Bibliophiles open bookstore in Viroqua despite downturn in economy, bookselling industry
VIROQUA — The floods that overwhelmed southern Wisconsin last summer deposited nine inches of water in the nondescript warehouse in Viola where Allegra Wakest and Eddy Nix built an online-only business selling used books.
The muck destroyed more than 3,000 books, but there was a bright spot. Volunteers — most of them strangers — helped move about 60,000 books to dry land. Many of the volunteers were stunned to learn that such a vast book collection existed so close by.
"Everyone said, 'We didn't even know this was here. We wish you would open a bookstore,'" Wakest said.
Now she and Nix have done just that, embarking on a venture that seems at odds with the reality around them. During a recession and at a time when bookstores are closing across the country, they've opened Driftless Books and Music in Viroqua, a city of 4,400 in the third-poorest Wisconsin county.
Many of the volunteers who helped them during the flood came from Viroqua, which is about 10 miles west of Viola and two hours from Madison.
"People were really encouraging, and it created a bond that made us want to give something back to the community," Wakest said.
Bucking a trend
Reminders of the state of the bookselling industry are never far away at Driftless Books — the shelves and ladders came from a fallen comrade, a Waldenbooks that died two years ago in La Crosse.
Last month, Milwaukee book lovers learned that the four Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops would close after 82 years, although at least one is expected to reopen under a new name. Membership in the American Booksellers Association has fallen from 4,700 independent bookstores in 1993 to 1,850 now.
"Retail became very competitive in the intervening years with the arrival of chain bookstores, Amazon and big-box retailers," said Meg Z. Smith, the association's chief marketing officer.
Yet 110 new independent bookstores opened and joined the ABA in 2007 and another 68 did so last year, Smith said. "Those were numbers we hadn't seen in a long time," she said. "Is it a trend? I can't say. But I think there's more awareness now of what a local, independent business brings to a community, an d I think that's being reflected in people's shopping habits."
Wakest and Nix are counting on Viroqua — the seat of Vernon County — being just that kind of community.
The city boasts a Waldorf school, an educational philosophy emphasizing imagination in learning, and the county is home to Organic Valley, the nation's largest cooperative of organic farmers. Nature lovers, artists, authors and environmentalists dot the landscape.
"Viroqua is really a mecca for alternative medicine, thinking and education," said Susan Noble, executive director of the Vernon Economic Development Association. "There's so much of an openness to creative thinking here,"
Low rent, overhead
Wakest and Nix say several factors work in their favor. Their bookstore is within the larger Viroqua Public Market, an historic downtown building converted into a patchwork of spaces for multiple vendors. Rent is just $300 a month. (They sold $1,000 worth of used books their first week of business.)
Their online sales largely support them and can continue to do so, they said. And while their bookstore holds only about 8,000 books, their warehouse bulges with more than 100,000. They rotate books between sites almost daily.
"We have enough inventory for, well, forever," said Nix, 39. "We can't stop buying books."
That obsession exploded in 2005 when, sight unseen, they paid $2,000 on eBay for two semi-trailer trucks of books from the soon-t o-be-trashed collection of a deceased dealer in Connecticut. "It was either the dumbest thing we've ever done or the smartest. We were really naive," Nix said.
The two business partners turn indignant when discussing the destruction of out-of-print and rare books. Lifelong book lovers, they believe the printed page will rebound and that new technologies like the Kindle e-book reader will be passing fads.
"That's our mission — to save every book, one at a time," Wakest said. "There's so much knowledge that will be lost if we dispose of these books. People say, 'Oh, it's all online. I'm sorry, it's not all online.'"
They have a love/hate relationship with Amazon, the giant e-retailer. It helps them make a living, yet "it is destroying the entire publishing industry" by selling books for a dollar or a penny, Nix said.
Slaying Amazon is "a long-term goal," he said, only half-jokingly. For now, they plan to start a book club and a Saturday children's reading time. If they can turn even a small profit, it will be a sweet victory.
"People laugh, sure," Wakest said, when asked about skeptics. "But I love books so much we'd be open even if no one came through the door."
For more information:
Driftless Books and Music, 215 S. Main St., Viroqua, is open five days a week and closed Sundays and Tuesdays. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and sometimes later. For more information, call 608-606-9948 or go to www.driftlessbooks.com.
Big ol' building shared with the post office.
Little quiet village.
Cup o' coffee.
We'll find you any book, at any time, for any reason.