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An unlikely pairing of a used bookshop and an airport in Milwaukee

Renaissance Books remains a cornerstone of Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport for four decades

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Renaissance Books in Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport.
Renaissance Books is located in Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport just before the security checkpoint. LaBreea Watson/WPR

Christine Hatfield sits in the bustling Willard Airport in Champaign-Urbana waiting for her TSA PreCheck interview to begin — but she knows that will take a while. So, in the meantime, she reminisces about her first time at Renaissance Books, the 43-year-old used bookstore in Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport.

“It’s kind of like the same feeling you get when you walk through a library that’s been around for a long time,” Hatfield said. “I can only imagine the stories some of these books tell, besides the stories that are literally in the pages.”

She continued, “My main thought was, ‘Wow, this is pretty darn sizable for a bookstore airport. They’ve got an eclectic selection and a good variety of books.’ I spent a while just looking through it.”

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As a Chicago native, Hatfield and her family regularly flew out of the Milwaukee airport for cheaper flights. But they always arrived with only enough time to check in, get through security and board the flight — leaving no room to discover what the airport had to offer.

These days, Hatfield takes her time.

“Me being me, I get to the airport early, and as I’m looking around, I (notice) a used bookstore,” she said. “I think we all know how ubiquitous bookstores are at airports. But a used bookstore, now that is different. Not something I see in many places.”

Hatfield’s awe at the longevity, considerable size and distinct location of Renaissance Books led her to ask Wisconsin Public Radio’s WHYsconsin: “How did Milwaukee’s airport end up with a used bookstore?”

To answer that question, Robert John, owner of Renaissance Books, tells the origin story of the unlikely pairing of a used bookstore and an airport.

George John, Robert John’s brother, opened Renaissance Books in the late 1950s on Wisconsin Avenue. After school and a short stint in the U.S. Army, Robert John decided it was time to join his brother in the used book business.

In the mid-1970s, Robert and George John decided to part ways. George John opened another used bookstore under a different name. Robert John kept the Renaissance Books name and operated a location on Plankinton Avenue in downtown Milwaukee.

A few years later, Robert John received a letter from the city’s Association of Commerce.

“I got this letter. I looked at it, and my instant reaction was, they want a new bookshop,” Robert John said. “So, I threw the letter in the wastebasket.”

The letter encouraged Renaissance Books to bid on the space recently vacated by a different bookstore at the airport. After the bookstore closed, airline passengers expressed their desire for a similar shop.

“About a week later, after thinking about it a little bit, I pulled it out of the wastebasket,” he said. “The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. So, I put in a bid.”

Robert John’s bid was lower than his competition, and the space in the airport was promised to a higher bidder. But soon, another chance would emerge.

“Sometime between the county board awarding the contract and the execution of the contract, for whatever reason, the high bidder walked away,” Robert John said.

After rebidding, losing the bid again, sending letters to the board and multiple rounds of voting, Renaissance Books was finally awarded a contract in 1979 — for one year and one month. Back then, the store opened in a smaller space and different location in the airport that has since been torn down.

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“Customer loyalty has helped,” he said. “The positive feedback the airport gets from customers certainly has had a significant rationale for keeping me.”

Hatfield is one of those customers.

“Earlier this year, I was flying out of Portland airport,” Hatfield said. “They had a used bookstore there in the past, and I saw this bookmark that had the former airport location on it. My mind just went right back to the time I went to the used bookstore in Milwaukee.”

“I guess we’ve got to treasure this all the more now,” she continued. “I’m that much more glad it’s there, and I hope it doesn’t go away.”

As for the future of Renaissance Books, Robert John is more concerned about the present.

“It’s chaos in the book business. If you look around, there’s an awful lot of bookstores that were here 10 to 15 years ago that are long gone,” he said. “It’s kind of the wild west out here, so I’m not that worried about 10 years from now.”

This story was inspired by a question shared with WHYsconsin. Submit your question below or at wpr.org/WHYsconsin and we might answer it.

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