Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bookstore Lost (Milwaukee's Renaissance)

So, thanks to Janice (and also Doug) for sharing the news from Milwaukee that the city's years-long struggle to condemn the legendary Renaissance Books has finally succeeded.

This is sad news, since that's long been a Milwaukee landmark and was the last of the old, run-down, over-stuffed,  jumbled bookstores that downtown Milwaukee was well-stocked with when I first moved up there. Renaissance Books, in an old warehouse alongside the river, was four floors of shelves with books everywhere, many of them decades old. Here's where I stocked up on misc. volumes of James Branch Cabell and filled out my working library of Dunsany books from the library discards on their shelves (the latter appeared a few days after a library sale in which they'd snatched them up for a nickel a volume at the very start of the library sale, then offered them for sale the next week at $10). They also had a smallish area of records, at which I got one or two albums (I think the two Danny Kirwan's solo albums I have came from here).

All this was great, but leaves out the other side: that the building was basically derelict. "Ramshackle" barely begins to describe it: leaning walls, sagging staircases where the steps were only attached on one side, having come off the other; cracks in the wall, floors that tilted. In its latter days, things got worse: books spilling off shelves to lie scattered on the floor and I think they put the top floor off-limits as too unsafe to walk across.

And then there was their bizarre policy of not putting prices in books. Instead, they'd make up a price when you brought the book up to check-out. You'd hand them whatever book(s) you wanted to buy, and they'd glance them over, size you up, and come up with a price. Sometimes it sound fair and sometimes not; I put a lot of books I wanted back because I thought they were asking too much. The whole practice might have fitted in well in a Moroccan market, but I found it endlessly annoying in a Milwaukee bookshop.

All of which made it all the more amazing when Renaissance opened up a branch in the Milwaukee airport (Mitchell Field). It was full of interesting books, like the motherstore, but here they were well-organized, well-shelved, and priced, all in a clean and well-lit room. It quickly became my favorite airport bookstore anywhere, bar none: I stop in there every chance I get when passing to or through Milwaukee.

So, I guess the cry shd be: Renaissance Books is dead; long live Renaissance Books.

But I do hate the thought of all those old books being bulldozed and ending up in a landfill.

--John R.
current reading: Kel Richards' THE COUNTRY HOUSE MURDERS [2014]

1 comment:

Wurmbrand said...

I visited that atmospheric downtown store just once, on 28 Nov. 1987, where I found a couple of Everyman's Library editions of books by George Borrow and an edition of the Letters of Cowper, which CSL praises somewhere. I think I ordered some books from them later, too. I remember a window in the rear of the store that opened right over the river, seeming a convenient place to dump a body if need be. There must be few such sprawling stores left in the U. S.