Malcolm McDowell Woods

The stories of Milwaukee’s book co-ops

By - Oct 1st, 2009 09:20 am
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The old Harry W. Schwartz logo lived on for a while at Boswell Book Company on Downer Ave. In September, new owner Daniel Goldin unveiled a new design.

The old Harry W. Schwartz logo lived on for a while at Boswell Book Company on Downer Ave. In September, new owner Daniel Goldin unveiled a new design.

By Colleen DuVall


As a fall chill settles in the air, there’s something to be said for snuggling up with a good book. And what better place to search for a page-turning read than one of your resident book cooperatives? In honor of National Co-op Month, here are three whose stories we’ll be delving into:

A Broader Vocabulary

This book co-op began when the bricks and mortar Broader Vocabulary closed in Bay View. Organizer Stephanie Schneider was kind enough to provide these thoughtful answers to my questions:

What has the transition been like from Bay View store to co-op?

SS:  “Since the store closed in November, organizing to form a cooperative has certainly been an adventure. The group of us that came together when we heard the store was closing were strangers, but all interested in keeping the store alive.  None of us had any experience in forming a co-op or opening a bookstore, so it’s been an incredible learning experience and a great test of the do-it-yourself ethic.

“Though we raised enough money to purchase the store’s inventory, we’re still working on fund raising to afford a space.  In the meantime, we’re putting on events and building community as we would if we had a brick and mortar store.  Also, a lot of our events have come from the membership, which have been fantastic — rock shows, workshops, pancake breakfasts. All are results of people who came forward and said they wanted to help the cause, making it evident how much they loved the store.”

What has been your biggest help with keeping Broader Vocabulary going and did you have to make any changes to your focus?

SS: “We have had much love and support from other co-ops in Milwaukee, especially People’s Books, Riverwest Co-op and Outpost.  It’s been so heartwarming to have these organizations be so willing to help us succeed.  The Tool Shed, as well, has been invaluable to us; always so supportive wanting to collaborate by offering us space for events and helping us to make connections with local authors, just to name a few ways.

“Our members have provided incredible support as well.  It really speaks to why we need this store when you realize how many people out there will, without much asking, work to make this co-op happen.  And this isn’t a quick and easy process.  Yet, still people contact us frequently to offer what they can to help.

“We’re not quite there … actually running a store yet, but we definitely believe in the model of a cooperative. From the beginning, we have determined that this store can succeed because it is being built by and for a community of people — those who loved the old store and those who may have never been.  The work to make this happen has been done by many hands, so we’re confident that the operating of the actual store will function the same way.”

Visit the blog for A Broader Vocabulary.

People’s Books Cooperative

Here is the condensed version of their tale, engagingly told by dedicated volunteer Jim Draeger:

Chris Chiu founded People’s Books in December of 1974 with a typewriter, a few book catalogs, and loans from his closest friends.  He ran the store meticulously for 33 years all by himself.  Over the years, he moved locations, starting on Farwell Avenue and finally settling on the corner of Locust and Maryland about 10 years ago.  Along the way, he mastered the timeless art of book buying.  He wrote his own computer program to track everything from books, to publishers, to customers. We still use his program today.

Brian Rothgery and I went to graduate school together at UWM.  Brian had purchased many books from Chris and knew that People’s Books was closing.  Brian had the idea to turn the store into a co-op, and I had just graduated and was looking for a project.  Brian and I hatched a plan, and we presented it to Chris.

In May of 2007, I took lead of the campaign to make the transition to co-op. Chris presented me with a list of his loyal customers over the past 30 years. I began calling our community members and informing them about our cooperative endeavor. After three months of endless meetings, People’s Books Cooperative took legal and financial control of the bookstore on September 1, 2007.

We never would have been able to succeed without Chris Chiu. He gave us a very generous membership loan and all of his books to sell on consignment.  I sat with Chris every day for almost eight months to learn how to run a bookstore — I learned more from him in that time than I learned in all of graduate school.

Along the way, People’s Books Co-op has grown into something rare and beautiful. We have about 250 members, more than 40 committed volunteers, and a diverse clientele that keeps returning.

We are Milwaukee’s only brick and mortar, community-owned bookstore. Our members pay yearly dues and are actual owners of the store.  That’s what a co-op is all about; community ownership and democratic decision-making. Best yet, all of our proceeds go back into the community. Any profits that the co-op makes expand to other cooperative movements rather than going to the board members, employees, or owners. In short, our book co-op offers a viable, concrete alternative to capitalism that puts people over profits.

Visit All People’s online or stop in at 2122 E. Locust St. (on the corner of Locust and Maryland). All People’s can also be found on Facebook.

Open Book

Open Book is a co-op that was suggested by North Shore residents in the wake of the Harry W. Schwartz closings. While the Downer Avenue and Mequon stores were bought by Schwartz staff and kept open under new names, the Oakland Avenue location in Shorewood was not as fortunate and the doors closed.

By the spring of 2009, flyers were circulating in the area, bearing the headline: “The North Shore’s gotta have an independent bookstore!” Readers were urged to come together to fill the void left by the Schwartz closing, by helping to form “Open Book — A Community Bookstore,” based on the cooperative model and operating as a Limited Liability Company. Members would provide start-up capital and operating funds with their dues, and in turn would receive discounts on purchases as well as an annual dividend, when possible.

Organizer Keith Schmitz said, “The closing of the Harry W. Schwartz store on Oakland Avenue created a big void in the community. It’s a void we plan to close. We see it as an important quality of life issue.”

At the time of writing, plans were underway for the co-op to open in the fall of 2009, offering new books, a children’s section, a coffee shop and some used books and magazines. Manager Lisa Zupke — former manager of the Oakland Schwartz — says, “We want it to be a community gathering place where friends and neighbors meet for coffee and small groups hold meetings. That’s something the community sorely needs.”

Open Book’s organizers see the East Side and North Shore as the ideal location for a community-based bookstore. “It’s an area chock-full of literate people who … choose to support well-run local businesses,” said Kit Vernon, a retired marketing executive. In just one spring month, Open Book organizers had attracted nearly 400 potential members. So how are plans coming along?

Organizer Schmitz had this to say: “At the time of this article, we have no idea if our efforts will pay off in a book store for the North Shore. Nevertheless, in our capitalistic system there should be many ways for a community to get the kind of businesses it wants.”

Learn more about the planned co-op.

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