From the University of Minnesota Press


City blue laws drove the liquor trade and its customers—hard-drinking lumberjacks, pensioners, farmhands, and railroad workers—into the oldest quarter of Minneapolis. In the fifty-cent-a-night flophouses of the city’s Gateway District, they slept in cubicles with ceilings of chicken wire. In rescue missions, preachers and nuns tried to save their souls. Sociology researchers posing as vagrants studied them. And in their midst John Bacich, aka Johnny Rex, who owned a bar, a liquor store, and a cage hotel, documented the gritty neighborhood’s last days through photographs and film of his clientele.


The King of Skid Row follows Johnny Rex into this vanished world that once thrived in the heart of Minneapolis. Drawing on hours of interviews conducted in the three years before Bacich’s death in 2012, James Eli Shiffer brings to life the eccentric characters and strange events of an American skid row. Supplemented with archival and newspaper research and his own photographs, Bacich’s stories recreate the violent, alcohol-soaked history of a city best known for its clean, progressive self-image. His life captures the seamy, richly colorful side of the city swept away by a massive urban renewal project in the early 1960s and gives us, in a glimpse of those bygone days, one of Minneapolis’s most intriguing figures—spinning some of its most enduring and enthralling tales. 

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Author photo by Karl Herber

Author photo by Karl Herber

James Eli Shiffer has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has worked as an editor and writer at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis since 2005, and before that spent 12 years at The News & Observer in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. He has focused on cities, public records, government secrecy and investigations. In 2010, Shiffer partnered with photojournalist McKenna Ewen to create Rubbed Out, a multimedia history of the unsolved murder of a Minneapolis journalist in 1945. The King of Skid Row is Shiffer's first book. He lives in south Minneapolis with his wife and children.

City Pages Best of the Twin Cities, 2017: Best Book (Nonfiction) podcast: Interview by Bill Lindeke

Podcast and web story of my interview with Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio

MinnPost interview with Amy Goetzman about raising "the ghosts of downtown Minneapolis"

"Minneapolis' Long Lost Skid Row": Interview with KFAI's Xan Holston

City Pages interview with Erica Rivera: "The King of Skid Row" revisits Minneapolis' seedy underside

The Matt McNeil Show, AM950

KUMD Minnesota Reads: interview with Lisa Johnson

Access Minnesota with Jim du Bois: The End of Minneapolis's Skid Row

Interview on WCCO AM 830, John Hines Show (April 6, 2016)

Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, "Six Must-Read Books for the Spring"

Stan Turner show, KLBB AM, author interview (02-27-2016)

Pioneer Press, recommended spring reads

Coffeehouse Press: In the Stacks, author interview


John Bacich’s “Skidrow,” a 30-minute film, remains the grittiest and most powerful record of Minneapolis’ Gateway District. It grew out of his documentary impulse, and awareness that this place would soon be gone. He shot the film in the late 1950s and early 1960s on a Bell & Howell 16 mm movie camera, in color, but with no sound. It probably would have remained obscure but for a serendipitous meeting between Bacich and Jerome Liebling, the legendary documentary photographer and filmmaker who at the time taught at the University of Minnesota. Liebling’s students, most notably Rod Lazorik, shot additional footage and edited it into a half-hour reel. Bacich added his voiceover in the mid-1980s. Newly digitized from the original film by Thor Anderson at Saving Tape, this version of the video offers vivid colors and sharper images that help bring this remarkable era back to life. Note: This film has some graphic images.

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