A rabbit warren of narrow aisles crowded with books and scented with coffee opens onto a corner of comfy chairs. A sunny wall of colorful covers entices snowsuited kids to pull books off the shelves and open them. A book group that's been meeting for a decade sits down to a hot lunch and lively discussion about a new novel set in northern Minnesota. An ensemble of local actors reads a thriller at a monthly table play. A writer reads from her debut novel, which later goes on to movie fame.
These are a few of the scenes a bibliophile might encounter when she's on the road in the Midwest. From Chicago to Stillwater to Iowa City to Bayfield, Wis., independent bookstores give the traveler a taste of the place and a welcome respite from the highway. Here is a small sampling of these destination bookstores.
When two graduates of the famed Iowa Writer's Workshop bought Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, they discovered that a local literary salon led by artist Grant Wood had met on their site, hosting the likes of Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes. Co-owners Jan Weismiller and Jane Mead, both poets, have built on this auspicious history with an astonishing list of visiting authors, a huge selection in 11,000 square feet of books, and a staff regionally famous for their knowledge.
One such staff member is the "incredibly well-read" book buyer Paul Ingram, who tends to enthusiastically recommend books that people haven't heard of yet that later go on to fame and fortune, says Weismiller. Watching videos of Ingram's book picks at the store's website made me go straight to my library website to order his recommendations.
Such up-and-coming authors often make a stop at Prairie Lights, because of its deep connection to the Writer's Workshop. Paul Harding, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer for fiction for "Tinkers," credited Prairie Lights and other independent booksellers for the award. A visitor might stumble on the next big thing in literature at a place with readings five nights a week; in fact, the "Live from Prairie Lights" series features a huge archive of readings going back to 1990 by writers from Michael Chabon to Jane Smiley to Norman Mailer to Marilynne Robinson.
For travelers and locals, Weismiller also recommended Prairie Lights' new neighbor, the Pullman Bar and Diner, which is "off-the-charts great." There's often a wait for tables, so the Pullman sends diners over to browse books while they wait. Luckily, "we have a big selection of cookbooks," Weismiller says.
More info: www.prairielights.com; 1-319-337-2681
It's too hard to pick the best bookstore in a huge city; probably there's no such place. "A great bookstore fits its community. It molds itself to the needs of the people it serves," said a Chicago Tribune article headlined "Chicago's 10 best bookstores." The best bookstore will have just the right book for the occasion; when you're on the road, the book you might need most is a paperback that helps you fall asleep, or a picture book that amuses your children for half an hour.
But let's say you're in Chicago and you want to spend a day book-browsing. Heed the advice of University of Chicago graduate Paul Erickson, now director of academic programs at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. "Tell people that 57th Street in Hyde Park is the best book-shopping street in the Midwest. Powell's is great for used books. 57th Street Books has a great children's section, and then the Seminary Co-op (which isn't actually on 57th) is the best scholarly bookstore I've ever been to in my life."
The perfect book is waiting for you somewhere on 57th.
More info: www.semcoop.com; 1-773-752-4381
Walk into Apostle Islands Booksellers in Bayfield and make yourself at home. That's what co-owner Demaris Brinton hopes customers feel upon entering the historical 1800s building, stocked with the owners' personal art and furniture, original wood and brick, and of course, lots of carefully chosen books. You might also get to meet a very popular miniature Siberian husky named Kia.
Co-owners Brinton and Theron O'Connor, her husband, were lawyers in California when they decided they wanted a change. They love books, O'Connor is from Wisconsin, and they figured opening a bookstore would be "a good way to add to the community." The population of the area changes wildly from summer to winter, but Brinton says a steady group of local customers keeps the door swinging throughout the year.
The store features well-known authors like William Kent Krueger and Michael Perry for readings, and the "completely overqualified" staff is a big draw, too, Brinton says.
Because "we're very small, we have to attend to quality," said Brinton. The store offers a range, but specializes in regional books of Lake Superior, Ojibwe country and the Apostle Islands that are hard to find elsewhere. "People sometimes walk in with their work," she says, people like Capt. Richard Metz, a retired steamboat captain. You won't find his book "Life Aboard a Laker" anywhere else.
More info: www.apostleislands booksellers.com; 1-715-779-0200.
Let's say you're headed along the river for a day trip, with a stop for lunch in Stillwater. Head over to Valley Bookseller, a bright storefront on the main street with a back door that looks out over the St. Croix. You'll find current bestsellers, a section of regional interest, popular series for young readers, and some well-chosen toys among the colorful displays of books in the children's section. Events range from the Totally Criminal Cocktail Hour to the middle-grade book club.
Last month, the Daily Grind coffee shop opened in a space connected to the bookstore — warm beverages do go so well with good books.
Knowledgeable and sympathetic staff help customers trying to find just the right book for their grandkids: "Does she like superheroes? Or horses? What kind of music does she listen to?" Customers return again and again to tell manager Kathleen Eddy, "you recommended the greatest book for my grandson; can you find me another one?"
Like all the proprietors of indie bookstores mentioned here, Eddy believes the store's customer service is its strongest draw; its booksellers have "a diversity of love" for books that allows finely individualized help.
More info: www.valleybookseller.com; 651-430-3385.
Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee, clearly loves his job. He says he runs a new bookstore that also sells used books (as opposed to a used bookstore), and since the last specialized children's bookstore closed in Milwaukee, kids' books and events have become a special focus.
"We really like to partner with people in the community," he said, listing partnerships with libraries, museums and schools along with more unexpected pairings: a distillery, a refurbished mansion, the humane society.
Because of his store's proximity to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus, "we work really hard on our nonfiction section" and on academic literature. Goldin says the Boswell vibe is somewhere between Common Good Books in St. Paul and Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis: nice but not fancy, neat but mismatched, and yes, you can bring in your cup of coffee.
Raphael Kadushin, executive editor of the University of Wisconsin Press, sings the praises of Boswell, calling it a cultural hub in the city. The store boasts a huge selection of books and magazines that are nonetheless "carefully curated."
More info: boswell.indiebound.com; 1-414-332-1181.
Catherine Preus • 612-673-1788