The history of literature in Milwaukee can be traced back to nineteenth century German immigrants. During this time, Germans published a variety of newspapers and periodicals. The Wisconsin Banner, edited by Moritz Schoeffler in 1844, was the first German-language newspaper in Milwaukee. The Sentinel started a German paper (which became The Banner und Volksfreund) in opposition to the Democratic Wisconsin Banner. Other German publications included a literary paper called Der Hausfreund (1862) and The Seebote, a newspaper which was absorbed by The Herold—one of the last German papers to fold, surviving until 1890. The German Protestant Printing Association started a newspaper in 1873, Die Germania. George Brumder, a German publisher, took over Die Germania and acquired numerous other newspapers, which he published out of the Germania Building. By 1910, Brumder had the largest German-language publishing business in the country. Brumder published fiction, children’s literature, Bibles, and nonfiction on topics such as farming and medicine.
During the mid-to-late 1800s, Milwaukee was also home to numerous literary organizations. The Young Men’s Association, Concordia Club, Verein Fortschritt, Verein Vorwaerts, and the Eindracht Literacy Society provided libraries and reading rooms for their members. The Curran Literary Society first focused on drama, then became a literary and musical society whose members wrote a gossip paper called The Tatler [sic]. The Fortnightly Club gathered to present and discuss papers, and the Holland Literacy Society gathered to preserve the Dutch language and enjoy a science and history library. In 1842, Philetus Hale opened Milwaukee’s first bookstore on Water Street. Others ran stores that carried books, but Hale’s was the first primary bookstore. Hale also opened Milwaukee’s first library and Milwaukee’s first book bindery.
Today, Milwaukee’s literary culture reflects the hardworking, self-determined ethos of the city itself. In addition to chains like Barnes & Noble, Half Price Books, and now-closed Borders, Milwaukee has a history of independent bookstores that cater to niche markets and unique tastes. Often overlooked in favor of larger cities and the coasts, Milwaukee is home to a vibrant literary scene that includes numerous bookstores, literary journals, presses, writing programs, and festivals.
Harry Schwartz, one of Milwaukee’s most celebrated bookstore pioneers, opened a rental library called Casanova Booksellers and Importers, which became Schwartz Bookstore in 1937. Although eventually there were stores throughout the greater Milwaukee area, the Wisconsin Avenue store was the first in the Midwest to sell specially priced books. Schwartz tried to be different from chain stores by catering to specific neighborhoods. For example, the stores purchased different kinds of books and planned events based on each location’s clientele. In 1963, David Schwartz became his father’s business partner. He brought a social justice bent to the business and tried to sell books about human rights issues—specifically, his opposition to the Patriot Act. As a result of David’s opposition to censorship, Publishers Weekly granted him the Bookseller of the Year award. In 2003, over 250 authors visited the store. Schwartz closed in 2009 due to the economic recession and the ways in which technology had changed readers’ purchasing habits.
Boswell Book Company, in Schwartz’s old location on Downer Avenue, maintains a busy schedule of readings, signings, and book clubs. Boswell has also held events in conjunction with the Milwaukee Public Libraries, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. One of Boswell’s most unique features is its extensive selection of books by local authors. Other traditional bookstores include Little Read Book in Wauwatosa. An active member of the community, Little Read Book hosts book clubs and school programs and maintains a sizable Celtic literature section.
Downtown Books opened in 1991, with an additional location in Walker’s Point. A used bookstore, Downtown Books carries fiction, nonfiction, and comics. In order to compete with chain bookstores and Amazon.com, the owner moved much of the store’s business online and sells collectible copies. The store’s inventory has grown to almost one million books.
Locust Street Books and Records was a used bookstore located in Riverwest in the late 1980s. After the bookstore closed, the same owner opened Recycled Records and Books in 1995. This used bookstore store is now known as Bay View Books and Music. In addition to records, the store also sells used books, comics, graphic novels, and art books. Rather than standard business transactions, the store allows customers to “buy, sell, trade and barter.” Schroeder Used Books and Music is a quirky store in West Allis that sells, among other items: books, vintage magazines, comic books, TV program guides, appliance manuals, and encyclopedias.
