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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Booking It Across Wisconsin

Independent bookstores still flourish

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Theone-hour drive to Spooner from Amery, in northwest Wisconsin, is circuitous and captivating. The route is not difficult—Highway 63 pretty much gets you there—but the road twists from one surprise to another. We blew through Cumberland, home of the summertime Rutabaga Fest, a 75-year tradition. We passed Bella Curella, part of a century-old cheese factory near Comstock, and loved repeating the Italian deli’s name. We were charmed by pretty Shell Lake, though we only had time to wonder about its mysterious Museum of Woodcarving.

Somewhere along the way, we noted that Seventh Street comes right between 25 3/4 and 26 1/2 avenues. Before the morning ended, we had heard about—and toured—a waycool yurt that is rented by the night near Trego (Namekagon Waters Retreat, 715-635-2027).

Our destination was Northwind Book & Fiber (www.northwindbook.com, 715-635-6811), where iconic author Ben Logan read from The Land Remembers. There are 500,000 copies of his 1975 book in print, and this event introduced the eighth printing.

Like a lot of independently owned bookstores, Northwind stocks more than fiction and nonfiction. You’ll also find jewelry by local artists, yarn for handicraft projects, unusual toys, games and gifts. Owner Alene Peterson has helped to improve exposure of “regional products that are handmade and homegrown” through the development of the 13-county Northwest Heritage Passage (www.heritagepassage.com, 715-635- 9303). The project showcases dozens of artists and growers.

And that is but one example of how independent bookstore owners invest in their community and become more than a place to do business. They can be the soul of a society, a place where people gravitate for conversation and collaboration.

More Memorable Bookstores
Here are a half-dozen other Wisconsin bookstores that make a pleasant mark on the world.

A Room of One’s Own, 307 W. Johnson St., Madison: The state’s best-known feminist bookstore has been around since 1975, downtown and off of State Street. Some of UW- Madison’s faculty in women’s studies head here to discover new and enlightening titles for themselves and their students.

Resources about gender issues and diversity are plentiful. The children’s section contains non-sexist material. A coffeehouse makes the overall space comfortable for conversation. For more: www.roomofonesown.com, 608-257-7888.

Chequamegon Book and Coffee Co., 2 E. Bayfield St., Washburn: In 1995 Richard and Carol Avol moved with about 1,300 boxes of books to this community of 2,300 in northwestern Wisconsin. They had been longtime bookstore operators in Madison and friends wondered if they had left their sanity behind.

Why would a used bookstore succeed in this relatively remote part of the state? Success means stacking the shelves the right way. Richard says the area has the highest number of college-educated people, per capita, in the state. So remainders, overstocks and private book collections lean toward scholarly titles. Regional history, Lake Superior, natural history, folklore, American Indian, music, art, textiles and maritime titles are niches that extend to online sales.
For more: www.abebooks.com/home/cheqbookco, 715- 373-2899.

Ocooch Books & Libations, 145 W. Court St., Richland Center: Sip a brew, as in micro, as you scan the inventory or settle in to a new plot. Unusual single malt scotches and wines are other options; sometimes tastings coincide with book readings. What a good match for Wisconsin. The bookstore is named after the hills in the area. It is a place to spin a yarn— literally, since hand-spun yarns for knitting is another business sideline. For more: 608-647-8826.

Novel Ideas, 8085 Highway 57, Baileys Harbor: We love the colorful, fanciful murals that grace the walls at this friendly Door County haven, which is especially fun for children. In stock are games and toys, as well as books for all ages.

Owners Pat and Michelle Palmer, a father-daughter team, schedule storytelling for children on Saturday mornings, but also have brought in Harley-loving cookbook author Bill “Biker Billy” Hufnagle for a cookout. For more: www.novelideas-books.com, 920-839-1300.

Bibliomaniacs, 324 E. Walworth Ave., Delavan: As a book lover, you might like the thought of a separate area for the store’s 3,000 rare/collector edition titles. The used bookstore doesn’t simply stock—it collects and knows book value.

If you are an animal lover, expect an extra treat: A trio of felines—Xena, Yum Yum and Zoey—kept customers in line when we visited. They were aloof and lazy, lounging in patches of sunshine. “They have been spayed, so don’t even ask about kittens,” a sign advised. “And if you bring up their weight, don’t be surprised if we comment about yours.” For more: www.abebooks.com/home/bibliomaniacswi, 262-728-9933.

Castle Arkdale, W1778 County K, Markesan: Books seem to be everywhere on this farm, but most are housed quite neatly in a former 400,000-gallon manure storage tank. Yes, that is odd, but it’s also a comfortable space to browse and linger. Believe it: Knotty pine walls, quilts and rockers add a down-home feel to this two-level shop.

Owners Leonore and Lloyd Dickman figure that they have half-a-million books—old, banned, rare, cheap and children’s books: You name it. For more: 920-398-3375. Open by chance or appointment.

Photo of Chequamegon Book and Coffee Co. by Gary Knowles