19 January 2009

Goodbye, Harry W. Schwartz

Sad news from my former corner of the world: I found out via my Aunt Trish today that Harry W. Schwartz, the Milwaukee-area bookstore microchain, is closing on March 31st.

A visit to Harry W. was a special treat when I was growing up, not only because of their well-stocked kids' room but because their selection was so wide and they always had something interesting. I had a college interview at one branch, in the used book section. I went to hear Zadie Smith read there, where she later apologized for calling my question "stupid." (She said she meant stupid as in "difficult," not stupid as in "you are...") Often authors with scheduled readings at night would be steered towards my high school in the afternoon to read for us; that's how I got Chaim Potok to sign my copy of DAVITA'S HARP.

I was just in Harry W. a few weeks ago, checking out the local authors shelf and maybe daydreaming that someday my book would be there with a card next to it. I didn't end up buying anything on that trip but I recently tested out their online ordering system, preordering a copy of PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION for myself. But adding that Amazon-like cart wasn't enough to keep its local customers around; as an open letter posted on the Schwartz Bookshops website says,
Although [son of the founders] David Schwartz successfully led us into the new century fighting for our ground, the winds of change became gales -- and with David's passing in 2004, we were a wounded business. The most recent economic crisis was, for us, the final blow.

David spoke frequently about the social profit of bookselling as the most important bottom line, the essential result being the positive impact the books have on a community. Nevertheless, to have such an impact a business must be viable, something that is no longer the case.
For about 10 years, the Harry W. near my hometown wasn't just the closest indie bookstore; it was the only bookstore, period, in at least a 15-mile radius. It may not seem so bad to lose one store when you can get books off a pallet at Costco or an endcap at Target, or just drive to the Borders beyond. But there was a certain serendipity of browsing there that you can't really get in those other places; you never knew what would unexpectedly turn up. Not only that, Schwartz was well known for its local charitable giving program Schwartz Gives Back. Who will fill that void left where donations to, for example, the Hunger Task Force used to flow?

Even the silver lining that two of its stores will survive under different names (supposedly, Boswell Book Company and Next Chapter Bookshop) is small consolation. What a shame for Milwaukee.


Elizabeth said...


I had a chance to meet many of my childhood heroes (the authors who invented the fantasy worlds I loved to visit) at Harry W. Schwartz: Philip Pullman and T.A. Barron, to name a couple.

T.A. Barron even gave me a special reading: when he was signing my book, I complained that his most recent books weren't of the high caliber I had come to expect from him. He then asked me which of his was my favorite (THE ANCIENT ONE), and then he stood up on the table and read his favorite passage from that book.

Ellen said...

That is a great story, Elizabeth. I had no idea they had even come!