Saturday, August 28, 2010

Books, Shops, and Libraries of Milwaukee

Milwaukee's Got Books Too!!

Sometimes I am amazed when people say that they prefer the "big cities" like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, because they have better access to "books and culture." Okay, this is a complicated statement, because "culture" (whatever that is or we make it out to be) is a hard word to define. Sure, in New York City for example, one could see maybe 4 times as many operas and probably 30 times as many classical concerts as in Chicago, and probably ten or a hundred fold that in much smaller American cities. But books? Aren't books pretty much everywhere? I have really heard people make such comments. So when it comes to books, I'm slightly puzzled, because many of America's smaller cities don't simply have "lots of books," but many of the best book stores--most of them used book shops, which believe it or not, I prefer to the larger monstrosities of the famed American metropolis--we won't mention names here!

The beauty of small (or smaller) American cities, especially those which have colleges or universities, is that they most often have great used book shops. And plenty of them for you to browse and buy or simply sit back in and enjoy a cup of tea, while you read. I remember fondly the bookshops in Champaign-Urbana, when I was in library school. Just delightful places, and all out in the rural flatness of middle Illinois.

So when I went to Milwaukee last spring for our semi-annual Chicago Area Theological Library Association (CATLA) meeting, I was more than pleased with the various and bountiful resources available to see...and surely more important: available to Milwaukeeans (or is it Milwauker?)

I drove up from Chicago with the director of the CTU library, Melody McMahon, and we all gathered at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus at around 9AM. The library above is the Golda Meir Library, named after its perhaps most famous resident, who lived here nearly a century ago, before heading off to the middle east and becoming the first woman head of the state of Israel. In the lobby of this library were many items, including art made out of old books: these were made into an alligator and a machine gun!

We held our sessions next to the Special Collections of the library. Below, in the hallway leading up to the Special Collections was a display of historical comics on display. This library apparently has a magnificent collection of comics.

We took a tour of the library facilities, and many of us who came from smaller libraries (or at least economically challenged ones!) were marveling at the technologies of the university campus: below is a digital sign, which displayed how many computer stations were being used, where, and how long! So if you needed a computer, you could look at this screen and find where there was an available seat in the library!

Golda, above. Below: Deirdre A. Dempsey, Ph.D. gave an outstanding performace at her lecture on the history and background of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Professor Dempsey is Associate Professor in the Theology Department at Marquette University, and her webpage can be seen here:

She gave a marvelous presentation as a preface to the tour we would be taking later this afternoon at the Milwaukee Public Museum, downtown.

At the museum above and below. An interesting place, which I didn't have enough time to visit all of. But it was interesting, nonetheless. You'll see that we weren't allowed--of course--to photograph the original scrolls, so I took pictures of the signs and books about them!

It was a funny and odd experience. Above is just at the top of the escalator, near the entrance of the exhibit. Once you entered the area where the scroll fragments were on exhibit, it got dark, with blue lights...and the hallways were decorated with middle eastern motifs and palm trees! There was a soundtrack of eerie middle eastern music playing, some sort of Bedouin instrument, a horn, calling into the night. Then sounds of wind and the dessert. There were maps of the ancient world and light-generated images being projected here and there. The rooms where the scrolls were held were quite cool. It was though, I must admit, a rather surreal experience. Like they were forcing you to have a particular--almost religious or spiritual--experience.

Emerging in the later afternoon, we came into the light and into the book store. You could buy books about the scrolls, if you so desired.

On the way home, I took a few snapshots of old book shops and other curiosities in Milwaukee.
They do have books, you know!

With an astounding array of culture--from local used book shops, a university library system at UW-Milwaukee boasting more than 3.2 million volumes, public libraries, a museum showing an exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and more--I think that many people could say that Milwaukee might be able to hold its own culturally. And you know, I didn't even mention the great restaurants downtown, the Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum (one of my favorite all time buildings in the world!!), the gorgeous lake-front, or could we forget: the Burning Snow Center (below) for the Experimental Arts. Hey!--I think everyone needs a little bit of Burning Snow now and then. Our whole enterprise in life and books is experimental arts. So keep on reading; and keep on experimenting!

