Milwaukee’s bookstore scene has taken some hits over the years. Four Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in and around the city closed their doors in 2009 after an 82-year run, Borders went bankrupt in 2011, and Appleton, Wis.–based Book World, a regional chain of 45 stores with several outlets in the Milwaukee suburbs, shut down in 2017. But Milwaukee quickly bounced back after those losses, and industry observers note that a wave of niche stores launched in recent years has created an indie landscape that is more diverse and vibrant than ever before.
According to Carrie Obry, Midwest Independent Booksellers Association executive director and a Milwaukee native, “There’s a lot going on, and there has been for a long time. There’s Boswell’s, Woodland Pattern [a literary center] has a bookstore, and Outwords, a little LGBTQ bookstore, has been around for 30 years. But there’s a lot of new energy, as well: Niche Book Bar is run by a young Black bookseller who started out with a pop-up on her tricycle and is setting up shop in August in a gorgeous old building; Lion’s Tooth brings an international perspective and is very small press driven; Rooted MKE is run by another young Black bookseller; and La Revo is run by two Latina sisters who are bringing books to the South Side, which really thrills me because it was a book desert for so long.”
In mid-April, La Revo’s co-owners, Valeria and Barbara Cerda, announced that their two-year-old pop-up specializing in Latinx literature and Spanish-language books is expanding its reach by selling books on consignment inside the MARN Arts & Culture Hub’s marketplace in the city’s Third Ward downtown; La Revo plans to have a pop-up there during the CI2023 bookstore tour.
Boswell Book Company, another stop on the CI2023 bookstore tour, is located on the East Side. The grande dame of Milwaukee’s indies, this 8,000-square-foot bookstore was founded in 2009 by Daniel Goldin, previously Schwartz’s general manager, 10 days after its demise as a Schwartz Bookshop.
Even though Boswell’s is a full-service general bookstore, 20% of its revenue is from children’s and YA book sales, and it has always boasted “strong specialty children’s programming,” Goldin says. “Our kids’ retail area is 1,100 square feet. It’s as big as or bigger than a lot of children’s bookstores. This year our children’s buyer enlarged our selection of books in other languages.”
In the Bay View neighborhood, Shelly McClone-Carriere and Cris Siqueira started Lion’s Tooth in 2019 as a pop-up. In 2021, Lion’s Tooth moved into a 600-square-foot space on Kinnickinnic Street, which is becoming known as the Book District, due to the book-driven businesses clustered there, including the Bindery, which hosts an annual zines festival. Though Lion’s Tooth specializes in small press titles, graphic novels for adults and children, and zines, it also sells board and picture books, YA novels, and “even a few chapter books,” McClone-Carriere says.
Milwaukee also boasts two specialty children’s bookstores, located a short walk from each other in Washington Heights. Rainbow Booksellers has been around since 1994, housed in a 1,200-square-foot space. Its books range from classics that are mandatory reading in local schools to what co-owner Marye Beth Dugan calls “beautiful things,” like lavishly illustrated picture books. “We’re much larger than we appear,” she says, citing the store’s community partnerships and regular presence at book fairs and festivals. “We have a wide community impact.”
A few blocks down West Vliet Street from Rainbow, Rooted MKE was founded just over a year ago by a former Milwaukee Public Schools educator Ashley Valentine to sell children’s books by BIPOC authors and illustrators exclusively. Inventory ranges from board books through middle grade reads, “although there are a few YA books,” Valentine says. She became a bookseller because“it’s critical that urban youth see themselves in the pages of books,” she explains. “There aren’t many spaces in Milwaukee for Black and brown youth to experience literacy. I want to change that.”
Rooted is divided into a 500-square-foot retail space and a 500-square-foot “exploration area” that includes a tutoring center. During the bookstore tour, Valentine will offer an array of activities. Booksellers can design and create button pins, make journals and then do journaling, create sidewalk chalk art, or simply sit, Valentine says, for a “storytime that’s a less stimulating experience than the group activities.”
Reflecting upon her hometown’s bookselling scene, Obry notes that in her youth, people wanting new books bought them at either Schwartz or at a chain. “There’s a proliferation now,” she says, “of interesting people from all different backgrounds putting their own imprint on the bookselling world and intentionally creating bookstores to reach out to their specific communities. It’s another reason for this Milwaukee girl to be super proud of her city.”