"The guy who owned this old tobacco warehouse here in Viroqua, he just gave me the building. Just gave it to me."
Eddy | Viroqua, WI
"Once upon a time, I was always carrying around way too many books. I moved all over, this place to that; my collection was huge and moving them was a total hassle. The last big move I made I had a U-Haul half full of books. It was a real problem. The moment I unloaded that truck I thought, ‘Okay, the only sane thing to do is try to figure out how to start a bookstore so I can be carrying around more of an asset than a liability.’
Once I made that decision I knew I needed more, and I had a flash one afternoon, like, ‘I wonder if you could just buy a bunch of books on eBay?’ I'd never done eBay, or even looked at it. So I just typed in ‘bunch of books.’
I found this crazy auction that was in the wrong category and had no pictures or descriptions. It just said '50,000 books.' So I call the guy, and he was a young contractor in his 30s who was going to throw all these books in a dumpster just to get them out of his way. So I spent that summer, three months, in Connecticut, in a warehouse packing up two semi-trucks full of books. We moved them all back and immediately started this whole process of unpacking, cataloging, organizing. It literally took four or five years. It was like a giant Tetris game.
Our first building we were in, a post office in Viola, got damaged by a tornado. But then it got real serendipitous, real quick. The guy who owned this old tobacco warehouse here in Viroqua, he just gave me the building. Just gave it to me. Then I start buying out other bookstores when they closed, including the greatest bookstore in Berkeley. It’s all serendipity, and I'm not surprised any more at what happens.”
“I grew up in the Midwest, and when I was a kid I didn’t really know what the world was like outside of it. I did a lot of theater then, and my first traveling out of this area was to Minneapolis to work with the Children's Theatre Company. That kinda got me going on broadening my perspective. From there I got accepted to a Rotary International program. At that time in my life, I wanted to get as far away from Wisconsin as possible, so I picked South Africa. It was 1986, right in the middle of their state of emergency, and kids my age were making a revolution. That was fascinating. Next I spent a lot of time traveling Europe, South America, places like that.
By the time I got back to Wisconsin, which was in the mid-'90s, I was looking for a community a little more close-to-home. I had done all this traveling and it helped me realize that this area is incredibly unique—the geography and geology of it—and to me it's one of the most beautiful places in the world. Plus, I'm really attached to my family and my mom. I wanted to be close to her.
I think the one thing that hit me about the Driftless on a whole lot of levels—spiritually, physically, and everything—was the effigy mounds. I got really into heavily studying those, and looking at them, and mapping them, and working with some people doing that. That brought it home. Like, 'Wow, this is a totally unique area. These things aren't anywhere else in the world.'
Then I realized that this land is really, really, ancient, and that the glaciers missed it. The flora and fauna are very, very ancient species, and things that I just had no idea about before. Even though you grow up in somewhere like La Crosse, right up the hill and over is paradise and you never really know it's there because you're in the city.
There's something about the hills, too. When you realize that, 'Wow there's all these people hidden in these hills.' You can't see them, and some of them are hiding out to one degree or another. I think the more I realized how many interesting people had moved to this area, the more exciting it became.”
“Viroqua has had a big influx of alternative-lifestyle people coming in since the '60s, and there's a weird divide in this town between those who were born here and those that weren't. I kind of don't know how real that is, I mean I see people all day that come in to the bookstore, and I couldn't tell them from the other people. But I think, legitimately, the folks who grew up here and have many generations here, some of them may have a bit of resentment for all the people who have moved to the area. It’s a natural, understandable feeling.
So, to me, the bookstore feels like one of those opportunities where we are truly a space for everyone.
It's like, 'I want to go get the new John Grisham book. That guy's going to have it cheaper than Amazon.' People from older generations come in and they’re like, 'Okay, it’s kinda weird and funky in here, but I grew up bringing my tobacco here, and they're making use of it. And the kids love it.’ Or, ‘Grandma gets her romances here, so not so bad. Maybe these new folks aren't so bad. Maybe organic's not so bad.’
Who knows where it leads, but we need those opportunities to interact with each other. I think that it's gotten much better, that whole divide—if you want to call it that—rather than, let's say, 20 years ago. There’s really been a conscious effort to try to bridge that gap.
I used to be pretty involved with the local radio station, and I’d read books on the air. I’d read Ben Logan's ‘The Land Remembers,’ or David Rhodes' book ‘Driftless.’ They talk about either growing up here, or about the beauty of this place, its culture, its generations. I’d read these books on the air and I’d get a lot of the newer people saying, ‘Oh my god, that was really touching.’ Or, ‘I didn't realize that maple syrup was like this.’ In a lot of cases it motivates people to explore those things, and go hunt ramps, and do these old cultural things that are available.
I also saw from the other side where people I didn't know at all would come to the bookstore or stop me on the street and say, ‘Really appreciate that you guys read that, that was my dad's book.’ Or, ‘My uncle was mentioned in that.’ Or, ‘We used to do that.’
Bringing it back to the bookstore and the history of this place, it used to be a tobacco warehouse 100 years ago. So, literally whenever anybody who grew up around here at that time comes in, they immediately start telling tobaccos stories. Because it was their life. Everybody grew because it was such an important cash crop. It's a real overlooked part of the history, but it's such a deep part of the community. Now the bookstore is this place where those people can come in, look around and reminisce. They bring their mother in, or their kids, and just tell those stories. Even if it's just, ‘I used to bring tobacco to that door every year.’ The stories...I love just listening.”
"About three years ago, we started asking bands to play here. It started as just friends that were folk artists, a couple little shows. Then about a year ago Cloud Cult played a show here; that was a really big one. Now there's people like Horseshoes & Hand Grenades that are telling everybody they're touring with, 'Hey, if you're ever in Wisconsin, go play at this bookstore...' It has blossomed really out of control at this point. And for people in a rural community who don't get to see a lot of live music, we now have a place to experience some of these artists.
I think there's a sense of pride. Now people bring whoever to come visit them. Whether it's their parents, or grandparents, or sons and daughters, they always bring them here. Like, ‘How cool is this? Do you have something like this in your town?’ And they're like, ‘No. I live in Chicago, and there's nothing like this.’
That's a really nice feeling for the community, I think."
“Bookstores always have been this sort of revolutionary space. This meeting space of cultures and ideas. But on the whole now, they're just gone. Or they’re so hugely commodified when you do find them. But only through interactions with people does this work become meaningful, and more than a business. So my hope is that you walk in the door, and you have this sense of awe just because of the space and the weirdness of the collage of arts, and books, and things. And you can walk in and plop down on the couch, and spend the afternoon, and it becomes that meeting space for all of us.
I'm probably meant to do this. I’m going to spend the rest of my life organizing these half a million books like a Tetris puzzle piece. But at this point I'm thinking 100 years from now. Every day, that's what motivates me.
To have this place stick around, to see these kids that come in, and see them grow up, and hope that they can come back and bring their kids. To be more of the librarian than the bookseller, more like this free space pretending to be a business.
I feel like I'm making one big painting with books as the medium. It will never be done, and it will never be perfect. But that's what makes it fun.”
-Eddy | Driftless Books And Music | Viroqua, WI