Niche bookstores have flourished in Milwaukee since the 1980s and have withstood competition better than stores with general offerings. No chain store offers the same type of merchandise as many of Milwaukee’s specialty shops. Bookstores that sell to very specific markets are more immune to being driven out of business by chains than standard stores. For example, Schwartz Bookstore suffered more when Barnes and Noble moved in during the mid-nineties than stores like Mystery One. Yet, Booked Solid, a specialty store located in West Allis that sells rotating titles of over 3,000 magazines (in addition to newspapers and paperbacks), remains in operation. Renaissance Book Shop is located inside the General Mitchell International Airport and sells rare antique titles, books about flying, and vintage issues of LIFE magazine.
Other bookstores cater to very specific audiences. As of 2015, Milwaukee’s only remaining children’s bookstore is Rainbow Booksellers, originally called End of the Rainbow. The business began in Wauwatosa, then moved to its current location on Vliet Street. Rainbow carries titles for children and teenagers, including fiction and books on school subjects like science, math, and foreign language. Mystery One Bookshop, opened in 1993, caters to an entirely different crowd—mystery lovers. Located on the East Side, Mystery One also sells spy and suspense novels as well as first editions and out-of-print books.
Reader’s Choice, founded in 1989, is one of the only bookstores that specifically focuses on ethnicity. Located on King Drive, Reader’s Choice was Milwaukee’s first African-American bookstore. As of 1999, it offered reading workshops in conjunction with the Milwaukee Public Schools. Author events are also held at the bookstore. Titles focus on culture and history, and children’s books are available in Chinese and Spanish.
Outwords Books is another specialty bookstore that has survived for more than two decades. Originally named Afterwords Bookstore & Espresso Bar, Outwords opened in 1994 and specializes in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender fiction, nonfiction, and periodicals. Since the bookstore opened, Outwords has hosted a men’s book club as well as a lesbian reading group, and has hosted locally and nationally known authors (including Greg Louganis, Kate Clinton, and David Sedaris).
Milwaukee is also home to non-traditional bookstores. Perhaps the least traditional is People’s Books, a cooperatively-owned business started in 1974. Cooperatives are non-profit, community-owned, and democratically-run. Since its inception, People’s Books has also been used as a space to hold classes, meetings, and movies. When the owner retired in 2007, a group of customers transformed the store into a cooperative. In addition to selling textbooks, People’s Books primarily sells political reading material. Currently located in Riverwest, the bookstore continues to serve as a community space, where a leftist reading group and an after-school program meet on a regular basis.
Also located in Riverwest is Woodland Pattern. Since opening as a non-profit in 1979, the store has focused on poetry, chapbooks, small press books, and other non-mainstream materials unlikely to make money. It also carries both classic and contemporary poetry, and literature devoted to various ethnic groups. In collaboration with the Indian Summer Festival and the Indian Community School of Milwaukee, the store provides a catalog of Native American literature, art, and history titles. The store also carries rare books, handmade books, broadsides created specifically for author appearances, and literary journals. Particularly friendly to emerging local writers, Woodland Pattern welcomes the work of unrecognized authors. A second room houses an art gallery, where readings, films, workshops, and concerts are held. From 2004-2014, Woodland Pattern held the Redletter Reading Series, which showcased local and regional authors. The bookstore continues to host poetry readings and other literary events like the annual Poetry Marathon.
In 2005, three Milwaukee women started Broad Vocabulary, a feminist bookstore in Bay View. Broad Vocabulary closed in 2008 but survived for several years as a cooperative focusing on LGBT and feminist studies and hosting discussions and author events, including the nationally renowned literary show, “Sister Spit.” Although Broad Vocabulary no longer exists, the fact that many of Milwaukee’s niche bookstores do speaks to the uniqueness of the city’s residents, their demand for literature outside the mainstream, and their commitment to supporting local business.
