As a public librarian, it was always important to me to make the library the community center for everything, for conversation about books, but everything else too,” explains Maureen Palmer, the owner of Redbery Books, a full-service
general bookstore located in the northwestern Wisconsin town of Cable, population 825. “That’s one of the things I love best about being here—we’re right near the post office, in the heart of this cool little town. We’re definitely a community hub. I don’t expect people who come in to buy something every time, but I love it when people come in just to hang out and have good conversations.”
Palmer was a librarian in Reedsburg, Wis., 230 miles south of Cable, before she purchased Redbery Books in 2015 from Bev Bauer. Bauer, a retired teacher, had opened the store in 2005, in an 800-square-foot space in the historic Ideal Market building, sharing the location with a grocery store and a restaurant. The building still has its original high tin ceilings, ceiling fans, and wooden fixtures. There’s a stained glass transom over the door and an antique sales counter that a store employee claims came from Calvin Coolidge’s 1928 “Summer White House” in Superior, Wis., 65 miles north of Cable. Today, that counter holds the cash register, surrounded by local food products, such as maple syrup and coffee beans, as well as travel cribbage sticks and souvenir magnets.
Two years after Palmer moved to Cable and took over the business, the grocery store closed, and Redbery doubled in size to 1,600 sq. ft. There is one entrance into Ideal Market, which still houses the restaurant. One of three eateries in the town, its customers must walk through the entire length of the bookstore to reach it. “People come in looking for the eatery in back, which is famous for its artisan stone oven pizzas,” Palmer said. “And then there are the people for whom the bookstore is the destination. They’re surprised to find an eatery here, so they decide to check it out. It works well both ways.”
Redbery Books draws customers from all over the region, with programming that includes author visits by such regional favorites as Peter Geye, William Kent Krueger, and Lorna Landvik. There are five book groups—down from six—associated with the store, including a men’s book group with 20-plus members. “People up here love to read,” Palmer said. “And they crave book clubs, so that they can combine their love of reading with a socializing component.”
Redbery’s customer demographics skew older, as many people from the Twin Cities retire to the area, a trend that spiked during the pandemic. The recent population growth in Bayfield County, as well as an increase in tourism in the area, has helped increase sales by 38% for the year through September 2022 over the same period in 2019.
Online orders have also lifted sales, as Palmer upgraded Redbery’s website and social media output during the pandemic and started offering free shipping. In 2020–2021, the store received a total of 1,624 orders from unique customers across the U.S.—a number that has fallen to just above 300 so far this year. Some orders were from seasonal customers who wanted to support the store, “but there were also random orders from California, Oregon, the East Coast,” Palmer recalled. “I’d ask how they heard about us and they’d say, ‘My aunt lives in Duluth,’ or ‘My friend told me about you.’ There was some connection. Then we were featured in a BuzzFeed article about the top Midwest bookstores and that brought in a lot of orders from places like Louisiana and other states where I’d never had any customers.”
Palmer, who is the store’s buyer, credits its deep inventory to her staff, whom she describes as “voracious readers who are always giving me suggestions,” and whom she encourages to fill out purchase orders for any books they’ve heard about or read that they think would sell well.
Also, she says, her librarian training made her a better bookseller. “When I was a librarian, we were constantly getting ideas from our patrons as to what they were reading, what they loved, what their favorite book club read was,” she said. “I take notes when I hear people talking about their favorite book. When they say to me, ‘Have you read this book, which is my favorite book ever?’ I will get that book in.”