While independent bookshops are shuttering all over the country, the bookstore at 315 West Gorham Street in Madison has kept its doors open for over 21 years. However, during this time the bookstore has gone by a few different names.
The building’s life as a literary marketplace began in 1991, when Harvey and Trudy Barash remodeled the cavernous car dealership/garage-cum-office space into Canterbury Booksellers. They turned the keys over to Ron Czerwien, who opened Avol’s Books in 2004. In the fall of 2011, Sandi Torkildson and Nancy Geary announced they would merge their bookstore with Avol’s Book and the space began a new life under a familiar name: A Room of One’s Own Bookstore.
Since 1975, A Room of One’s Own has been a top-notch resource for LGBT and feminist literature. But a rapidly expanding inventory and lack of space, coupled with an expiring lease, prompted Torkildson and Geary to re-evalutate their needs. At the same time, Czerwien was struggling to keep the 5,100 square foot space for Avol’s Books. Over the years Torkildson and Czerwien had many discussions about shared interests and the possibility of a merger, but last year they decided to go for it. In summer of 2012, Torkildson, Geary, and Czerwien— along with an army of volunteers wielding library cards—shuffled Room’s entire inventory the one block up State Street to Avol’s.
"I feel very lucky that we got in this space. It’s a beautiful store and beautifully designed,” says Torkildson, noting that the Barash family, who still owns the building at 315 West Gorham, gave the new co-owners “very generous” lease terms. They were very excited about keeping a bookstore in the space, says Czerwien.
The newly re-configured A Room Of One’s Own reflects the diversity of the original book and gift shop, but also features the massive selection of used and specialty titles that Avol’s is known for best. Czerwien functions as the used- book buyer and also mans an in-store buyback counter most afternoons. He’s pleased with the arrangement because it allows him more time to search for rare titles at estate sales, moving sales, and the like to sell in the store and online.
Sections are arranged by subject— such as women’s studies, children’s, and history—and used books, which are marked by special stickers, mingle with new titles on the shelves. “I think it’s good to have them together, rather than go to a separate part of the store,” says Torkildson. “You want a mixture of both, that’s what makes it an interesting place.” She says the goal is to have 60% new and 40% used books.
Customer response has been positive and Torkildson is looking forward to the expanded possibilities of a space twice as large as her prior location at 307 West Johnson Street. She notes several book displays on wheels in the middle of the high-ceilinged main room that will be moved out for a large reading the following evening. Nooks abound with chairs and tables for solitary readers, as well as spaces for smaller book groups to meet. Torkildson, who is doing most of the event and author booking for the space, says she plans to host poetry readings and other events.
"[We want] to continue to just be a great community resource, to be a place that people want to come to and hang out,” says Torkildson.
Both Czerwien and Torkildson believe this merger will enable them to better serve downtown Madison’s book buyers. “I’m very excited about this new venture and believe that Room, under this new configuration, will be able to continue to prosper in what has become an increasingly challenging environment for independent bookstores,” Czerwien posted on Avol’s Facebook page. Similarly Torkildson says, “We each have brought our customers with us. It’s a good combination ... [and a good] a way of competing with the Internet.”
A Room of One’s Own is located at 315 West Gorham Street in Madison or visit roomofonesown.com, for hours, upcoming events—including those for the Wisconsin Book Festival—and online ordering.