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Buying Books in Milwaukee

Indie bookstores carry on despite Amazon

Jul. 3, 2014
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In the age of Amazon and e-readers, independent bookstores are at the mercy of an increasingly paperless world. Shifts in technology made the independent bookstore a tougher sell for publishers, authors and customers, with a few stores spread thinly across expansive urban areas.

In Milwaukee, though, many independent bookstores are resilient, maintaining their original goals to sell books and truly remain local. Boswell Book Company was one late addition to this community.

Harry Schwartz opened his first Milwaukee bookshop in 1927 and quickly established the store as a Milwaukee institution. When his stores closed in 2009, Boswell was part of their rebirth. In the years since, Boswell has become Milwaukee’s hub for general fiction and nonfiction books, nationally recognized and a popular stop for authors passing through the region.

The collection of mostly new books thrives on staff recommendations and a calendar filled with author events. The store itself stays alive by face-to-face interactions with the community.

For these reasons and others, owner Daniel Goldin is passive toward ebooks. He favors the analog over the digital.

“I love the physicality of books,” Goldin says. “When reading a book I really, really love, I like holding it. It’s sort of like the idea of a bookshelf: I like being able to look out and see the books that I really loved still there.”

Independent stores span Milwaukee County. At Little Read Book in Wauwatosa, Linda Burg has committed her store to the community, supporting a catalog of local book clubs, school programs, meetings for young kids and church events. She has sold gifts along with books since the store opened in 1985.

While some of Milwaukee’s independent bookstores house general collections, many others specialize in what they sell.

Some stores specialize by identity. Reader’s Choice is Milwaukee’s only African American bookstore, focusing its collection on culture and history. The store offers other items, too, like bilingual children’s books in Spanish and Chinese. In the bookstore’s back meeting room, used for author events and classes, a full-walled mural by Milwaukee artist Ammar Nsoroma takes the spotlight.

Another, Outwords Books, pioneered unexplored territory by becoming the only gay and lesbian bookstore in Milwaukee. Today, it even represents much of the Midwest, says owner Carl Szatmary: no LGBT store exists in Chicago, and stores in other cities have seen their better days.

Other stores specialize by genre. Mystery One Bookstore is a small shop, adorned by shelves packed tightly with the brick-like paperbacks customary to the mystery and crime genres. A smoking-gun neon sign glows in the front window. Since opening, the store has expanded to include newly emerging subgenres, from thrillers to vampire stories. “What the mystery authors are writing these days,” owner Richard Katz says.

Some stores operate on alternative business models. Riverwest is home to two nonprofit bookstores. Woodland Pattern Book Center bridges art and literature by hosting poetry events, writing workshops and an experimental film series in its wide-open gallery space. The shelves in the main room hold an eclectic set of chapbooks, some held together by rope, made of stapled printer paper or with collages of newspaper clippings on their covers. Many come from local authors.

“It’s not necessarily a commercial concern,” says Chuck Stebelton, the store’s literary program director. “It’s about making contemporary writing available. Otherwise, these things are pretty invisible. Those interested in language and the world should be able to encounter them.”

The other is People’s Books Cooperative. Passionate and political, Chris Chiu opened the bookstore in 1974 as a hub for progressive social literature. In June 2007, he handed management over to several UW-Milwaukee students who made the store into a cooperative. Customers and volunteers who operate the store day to day recommend much of the store’s collection.

Some stores specialize by their audience, and some by their medium. Vibrant and colorful, Rainbow Booksellers focuses on children’s literature, selling small toys and handing out candy from the front counter. Booked Solid in West Allis sells a huge array of magazines, from American Archaeology to Bird Watching and Time.

In addition to new books, Milwaukee has several used bookstores that together hold an incalculable number of titles. Schroeder Used Books and Music in West Allis is one such store, with books stacked in an organized chaos that necessitates help from the front.

Another is Renaissance Book Shop, located in the atrium of General Mitchell International Airport. The store is a magnet for travelers with a long layover looking to pass the time, housing a popular section on aviation, rare antique titles and an impressive collection of LIFE back issues.

Though the airport store stocks about 50,000 titles, visitors have access to nearly half a million left from the location Downtown. Renaissance owner Robert John also operates The Book Shop in the Shops of Grand Avenue.

In the center of the city, there is Downtown Books. Before opening the store in 1991, Downtown owner Keith Pajot worked at Renaissance just a few blocks away. Both stores changed gears in late 2011: Downtown moved around the block after its multi-story labyrinth was sold to make way for the Marriott, and Renaissance was closed by the city due to safety concerns.

If there was one difference, though, it was something that Pajot focused on for years at Downtown: organizing his shelves.

Downtown Books now balances its massive collection of used fiction, nonfiction, comics, movies and records between two locations, one Downtown and the other in Walker’s Point (where titles are sold half-price). Two resident felines, Milo and Merlin, can be found roaming the red shelves of the Downtown store.

Further south is Bay View Books & Music, which holds a solid foundation of vinyl records surrounded by shelves of used books. The bindings are more worn than at other used bookstores—some titles, mixed plainly with the others, date back to the late 1800s. Visitors can scoot through the many books and records while a scratchy jazz vinyl plays at the front.

Nearly all of Milwaukee’s independent bookstores send their resources back to the community. They host literary events and workshops, sell tickets for local theater productions and collaborate with professors to sell textbooks. The social aspect of bookstores is vital, and to Goldin, it’s evidence that independent stores can continue past the threats of the digital age.

“With human nature, the tendency is to see things very black and white. The celebrity is great until they fall. The book is amazing until the backlash comes. And the bookstore’s good until they’re not good. And I just don’t think the world works that way.”


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