the moiré pattern — I’m lazy. |adam|

26 Comments

Paul Lundgren

about 3 years ago

Thanks for getting this started, Adam. Allow me to fill out the biography as best I can from various materials gathered over the years. Robert Olaf Carlson was born in 1927. In 1957, he and a friend, Joseph Lee, bought a company that shredded paper, making packing material from old newspapers. In their purchases of raw materials, they acquired a lot of magazines, which they sold in front of their factory in St. Paul, across from the Union Depot. Recognizing the demand for second-hand magazines, Carlson and Lee opened a nine-foot-wide store on Wabasha Street in St. Paul in 1960. After about four years, they sold the paper shredding business. By 1967, they owned three stores: the Downtown Book Store, which sold only paperbacks and standard magazines, the neighboring Wabasha Book and Magazine Store, which offered nudie materials, and Seven Corners Book and Magazine Shop, which specialized in high-grade paperbacks. Carlson’s battle with the law started on July 5, 1967, when St. Paul Police Vice Squad officers raided the Wabasha Book and Magazine Store, arresting a clerk and seizing 962 items — books, magazines and photographs — depicting nude men and women. The clerk, Melvin Hoyt, pleaded guilty to the charge of selling obscene material and paid a $100 fine. Carlson pleaded innocent. One month later, two police sergeants entered the store again, looking for unlawful material. Carlson recognized them and closed the store, locking them out. The sergeants kicked in the door, arrested Carlson and seized about 500 items of allegedly obscene material. Carlson again pleaded innocent to the charge of selling obscene material. St. Paul Municipal Judge James Lynch ruled on Oct. 3 that pictures of nude women are not obscene, and the first charge against Carlson was dropped. During that trial, Sgt. Robert Kunz testified that when he told Carlson he was checking for obscene literature, Carlson said “Good, I need the publicity.” Despite the ruling, Carlson’s business partner, Lee, was arrested two weeks later for sale of obscene literature. On Oct. 25, the second arrest of Carlson was ruled invalid by Municipal Judge Stephen Maxwell, who ruled that the arrest was improper because police lacked a warrant. Maxwell ordered the city to return the materials they had taken from Carlson’s store. Assistant City Attorney Daniel Klas refused to return the materials until Carlson’s attorney, Thomas Burke, went to Maxwell about the matter. When the materials were returned, six films, one magazine and five paperbacks were missing. Carlson and another clerk, Carl Pfahler, were arrested during another police raid on Oct. 26. Before leaving with officers, either Carlson or Pfahler hung a sign on the front door of the bookstore. It read, “Gone to jail. Be back at 3:30.” An article in St. Paul Life reported the exchange between Klas and Carlson during the arrest.

Klas: “Where’s that box of books we had to give you back yesterday?” Carlson: “I already sold them. But they were so pawed over that I had to sell them for half-price.” Klas: [Picking up a book and reading the title.] “The Autobiography of a Pimp? What’s this all about?” Carlson: “That book is highly recommended by all the prostitutes who run loose on the streets of this city."
When the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union accused City Attorney Joseph P. Summers of harassing Carlson, Lee and their employees, Summers sent one of the nudie pictures collected by St. Paul Police with a letter to the Civil Liberties Union. “Don’t try to peddle the enclosed picture in St. Paul,” he wrote. “It might get you in trouble.” (This move could be considered rather foolish, since, if the photo was indeed obscene, Summers himself violated federal postal laws.) On Nov. 7, the St. Paul City Council agreed informally to support the police department arresting persons violating the law against the sale of pornography. Public Safety Commissioner William Carlson brought in a box of materials he said he had purchased from St. Paul bookstores. He told the council: “This material has no literary value and some of it — one book particularly — encourages young boys to become homosexuals on the grounds that it is natural.” That afternoon, Commissioner Carlson accompanied city police on the eighth raid of the Wabasha Book and Magazine Store, arresting Lee for the third time. Commissioner Carlson personally purchased three books at the store: Adam and Eve Illustrated, Sex Life of a Cop and Fetish Farm. Robert Carlson said he was “happy to include” the commissioner on his “list of customers.” He opened his first Duluth store around 1976. The store relocated eight times. On September 24, 2002, Internal Revenue Service agents seized merchandise from R.O. Carlson Used Book & Record to help settle overdue tax payments. Dozens of boxes of collectible comic books and old Life magazines were confiscated, along with an estimated 20,000 record albums. Agents also took 5,000 compact disc jewel cases, but failed to realize the discs were stored separately. Carlson owed $39,127 to the federal government and $119,627 to the state at the time. He filed for bankruptcy on March 3, 2003. Four days later, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Minnesota District closed Carlson Used Book & Record. Carlson estimated his remaining inventory was worth $6,000. The IRS claimed it might be worth as much as $61,500.

mevdev

about 3 years ago

Bravo. Can we get a then to now report?

mevdev

about 3 years ago

Oh wait, I didn't see Paul's report. Thanks.

hbh1

about 3 years ago

Bravo! Now, Adam, I'd like to make arrangements.... But I don't have a cell, and you don't have a FB... so it'll have to wait a while longer, I guess. Don't burn down your house or anything.

hbh1

about 3 years ago

Also, it is kind of uncanny, isn't it, the way history recycles itself?