OP-SHOP II (Hyde Park)

The (OP)portunity Shop: The Coolest Place in Town

There is no getting around it: the Opportunity (or "OP") Shop in Hyde Park is clearly the coolest place in town. I say this really without reservation, because it has become one of the true gathering places for the Hyde Park (Chicago) community, which fosters partnerships, discussions, and general community-building through a variety of artistic, musical, and health related expressions (e.g. art shows, concerts, workshops on yoga and the art of motion). The op shop has an interesting history and other information can be found online at its website ( and ( According to the site, its founder--a neighbor of mine about a block away--is Laura Schaeffer, who is a local curator and artist. For some time she has hosted art openings and events in her own home, which have been highly successful.

Schaeffer has done tremendous work in this neighborhood to build community arts projects, especially through this new venue. The first OP shop opened last year, I believe in December of 2009 and ran for about a month in an empty space on 55th Street, just west of Cornell, on the south side of the street between an eyeglass shop and some restaurants. It was a magnificent space, which she transformed beautifully. This was "OP shop 1." The second iteration, "OP shop 2" was opened in the old Hollywood Video store, located on the corner of 53rd Street and just 100 feet west of Lake Park, next to a parking lot. This was a magnificent incarnation of the space and the OP shop venue, and this is what I am displaying for you all today. These photos were taken during its also short OP shop life--I believe OP shop 2 ran for about two months from March or April to May 2010. It included booths for antiques, a herbarium/plant shop, a number of artist spaces, community dinner space, art project work spaces, a pile of compost which was sold by the bag, and of course many books! But there was much more...including a children's fort made out of cardboard boxes!

As you can see from some of these photos, there are books and so many other things of note, including an old leather harness for a horse! The OP shop runs primarily on donations and the largesse of the greater community, so it is important that those who appreciate such endeavors promote it and support it. We found the OP shop space simply wonderful, and often a good alternative space for enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon where we could bring the kids and have them play, be entertained, and just do something different. Especially when it was cold!

Above, the famous (or infamous?) compost heap. See the shovel at left! And below, one of the exhibits of artists at the OP shop.

Cute kid enjoying art above. And old VHS boxes below, containing not VHS tapes, but books! I thought this a novel approach to displaying books.

Above, some more artists painting. Adjacent to this, there was an "Oral History" desk, which was attempting to document the history of this building, before it would ultimately be torn down.
Below, the fort in the background, as well as the work tables, and some books on a table up front.

Fort. Great Fort! Below, an old newspaper, Harpers Weekly, from 1859.

Signs above, made of cardboard. And below, a decorative entrance made of magnetic tape!

The "OP entrance" above, inside. And some more books...

I must say that places like the OP shop are great additions to communities around the country. Open indoor spaces, which afford community building are increasingly rare, especially when you have budget cuts or it costs too much to rent spaces for the general populace. On the other hand, there must be some interest generated in the community for such places to work. I do hope that the OP shop venues continue...not just to exist, but to flourish. And if there are books there, that will be fine too.

[Roll 1294]

Devon Street Bookshops, Chicago--New and Old

A Lesser Known Book District

Most people know of Printers Row in Chicago, which does not exactly have a hundred famous bookstores on it, but does have an annual book fair that is quite remarkable. Chicago does have a variety of book stores, many of them used, but also para-bookstores--by which I mean vast collections of second-hand books being sold in thrift stores. And this is the real treat and treasure for those book hunters in the Chicagoland area. Hyde Park, for example, may have the best collection of book shops in one area (include O'Gara, Powell's, and 57th Street Books, among others). It used to have Ex Libris, the theological book store, which is now closed. And other book shops are more disparately placed throughout the city. But it came to my attention one day, while I was driving down Devon Street on the northern part of the city, that there were quite a number of book shops on that street, and many of them quite interesting and diverse, specifically foreign language book shops, Islamic book shops, and Jewish book shops, among others. So I decided to take some photos and share them with you today. Some of these, you will see, no longer exists--merely their signs. But most are still there and available to see and shop in. So for those of you interested in something a little different on your next trip to Chicago, especially something bookish, make a pilgrimage to Devon Street. You'll enjoy a diverse palette of book shops, before you go off and indulge in a hefty curry tofu.