Milwaukeeans consume a good deal of literature, but the city also produces written materials. Although the area is not known as a publishing mecca, Waukesha is home to one of the country’s major hobby magazine publishers. Founded in Milwaukee in 1933 as A.C. Kalmbach & Company, a maker of model trains, the company began publishing Modern Railroader a year later and in 1940, Trains—currently the world’s most popular railroad magazine. Kalmbach expanded to Ships & Sailing in the 1950s and Better Camping in the 1960s, and established a book department in 1971. Numerous magazines still in circulation today were acquired by the publisher, including, Birder’s World, The Writer, and Discover. In 1989, Kalmbach moved to Brookfield. By 2014, it produced fifteen periodicals, such as Astronomy, Trains, and Bead & Button. The press also publishes approximately thirty-five books annually and maintains almost thirty websites supporting their books and magazines.
Gareth Stevens, an educational publisher for pre-kindergarten through high school, publishes nonfiction as well as special titles designated for struggling and reluctant readers. Started in 1983 in Milwaukee, the company moved to New York and became part of Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., in a merger. Reiman Publishing, now also owned by Reader’s Digest Association, moved from Greendale to Schlitz Park and publishes nostalgia, gardening, and cooking magazines, most notably Taste of Home. Marquette University Press, the city’s only purely academic press, was founded in 1916 and focuses on theology, philosophy, and history.
Thanks to Mirror Press, book publishing in Milwaukee is not solely the domain of nonfiction. Its specialty is children’s books for pre-readers, books for early readers and young adult novels and novellas. In 2011, the Kirkus Review named Mirror Press to the list of Best Indie Publishers. While Milwaukee may have few presses, the ones that exist are vibrant and cast Milwaukee as something of a dark horse in the publishing industry.
Magazines and Literary Journals
Traditional periodicals, university-based literary journals, and independently run literary magazines all thrive in Milwaukee. Milwaukee Magazine is one of the city’s most prominent magazines. Since 1983, Milwaukee Magazine has printed essays and reportage on news, human interest, local culture, and entertainment. M Magazine, published in Cedarburg, targets a narrower demographic and publishes articles on fashion, local people, and entertainment. Milwaukee Business Journal provides news regarding local industry and business tips.
Cream City Review, published by graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is a literary journal of national repute. Now published twice a year, the Review began in 1975 and publishes fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, visual art, reviews, and author interviews. The journal, which also hosts a poetry, fiction, and nonfiction reading series, has grown from a photocopied, fifty page magazine to a two hundred page book with glossy covers.
Undergraduate creative writing majors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee produce the literary journal, Furrow. Since 2000, Furrow has annually published poetry, fiction, book reviews, author interviews, articles, and Milwaukee-themed artwork by undergraduates. Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature appeared in 1948 and is published quarterly by Marquette. This scholarly journal examines the connections between literature and religion, philosophy, and spirituality.
Porcupine Literary Arts Magazine began in 1998 in Cedarburg. This journal publishes solicited fiction, poetry, nonfiction, interviews, and art. Additional literary journals include the Great Lakes Review and Brawler, an online fiction and poetry magazine run by Milwaukee-based editors. The independent Milwaukee newspaper, Shepherd Express, joined Brawler to publish one piece of flash fiction per week in its print edition. Many of Milwaukee’s literary journals began as small, community-driven operations, a trend which reflects Milwaukeeans’ desire for an arts culture.
Milwaukee produces magazines, books, journals—and writers. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is one of the pioneer graduate English programs in the country to offer both the Master of Arts and the Doctor of Philosophy degrees in creative writing.
