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May The Schwartz Be With You!

Aw, hell.  Schwartz is closing.  Just last week, I was at the Mequon location, and it looked a little odd.  A little vacant.  A little disorganized, and, perhaps, a little bare.  I shrugged it off, figuring that the staff must have been restocking or moving stuff around or something.  Maybe what I saw was no indication of their troubles, but I feel really badly about walking out empty handed right now.

Schwartz has been around for years, and it is part of the heart of Milwaukee.  I can't tell you the nights and afternoons I once spent trolling through the bookcases, buying coffee, or just killing time.  And yes, I bought books, too.  Plenty of them.  For me, local bookstores area crucial part of our community.  They may not always have the savings, but the money goes right back into the community.

Few stores gave back to the community like Schwartz.  For years, I've been a member of the Schwartz Gives Back program--it never costed me a dime, but the bookstore would give donations to community groups based on my purchases.  It was always easy to have a good conscience shopping there.  

I am heartened to hear that two Schwartz employes will try to keep two of the locations afloat as independent bookstores, but I know it's an uphill battle.  Especially with less of an organizational structure behind them.  So I'd urge each of us to frequent the new locations when they change hands, because we're not just losing a rental tenant.  We're losing a piece of Milwaukee history.

I'm as guilty as anyone who walks into a Borders book store to get the cheap, easy, quick fix.  And my office is right across the street from a Borders location, too.  And I've rarely been more aware of the profound effect of individual behavior on local economies than right now.  Not only did we stop buying books, but we stopped buying books from the right stores.  Places like Borders and Barnes & Noble are built on a much broader scale, and can absorb the impact of decreased dollar spending.  But every dollar spent at a large retailer hurts a smaller one disproportionately more. 

One could argue that Schwartz just wasn't able to keep up with the times, but I think that answer is too simplistic.  Publishing is, across the board, becoming an endangered species.  And it's scary.  We need to find ways to preserve what's real.  We need to preserve paper.  In Star Trek:  The Next Generation, Captain Picard keeps, fondly, a large book in his ready room.  Under glass, the book is both a relic and an object of affection. He keeps it present as a reminder of the need to preserve our heritage.  It's a reminder that to really understand something, it must be held in one's hands, perused, studied.  Will we get the same satisfaction from a Kindle that we do from late nights with flashlights and print rubbing off on fingertips?  I don't think so.  Are we really headed to a future where books are irrelevant?  As Picard once said, "The line must be drawn here!"  Society must be committed, and take responsibility.  It's wonderful to respectfully recognize and lament the passage of a local institution.  But perhaps the best praise is action, not words.  Supporting local businesses, especially in tough economic times, can bring reciprocal benefits.  It keeps dollars in the community, not in a corporate till. 

The owners of Schwartz have been committed to freedom of expression and access to all ideas.  They worked tirelessly to tailor their collections to local audiences.  And they had a stellar series of authors, readings, and the like.  In our neverending compromise of quality for convenience, we've sent another piece of our lives into the nostalgia bin.  We've just lost another piece of Milwaukee, folks. 




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