Books on Farms

"This Little Pig Went to..."

Actually, this ain't no little pig! We did feed her every morning some fine corn meal and oats. So you might be wondering why start off a post with an image of a pig? Well, today's installment is actually about books on farms. Admittedly, I cannot address anything to do with farmer literacy, for example, even though I'm fairly sure that many and most farmers are capable of reading just fine, even though in the Sicilian old country where some of my family comes from, my own great-grandfather couldn't read or write (he had to sign his name with an "X" because of this!). Nonetheless, it just happens that my family and I had been out at a farm this past spring, and of course, books, books, and more books could be found! (I mean, where "aren't" books!? Though, I bet some of you might be saying "modern libraries!" But let's be kind.)

Now this was an old farmsteady kind of place. And it doubled as a B&B, which we all stayed at and enjoyed. Part of the fun and enjoyment for the suburban "city slickers" who frequented this establishment (which may now include me!) was the ability to let the kids go out and water and feed the hens, the cows, the goats, and "all them other beasts" in the early morning.

There was even a llama, with whom I had a good conversation or two with. But inside, after collecting some eggs, which were then fried up for a fine country breakfast, one could sit and enjoy a whole number of freely accessible books...on shelves around the house. But also on tables, chairs, and other nooks and crannies. There was plenty of reading on the history of the Amish, as we were in fact in Amish country. And so, that was a pleasant addition and learning experience.

Of course, the amenities of old times were preserved in some fashion here, with not just the stove and an antique radio (which worked!), but also a rather rustic bathroom. This old advertisement was hung in the very snug bathroom--The Robinson Improved Folding Bath Cabinet. That's how I felt, actually--the bathroom was that small. It does prompt a question quite relevant to bookishness and reading: when did bathroom reading begin? It is hard to say whether the Romans enjoyed the comforts of tablets and scrolls while discharging their daily duties. But my guess is that it must have occurred when bathrooms came indoors and comfortability became and issue. Cold outhouses, you'd want to run out and run back in the cozy house. Toasty, heated bathrooms, lend comfort to solitary reflection. Warm bathroom, won't travel. Will read.


Stone Books and Mennonite Cemeteries

Stone Books?

I must admit, I can't say that I'm a "keen observer" of all things cemetery, but perhaps I do take a special interest in gravestones and their most curious design. Something that caught my attention last year in some of the cemeteries of Chicago was the designs of books that were often engraved on old tombstones. Last summer I visited over half a dozen different cemeteries in the Chicago area, documenting various styles of tombs etched or designed with book-images. I photographed well over 100 stones. But there were so many that I hadn't had the time to organize and write about them, which I eventually hope to accomplish. But this past spring, I happened to be visiting a Mennonite cemetery in the Lancaster, PA region, and thought I'd snap a few photos, including these early stones above, which showed off some handcraft of stone carving.

The important and apropos aspects of this cemetery, though, are the tombs specifically engraved with images of books. These are not the most fancy book carving I've found since I started examining this motif, but it is interesting to see in contrast with other styles in this old Mennonite cemetery. Below, you can see the image of a farm on the stone.

More stones above with images of books carved into them. Below, some older stones and the Kraybill meeting house. This isn't that far from the Susquehanna river region.

Above and below we find two examples of book engravings. The one below is of an older couple, in their 80s when they died. Above, a sad reminder of the death of a child. In fact, it appears that this child died in birth...young Scott Bradley. "The Book of Life" as many of these books inscriptions are meant to symbolize. Requiescet in pace.