Zeito

about 3 years ago

R.O. Carlson, owner of used book store where I bought my Camus, Hesse, and copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin from? He charged me like $6 for an Aerosmith tape once. I miss that bookstore. Local hero.

samh

about 3 years ago

A great read. Thanks for sharing Adam (and Paul).

hbh1

about 3 years ago

I'm sure it wasn't a penny over $4.25, Zeito. (Yes, he overcharged. Notoriously. Against the will of his employees, who would bargain to save a sale if he wasn't looking.)

French

about 3 years ago

Where would the novel (and life) be without that crazy relative.

Whatever

about 3 years ago

With all the money made peddling smut he could have maintained his building. Same thing goes for his spawn.

hbh1

about 3 years ago

Isn't a landlord responsible for the buildings you rent? Bob Carlson never owned any building he had a store in. Same goes for his son.

Whatever

about 3 years ago

I stand corrected.

d

about 3 years ago

Nice to see that the legend of Bob Carlson is still alive. HBH1, is he still kicking around?

carla

about 3 years ago

What was the connection between Carlson and Eric Ringsred? Was there one?

Paul Lundgren

about 3 years ago

Carlson is indeed still alive. I'm not sure there's any Carlson/Ringsred connection, other than that I'm sure they are acquainted.

adam

about 3 years ago

They're both hoarders.

carla

about 3 years ago

This is why I thought there was a connection: "Finally Carlson took the big jump. In 1960 he sold the factory and, with Lee, opened up the Wabasha Book Store, stocking sex, sex and more sex."

Paul Lundgren

about 3 years ago

The Wabasha Book that Carlson owned was in the Twin Cities. The Duluth Wabasha was owned by Ferris Alexander for many years. He was another famous purveyor of porn, convicted in May of 1990 of 25 counts of racketeering, obscenity and tax fraud. He appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction. He was sentenced to six years in prison and his property was seized. (Fun fact: The government's case against Alexander was presented by former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr.) Jim Gradishar owned the Duluth Wabasha Book for a decade or so before his death in 2010. I'm not sure who owns it now.

hbh1

about 3 years ago

I don't have my packet of old articles, but I was made to understand somewhere along the way that there is/was some enmity between Ferris Alexander and Carlson--something about how during all the brouhaha with the court cases, Ferris bought Carlson's stores. Essentially, all that fight really took a lot of Carlson's cash, and Ferris took advantage? I'm unsure, and I don't know if this was something R.O.C. told me or someone else. There is no real connection between Ringsred and Carlson except that they are Comrades of the Hoard, good friends, and shared a strong interest in neighborhood developments back in the day. They both were big supporters of Kent Worley and the movement to bury I-35 under those tunnels and keep some greenspace and connection to the lake. Without Kent, there would be no lakewalk, really. Carlson has long been a letter-writing advocate of the entrance to the lakewalk that was supposed to happen where the Muffler Clinic was. Why it still has not happened I'm not sure. Ringsred would sometimes bring his snow monkey, Pepper, in to Carlson Book. That monkey had a grip like a vise, and his hands smelled like shit. One time I thought he was going to break my fingers, while looking me deeply in the eyes. It took some moments to persuade him to unhand me--something about looking away and being submissive. lol

Paul Lundgren

about 3 years ago

I suppose it's time to pull this out: In 1999 Eamonn Fitzmaurice shot a parody of the Janet Jackson Rolling Stone cover starring none other than Bob Carlson. The idea may have come partially from me or Jon Eckblad. I can't remember anymore. (Do not ask me any questions about this photo without first buying me a beer.)

zra

about 3 years ago

Damn your eyes!

emmadogs

about 3 years ago

Oh good lord. Good lord.

hbh1

about 3 years ago

You knew Spring had arrived when boss-man Carlson took off his shirt at the bookstore, and I swear he didn't put it on until sometime in September. Up on the roof of the bookstore, he had what some employees (probably specifically LumpyG) called his "Nudarium," where he acquired the lovely nut-brown color that was the envy of teenage girls everywhere. Okay... maybe not everywhere.

emmadogs

about 3 years ago

His name ain't Baby, it's Bob, Mr. Carlson if you're nasty.

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