In April 2009, Boswell Book Company opened its doors on the East Side of Milwaukee. Located in the old Harry W. Schwartz Booksellers space on Downer Avenue, Boswell picked up the torch from the defunct Milwaukee-area chain, which closed in 2008 after 82 years in business. Boswell owner/operator Daniel Goldin chose the Schwartz space for his new book store because of the literary pedigree of the neighborhood: In 1927 Harry W. Schwartz opened his first location, then called Casanova Booksellers, just a block away from Boswell’s current location, and other storied booksellers like Jay Lou, Jeannette Schaefer, and Webster have all contributed to the Downer Avenue literary scene.
No stranger to the book business, Goldin worked for Schwartz Bookseller owners Carol Grossmeyer and Rebecca Schwartz for 23 years in various capacities (including new book buyer, backlist buyer, store manager, and general manager) at almost all of the retail locations. Goldin chose the Downer Avenue space because of the historical connection and because he thought it perfectly suited for an independent bookseller
“Multi-store operations [like Schwartz] once ruled the bookstore roost,” he says, “from Kroch and Brentano, to Lauriat, Olsson, Pickwick, Taylor, and The Intimate. All of the advantages [in purchasing and distribution that] small regional chains had were wiped out, first by the national chains, and then even more so by the Internet.” According to Goldin, “nimbleness” in response to market changes, as well as the “ability to multitask,” are essential to the success of a book store. Plus, he says that with an independent store there is one less layer of management and “an owner that is always on site.”
Goldin cites the East Side neighborhood location, a strong nonfiction section, and a plethora of literary events as factors that contribute to Boswell’s success.
“I’m a pedestrian by nature,” says Goldin, “and here my passion for urbanism speaks: I love neighborhood shopping centers, as opposed to strip centers. I know there’s a convenience trade off [and that] parking can be a bit messier, but I like the vibe.”
On the bus line, steps from the UW– Milwaukee campus, and close to a large concentration of colleges like Marquette, MIAD, Alverno, Mount Mary, and MSOE. Boswell benefits from the high number of academics and a lively graduate student population, as well as the pool of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals who have moved to or have offices on the East Side.
Boswell carries a lot of contemporary and classic fiction, as well as genre books in mystery and science fiction. What sets this store apart is its careful selection of nonfiction titles in history, politics, science, even books on the performing arts and various culinary topics.
“Sometimes it’s the little subsections that can make a store connect with customers,” says Goldin. “Our urban planning shelf got us a nice publicity hit from a fan who wrote about it on a newspaper blog. And putting all the Beatles books together—including those about former members—led one customer to come up and say it was as if we had made the store just for him. That’s the connection we’re after.”
Events also keep Boswell’s connected with its fans. The store hosts a large number of author readings and other events, far more than Schwartz did in its day. While most of these readings are held in the store’s flexible event space, increasingly Boswell is hosting events in conjunction with nonprofits, cultural organizations, and retailers at libraries, bars, theaters, museums, restaurants, and stores. Goldin says they’ve even dabbled in writing classes, but notes that “Milwaukee has so many great groups putting together this sort of programming that [the] market is pretty crowded.”
So what’s the best way for an independent bookseller to thrive? “Somebody needs to love you—preferably more than one person, but not necessarily everyone,” says Goldin. “You don’t have to be everything to everyone—you can’t be. But you need to figure out who your core customers are, and make sure they adore you.”
Visit Boswell Book Company at 2559 North Downer Avenue in Milwaukee or online at boswell.indiebound.com.