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Engines of joy: Indie bookstores in Wisconsin rebound after pandemic slump

State saw 9 stores open and join the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association since March 2020

A customer opens a book to look at it while surrounded by books on shelves.
Alec Hansen of Madison looks at a book Wednesday, Aug. 10, at Leopold’s Books Bar Caffè in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A map of Midwestern states is filled with detailed drawings of more than 200 indie bookstores that blanket the region and offer communities authenticity and a home for passionate readers — both present and future.

The stores are members of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and cooperative in their mission. To Carrie Obry, executive director of the association, working together offered a roadmap for how to endure the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastating effects on small businesses.

A roadmap of more than 200 bookstores across 10 Midwestern states
The Midwest Independent Booksellers Association roadmap, which will be turned into a puzzle this fall, shows more than 200 member bookstores across 10 different states. Artist Kevin Cannon drew the map. Photo courtesy of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association.  

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“You will never find an industry that is as collaborative and happy that the other bookstore exists — that the so-called ‘competitor’ exists,” she said. “It’s really wonderful to be able to bring them all together in this way.”

There were low moments.

In 2020, bookstore sales fell nearly 30 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data reported by The New York Times last month. But many stores have rebounded. They are seeing more profits — even when comparing 2021 to 2019, the chief executive of the American Booksellers Association told the newspaper. In the past few years, more than 300 bookstores have opened nationally.

In the Midwest, Obry said 50 bookstore members have opened stores since March 2020. Nine are in Wisconsin, located across the state in cities large and small.

“It really is a remarkable story about following your passions and your values,” she said. “Bookselling is a story of hard work and persistence against really difficult odds when it comes to the economics of bookselling.

“But through it all, it’s a story of doing what’s important to you,” she continued. “And booksellers have been thriving in remarkable ways, and what’s most telling is that there has just been a tremendous rallying throughout the pandemic.”

Obry and two Wisconsin bookstore owners recently joined Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” to reflect on their work and how they found success during the pandemic.

In March, Ashley Valentine opened Rooted MKE, which is more than a children’s bookstore in Milwaukee. It’s a learning center, arts studio and a store that aims to center Black, Indigenous and People of Color, or BIPOC, stories.

Valentine said she wasn’t scared of opening her store because she knew she had community support after pop-up events.

“People always wanted to know what our next event was, where we would be next,” she said. “I felt like the community knew our mission, our vision and what we were trying to do — and they were prepared to fully support and embrace what we’re doing.”

A customer sits with a drink and a laptop.
A customer sits at a table Wednesday, Aug. 10, at Leopold’s Books Bar Caffè in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Despite the success indie bookstores are seeing, opening one can be hard work, Obry said. She’s been to Valentine’s store and said it looks and feels remarkable.

“It’s such an uplifting (and) inspiring place to be,” Obry said. “She built that out of her creativity and her imagination. It looks like it might have just grown up out of the ground, but it required tons of money and hard work and drive. So, I’m not trying to paint a completely easy picture.”

Valentine said she has to spend a lot of time curating titles to fill the store. But she hopes efforts to lift up BIPOC voices and stories over time will lead to more titles that can go on the shelves.

Rooted MKE generates additional income through tutoring, language and test-taking classes. Valentine said the tutoring program is going well and has a waiting list, so she hopes to open another location. In the future, she also wants to host events to spotlight other BIPOC-created work in the community.

In the northern part of the state is Kristen Sandstrom. As the manager of Apostle Islands Booksellers in Bayfield, she places an emphasis on books centering the experiences of Indigenous people. She said the store has grown a great relationship with the local Anishinaabe Tribe, Red Cliff.

Shelves of books are on display.
Books are on display Wednesday, Aug. 10, at Leopold’s Books Bar Caffè in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

“I think they really appreciate seeing their voices really prominently within our inventory, especially since the book world has been so predominantly white throughout history,” she said. “It’s nice to see these really strong voices being heard.”

Obry said the authenticity of indie bookstores is why she got into this field.

“It’s a real human experience,” she said. “As independent businesses, they mean so much for Main Street (and) for communities. You get to associate with the people around you rather than ordering things in boxes that are delivered to your door.

“These bookstores are just engines of — I don’t know — I would say joy.”

Newly opened bookstores

Here are the nine bookstores that opened in Wisconsin and joined the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association since March 2020: