“I think a bookstore is almost by default a community space…”

Rob Nelson

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Rob Nelson | Baraboo, WI


“I’ve lived in Baraboo for almost 30 years. I’m originally from lower Michigan, but I came to Wisconsin in 1991 for a job at the International Crane Foundation. I had originally applied to work restoring prairie in the Field Ecology Department, which I was not very qualified for. I got rejected from that.

Then I got a call a couple weeks later from the Assistant Curator of Birds. They had lost an intern due to visa problems, so on short notice he went through the Field Ecology rejects and pulled me out. He said, ‘Hey, how would you like to come work in aviculture?’ [Aviculture is the practice of breeding and caring for birds.] I said, ‘Okay, but I don't know anything about cranes.’ I mean, I would not have been able to pick a crane out of a bird lineup. He said, ‘That's okay. We’ll teach you everything you need to know.’

I have this knack of getting into positions before they become very competitive. People applying now for the job I got then would have at least a master's degree in aviculture. I got in mainly because I put my fantasy baseball team on my resume! The Assistant Curator of Birds actually said this. After I'd been there a while, he was like, ‘You know why I picked you? Because you were a radical dude and I thought we need more radical dudes around here.’

I spent about five years at the Crane Foundation, and then later I worked as the education coordinator at the Aldo Leopold Foundation. In 2003, I quit that job. I decided that it’s sort of backwards to work behind a desk all your young life and then retire to go sit somewhere.

You should retire when you're young and healthy and active, and then you can sit behind a desk when you're old.

So I quit the Leopold Foundation and started pursuing more long bike trips, which is something I really wanted to do. That ushered in this period of my life where I would find lots of short-term, small jobs to sustain myself. Today, you would call this the gig economy, but we didn’t have that term then. I was doing some stagehand work in Madison and up in the Dells; I was on a fire crew doing prescribed burns in the spring; I was delivering flowers for George's on Valentine's Day.

Then Annie Randall, the owner and founder of The Village Booksmith, our local used bookstore, needed someone to work one day a week, which fit my lifestyle nicely. She founded the store in 1998, and it had quickly become a Baraboo institution. The longer I worked there, the more small responsibilities Annie gave me. Still, it was years and years before she'd even let me price a book!

One Friday I walked by the bookstore and Annie wasn’t working. Her domestic partner, Walter, was there instead. So I go in, and I'm like, ‘Why isn't Annie here? Walter said, ‘She called from home, and she can't read the clock to see what time it is.’ I'm like, ‘That doesn't sound good. You should go check on her. I'll jump in and run the store, and you go see what's going on.’

After several weeks, tests showed she had a brain tumor. For the first couple months, Annie was still able to be at the bookstore. But then it really started to affect her vision and her cognitive skills. She wasn’t able to come into the store as much, and my role got bigger.”

Rob Nelson

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

“About eight months after her diagnosis, Annie passed away. It was a terrible blow to her many friends and the downtown community.

I never had a burning desire to own a bookstore, but it was really easy to recognize that the store had become an important landmark on the Square. I mean, people come from all over the Midwest to visit the bookstore. There are people that have come every year for 15 years. They come in the summer to do their camping trip or their Dells trip and they make a point of spending a day in Baraboo and coming to the bookstore.

After her death, Annie’s domestic partner, Walter, inherited the store. His heart wasn’t in it, and you could see things slowly falling apart. An image of that vacant storefront haunted me, so I made Walter an offer on the shop. He accepted, and I took over as the new owner in 2017.

My staff and I have worked hard to maintain the integrity of Annie’s vision, but one of the biggest changes we’ve made is selling new books along with the used ones. When I moved to town, Book World was right around the corner from us. We never really viewed them as competition; we always felt like we were collaborators. If somebody came into our shop and they're like, ‘Hey, do you have that new John Grisham novel?’ we'd say, ‘Nope, but I bet Book World does, around the corner. Let me call and see if they've got it.’ Then at Book World, if somebody came in looking for an antique copy of Little Women, they’d send them to us. As long as people were coming downtown for their books, we would get them to the right spot.

But then Book World pulled the plug on all their chains. After they closed, we started stocking new books and magazines. We felt that it was really important to give people access to new titles as well as used ones.

I think a bookstore is almost by default a community space, because it's a place you can go and have a free exchange of ideas.

You can browse around and see things you didn't know were out there. We try to build on that by making it a little bit of a third space for folks who want entertainment or a cultural event that doesn't involve going out to a bar. So on Friday nights, we have music or author events or quiz night or poetry, things like that.

We participate in a lot of other larger-scale community events that are happening downtown, too—the Wine Walks, the Brew Ha-Has, the Mystery Weekend, the holiday events, the Concerts on the Square. We're very fortunate in Baraboo. We get a lot of comments from people and business owners from other communities who will stop in and go, ‘Baraboo’s downtown is so awesome. How do you guys do it?’

We have a downtown business association that works really hard at creating events, cooperative advertising, and keeping our city looking good. And most of the business owners, I think, understand that when downtown does well, everybody does well. So being a participant in those things helps us, but really it helps everybody.”

Rob Nelson and his bike

Photo courtesy of Rob Nelson

“My earliest biking memory is riding around in the driveway over these little humps I made out of pine needles when I was probably ten. It was like my obstacle course. I hit one of those and took a bite out of the handlebars and smashed out all my front teeth. Fortunately, they were baby teeth, so everything turned out fine.

But I've always ridden. Part of it is my environmental ethic, but then it’s also just the freedom of it. I'm not much of one who just likes to go and ride 20 miles around the Baraboo Hills and come home. I like to go on longer trips. It really distills things down to sort of a clarity of mind. It gets rid of a lot of mental clutter. And it's just a great way to explore. You get to meet new people, see new things.

I almost always travel by myself; there's nobody tagging along with an RV or anything like that. But I'm really not alone, because you find people who offer you a meal, or a place to pitch a tent, or maybe just directions and a smile.

Yeah, there are bad apples out there, but by and large most people want to help. I'm really lucky in that I tend to find those people.

In 2003, I rode my bike to Milwaukee to be in the circus parade. When I got home, everything on my body hurt. That's when I got the idea of buying a recumbent bicycle. I found one online and agreed to buy it. It was out in Salem, Oregon, and I was here in Baraboo. So I took the train out to Salem, got this recumbent, and I rode it back here. It took 32 days.

On the sixth day of that trip, I'm headed into Walla Walla, Washington. A few towns previous, people said, ‘Oh, you should be able to camp at this park.’ So I got there, but the park doesn't exist. After a few other dead ends, it's getting dark, and Walla Walla is the biggest city I've been in since Portland, and I'm starting to get a little nervous. Like, ‘What am I going to do?’ So I go back to a house where I’d asked directions a couple hours earlier.

I knock on the door, and this young man answers. I say I'm on a bike trip, I explain my situation, and I ask, ‘Is there a chance I could pitch my tent in your backyard?’ He says, ‘Oh sure, just come around.’ By the time I get to the backyard, his wife is at the back door and she says, ‘You're welcome to sleep in the backyard, but would you be more comfortable in the house?’

I'm like, ‘Well, sure. But I don't want to impose.’ She says, ‘No, come in.’ They have a finished basement and they set me up with a little mat. There was a shower, and they gave me their dinner leftovers. And they've got two little girls! Nobody does that. Nobody says, ‘Hey strange, stinky, dirty, biker dude—come sleep in my house with my young kids upstairs.’ They didn't bat an eye at it.

It's really moving to me that somebody would embrace that philosophy of hospitality and trust you. There's just something very rewarding about when you're vulnerable like that and finding that people are going to take care of you.

In 2005, I biked from here to Washington, DC and in 2007, I went from here to New York City to visit my niece. Five years later, I went from here to Cape Spear, Newfoundland, which is as far east as you can go in North America. I left here the first week of July and got there on Labor Day, so it took around two and a half months.

Every time I come back from one of these long trips, my first stop is downtown Baraboo on my bike. I sort of do this It’s a Wonderful Life thing. I’ll ride around the Square and yell in my best Jimmy Stewart voice, ‘Merry Christmas, Baraboo State Bank! Merry Christmas, Village Booksmith! Merry Christmas, Courthouse Lawn!’ I'll just bike around, yelling at all the buildings and people. That's how I know I'm home.”

