Wisconsin has more to be proud of than just its dairy production and its 70 breweries. It's also home to more than 100 thriving bookstores, including three of the Upper Midwest's oldest: Conkey's Bookstore, doing business in Appleton since 1896; Janke Bookstore, serving Wausau since 1919; and the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops—PW's 2004 bookseller of the year—founded in Milwaukee in 1927.

Twenty-eight chain bookstores, 54 ABA stores and 25 CBA stores serve Wisconsin's 5.5 million residents. Ninety-four independent bookstores in the region belong to the Midwest Booksellers Association, including 26 outlets of Book World, an Appleton-based regional chain, many of them located in small and medium-size communities, from small villages like Sister Bay (pop. 900) to larger cities like Oshkosh (pop. 63,000).

“Book World serves quite a few communities around the state that otherwise might not have bookstores,” said Susan Walker, the Midwest Booksellers Association's executive director, explained. “They provide a very real service to these underserved communities.

As for how readers decide what to buy, Wisconsin Public Radio is a major influence. “Chapter-a-Day [a program on WPR's Ideas Network] has a good following,” Jane Janke, the third-generation owner of Janke Books, said. “We have a couple of shelves in my store devoted to Chapter-a-Day books, not just the current one,” she added. “People are always coming in, looking for books that were featured months ago, as well as the latest selection.”

“There's been this bubbling up of Wisconsin authors,” Nancy Quinn, marketing director at Harry W. Schwartz, said. Wisconsin is undergoing a literary renaissance, sparked more than 10 years ago by Oprah Winfrey, when she selected novels by Wisconsin authors for her first two book club reads in 1996: The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard , followed by The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton.

“Wisconsin wasn't known as a place for authors before Jane Hamilton and Jacquelyn Mitchard,” said Quinn, who schedules 300 events a year. “Now, you have Lesley Kagen, Larry Watson, Liam Callanan, Lauren Fox, Jennifer Chiaverini, Michael Perry, Ben Percy, James Campbell, Kris Radish, C.J. Hribal. And they're all passionate about their bookstores. There's a nice collaborative environment for the written word in Wisconsin right now.”

Many of Wisconsin's bookstores are located in the more densely populated southern part of the state, which contains Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin's two largest cities.

Milwaukee's metro area boasts eight chain bookstores and 10 independent bookstores, including the Harry W. Schwartz stores; Woodland Pattern literary center's bookstore, which carries 25,000 small press titles; and the Bookseller, a retail space selling new books that's owned by the Milwaukee Public Library. There are also a dozen used-book stores serving the area's 600,000 residents and 45,000 students enrolled at nine local colleges and universities.

Eighty miles west of Milwaukee, Madison—which claims the largest number of Ph.D.s per capita among U.S. cities—has half a dozen independent bookstores and another half a dozen chain bookstores serving the city's 220,000 residents and 50,000 university students. A dozen bookstores, most of them near the University of Wisconsin—Madison campus, sell used books, including Avol's, which moved into the space vacated by Canterbury Booksellers when the MadTown general independent bookstore closed its doors three years ago.

“Madison's still pretty vibrant, even though we lost Canterbury, as well as Star Books, and the university downsized their downtown bookstore,” said Sandra Torkildson, owner of A Room of One's Own, a 32-year-old women's bookstore around the corner from Avol's that's been carrying more general-interest titles since Canterbury closed.

“We're doing well,” Torkildson said. “The challenges facing us are the same challenges facing other businesses in downtown Madison: the high rents [landlords] can get for bars and restaurants as opposed to retail near State Street [Madison's heavily trafficked pedestrian walkway].”

It's not only the Wisconsinites living near Milwaukee and Madison who enjoy easy access to books and bookstores. While the 27,000 residents of Superior, northern Wisconsin's largest city, are about to lose their only bookstore, J.W. Beecroft Books & Coffee, a number of the smallest communities around the area have thriving independent bookstores.

Washburn, an artists' community of 2,000 near the northwestern tip of the state, has supported Chequamegon Books & Coffee for the past 11 years. Richard Avol, who, with his wife, Carol, owns Chequamegon Books, previously owned a bookstore in Madison for 18 years. The Avols left the congested streets and rising rents for Wisconsin's north woods in 1996, taking with them 1,000 boxes of books. Today, their store carries 60,000 books, a mixture of new and used titles.

“We sold a lot of used books, a lot of publisher overstocks and a lot of remaindered books in Madison,” he recalled. “We sell a lot more new books here. There are fewer bookstores, and the tourists want regional books. There's a good local market, too. We draw from a huge area,” including two nearby Indian reservations. Other than a Book World a few miles away, in Ashland, the closest chain bookstore to Chequamegon Books is 75 miles away, a B&N in Duluth, Minn.

The 2,700 residents of Spooner, 98 miles southwest of Washburn, have supported Northwind Book & Fiber for the past 14 years. Carol Dunn, a 10-year employee, who bought the full-service general bookstore from its previous owner in April, said its rural location contributes to its success.

“There are no chain bookstores particularly close to us,” Dunn said. “And Spooner has a downtown where you can still buy all your necessities. People know if they want to maintain this kind of a vibrant downtown, they have to shop local. Or they'll lose us.”

Bookselling Health IndexHousehold Income: $44,084Population: 5,509Independent Bookstores: 79Chain Bookstores: 28Total Bookstores: 107Big-box Stores: 119Total Stores: 226Stores per Capita: 1 per 24,376Per Capita Rank: 31