The Bookstores of Madison Wisconsin


Here is my long-promised review of book buying in and around Madison, Wisconsin. A few non-book – or nearly non-book observations: it is cold and it is flat. There are lakes and ponds everywhere. Lakes and ponds are not oceans and slight rises are not mountains. There really is a lot of cheese including chocolate cheese. As much as I like chocolate, chocolate cheese is an abomination.

The best restaurant we found is The Blue Plate Café whose chicken and dumplings is just like mother wished she could make. One order and you don’t have to eat again for days. All Wisconsin restaurants serve portions for farmhands – young farmhands – young teenage male farmhands – young teenage male German farmhands. It is a very dangerous place for folks like myself who were taught as children that it is a moral imperative to clean your plate. I have hit 200 pounds for the first time in my life. My fighting weight is 165.

The best side trip we made was to Taliesin. It is almost worth being so far from salt water to see it. The tour is great and there are lots of books, architectural toys and decorative originals and reproductions in the gift shop. If you would like to buy me a $3000 screen…

On to book scouting, the first rule is to get a map. Streets in Madison change names in mid-block, change directions, and dead end with alarming frequency. I found two guides: a guide to used and rare book dealers and a guide to independent bookstores. The latter included used and new dealers but some of the new shops were so independent and so specialized that it was worth a visit. I found a discounted copy of a history of women in bullfighting at A Room of One’s Own, a feminist shop just off State Street, for example. The other new shops of interest were the three Frugal Muses (located all over the place), a local chain of discount stores, and Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, the mandatory college town lefty shop also just off State Street.

If you have limited time or mobility, State Street is where the action is. It has no car traffic (but watch out for buses) and runs about 6 blocks between the University and the Capitol. It seems to be the mid-West cultural equivalent of Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. I think there are 8 book stores in those 6 blocks. There may be a few more or less and they seem to keep opening and closing. I found two that suited my purposes at opposite ends of the street.

Near the university is Paul’s Book Store whose clerk was helpful, knew the stock, and had a pretty good section of Mexican history and social sciences which was better than I expected in Wisconsin. He didn’t give me a trade discount but at least did not try to charge me sales tax. The shop was clean, well lit, and probably too well-organized for my tastes. The chances of finding the jewel hidden in the dusty corner seemed remote.

Near the capitol at Shakespeare’s Books (“Madison’s oldest and largest”) I did get a discount. It was many things Paul’s was not (including neither so clean nor so well organized) and did give me a discount. The clerk was an older woman who really knew her books. I bought more at Paul’s but bought more interesting things (bullfight books I had never seen before) at Shakespeare’s. I had the feeling that if I only spent another hour I would find the diamond in the coal pile.

My favorite place was Stony Hill Books and Antiques at 2140 Regent Street. They are moving away from books to antiques and having a half price sale, but even without that I would have (and did) buy more there than everywhere else added together. The proprietor is another Guatemalophile, which probably says it all, but there is lots of stuff in most areas available in his shop now – for how long? Who knows? It was all we could do to get out without buying a painting from Santiago Atitlan and a silk screen from Cuba.

I wanted to visit Scholar’s Haven on the west side on University Avenue, but the hours were erratic and I could not get the timing right. I was told the stock was interesting and from what I could see with my cold little nose pressed against the window pane, I’d agree. (I’ve browsed and bought there and can confirm that the stock is as interesting as you imagined. -ed.) I also was unable to hook up with J. Tuttle Maritime Books (mail order/by appointment).

There are other shops in the area but for me the ones mentioned are the ones I would return to. In general I was surprised at how little of the stock in most shops had been put on line. Of course, for the buyer, that is a good thing.

I should also mention that, as I was told, the St. Vincent store has a very good book section, seemingly with a lot of turnover, and I was able to pick up a much needed pair of Green Bay Packer mittens there for $4.00. If you can’t find the St. Vincent store on your own, your nose will never lead you to a good book there anyhow.

All in all I think Madison may beat out Tucson as the best small book town I’ve shopped in. (But it still is not worth a trip in the late fall or winter without a daughter to visit there. It is really cold!) Now if I can only drop these 20 pounds – chocolate cheese & dumplings, indeed!

Lynn DeWeese-Parkinson specializes in books on Latin America and the Caribbean and peddles such wares at
www.bibliophilegroup.com/lynnsbookstore

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