Rob and Zoey the dog Photo courtesy of Capital Newspapers and the Baraboo News Republic, https://www.wiscnews.com/baraboonewsrepublic

“When I worked at the International Crane Foundation, our Curator of Birds started using a service dog. I talked to her about it, and she explained that there's an organization in Madison that trains the dogs and that they're always looking for volunteers to help with that.

The organization is called WAGS—the Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs. WAGS is very specific in that they train dogs to help people with mobility impairment. It can be MS, or cerebral palsy, or a similar condition. It's either an injury or an illness that compromises your balance or walking.

I was always a dog person, growing up. My family always had dogs. Having a dog wasn't a good match for me then, though, because I was still kind of in that vagabond stage. I thought, ‘Well, I can have a dog for six to nine months at a time and do something that's valuable for somebody else at the same time.’ So it seemed like a really good fit.

The training for each dog is about three and a half years. Typically, any given dog goes through maybe three trainers. Each trainer does some things better than others. I'm probably stronger on public access training than I am on skills training, so I tend to get the dogs towards the end of their education.

Someone else has gone through teaching them how to turn on the light switch, how to pick up the newspaper, how to open the front door. Then I get them at the point where you're translating a lot of that into public access. It's one thing to do a light switch here in the house, and it's another thing to do it at the high school with kids around. It's one thing to pick up my wallet here, but it's something else to do it at a shopping mall or at a theater. And to learn not to eat that piece of donut that fell on the floor at the bakery!

The dogs really become part of the community—really, everybody in town helps train the dogs.

When I'm at the grocery store and I'm having the dog put a can of soup up on the conveyor belt and she's struggling with that, and she's dropping it, and she's distracted, and I need to get her attention and try again—it may take us a little while to do that. That requires some patience from the clerk and the other customers who are waiting behind us.

The first dog I trained was Arty. We used to have a hardware store up here, which is where Arty had the famous motor oil incident. I had Arty pick up a quart of motor oil and carry it to the front and then put it up on the checkout. Unbeknownst to me, she had punctured it while picking it up and was trailing motor oil throughout the store.

The owners were fine with it. You know, people are really accommodating.”

Rob and Zoey the dog

Photos by Sharon Vanorny

“I’ve trained three service dogs so far. Some trainers go right from one to the other, but I need some downtime, and I need a break emotionally, too. I can't go from dog to dog to dog. I went eight years between my first two dogs, and then about six months between my last two.

Zoey the Wonder Dog was the most recent dog I trained. She’s a black lab and was actually briefly released from the service dog program. The WAGS folks felt she was too reactive, too high energy, not going to work out. After she had been on their adoption page for a couple of days, they had a change of heart. They said, ‘Well, maybe we'll give her to Rob and see what he can do.’

I kept working with Zoey for a little while longer, and a little while longer. It just kept getting extended. I ended up having her for three and a half years. She became a fixture in town. People asked me every day, ‘How can you stand to let her go?  Aren’t you going to miss her?’

I tell people that I imagine it's like having kids. You know, it's hard to watch your kids go, but you'd be bummed out if they never did. You know what’s going to happen going in, and so that helps set your expectations, but it can still be pretty hard to say goodbye.

I cried for days when it was time to say goodbye to Zoey. I worked at the bookstore the day that I was going to drop her off for good, and I would be sitting there at the counter, and I would just lose it and have to go to the bathroom. I would have to cry for a couple minutes and try to get myself put back together and then come back out to the shop.

It was really hard driving down to the east side of Madison on that August evening. Zoey really likes her new owner, so it helped that she was super excited to see her. But that moment of walking away and leaving her behind was really hard. Then I got back in the car and it's like, ‘Okay, that's done. All right. Now what's next?’

I mean, it feels great, too. Zoey's going to help a really terrific woman lead a more full, independent life—a richer life than she would otherwise be able to.

And it's great for Zoey, too, because she’s going to have a blast. She’s going to go everywhere.

Even months later, people around Baraboo still keep asking how she’s doing. ‘How’s Zoey? Have you heard from Zoey?’ When I get a batch of pictures, I put them in FaceBookLand so people could see her. I brought Zoey to the bookstore every day, and people were always coming to see her. It's sort of humbling, because a lot of times when people come in the store, they're not coming to see you. They're coming to see the dog.

I feel like working with a dog like Zoey is a triple win: I enjoy it, the community really supports it, and someone ends up with a terrific helpmate.”

-Rob Nelson | Baraboo, WI