While UWM, with its Ph.D. in writing program, has the most extensive offerings, a number of other Milwaukee schools have writing-focused English programs. Students at Marquette University can obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree in Writing-Intensive English. Even a smaller school such as Mount Mary University offers an undergraduate concentration in Writing for New Media. MA students in English at Mount Mary concentrate in Broad-Based Writing, Creative Writing, Professional Writing, or Writing for Children and Young Adults. Students can also work toward a post-baccalaureate certificate in English with a concentration in Writing for New Media. Carroll University houses a Writing major as well as the Great Lakes Writing Contest for students. Cardinal Stritch University also offers a Bachelor’s degree in Writing, in which students study fiction and nonfiction. Thus, writing programs can be found not only on Milwaukee’s big-name campuses, but across the city.
Milwaukee is home to several organizations that offer classes, workshops, and information for emerging writers. Affiliated with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Information Studies, the Wisconsin Center for the Book acts as an ambassador between Wisconsin residents and those who work in the literary arts. It also provides a list of resources for writers, including a database of Wisconsin authors.
Red Oak, founded in 1993 south of downtown Milwaukee, was originally called Redbird Studio. Since its inception, Red Oak has offered classes, workshops, author readings, and a creative writing camp for youth. The Milwaukee Writers Workshop was founded in 2006 as a space for writers to meet and workshop downtown. A similarly named organization, the Milwaukee Writers Circle, hosts general critique groups as well as specialized groups for memoir and mystery writers in the city as well as in Wauwatosa and St. Francis. The Writers Circle publishes an annual anthology, The Best of Milwaukee Writer’s Circle. The AllWriters’ Workshop in Waukesha offers classes, coaching and editing services, and a four-day writing retreat. Additionally, Milwaukee has a poet laureate program sponsored by the Milwaukee Public Library. A committee elects a poet to a two-year term, during which the poet gives readings and serves as a poetry liaison in Milwaukee.
Festivals, Conferences, and Events
Events, conferences, and festivals are additional ways for writers to become involved in literary culture. Since 1988, the Milwaukee Art Museum has hosted the Art of Writing Conference for young authors and artists. Each year, elementary, junior high, and high school students publish a book called Art of Writing. Over 12,000 students have attended this conference.
Since 2002, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Continuing Education has hosted an annual Spring Writers Festival, which includes workshops, panels, and meetings with editors and agents. An entirely different sort of event, the Milwaukee Zine Festival, began in 2008 and is held annually in Riverwest. This event focuses on homemade magazines (“zines”) and features workshops, readings, and a zine fair. Interestingly, Milwaukee’s penchant for zines goes deeper than a single festival. The Queer Zine Archive Project began in 2003 to make zines focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues available electronically. The Project, started with fifteen zines and now holds well over a thousand. In 2014, the physical collection moved to its own location on Fratney Street.
WriteCamp, founded in 2009 by UWM graduate James Boone Dryden, was termed an “‘un-conference’—the first writers’ un-conference in the country.” According to Dryden, an un-conference means that “a basic framework is built by a group of people and then that framework is given to the public to be used as they see fit.” This unique event was held annually until 2013. The Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books is held on the campus of UWM at Waukesha and offers book signings, readings, and panel discussions. The Midwest Small Press Festival was founded in Milwaukee in 2012. Held in a different city each year, it serves to showcase small presses through readings and a book fair.
While Milwaukee has robust writing conferences connected to universities, the smaller, community-driven events like the Milwaukee Zine Festival, WriteCamp, and the Midwest Small Press Festival demonstrate Milwaukee’s gritty, do-it-yourself culture. When residents see a need within the community—whether a bookstore that sells a particular genre or an event dedicated to young writers—someone builds it to fruition. The city’s thirst for literature that reflects specific interests has allowed small, independent bookstores and literary events to thrive.
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For Further Reading
Blinkhorn, Lois. “Book Wars: Independent Stores are on the Front Lines.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 11, 1995, accessed January 8, 2015. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1683&dat=19950911&id=o90jAAAAIBAJ&sjid=9ywEAAAAIBAJ&pg=4617,49185.
Higgins, Jim. “Bookseller Sought to Feed the Soul.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 8, 2004, accessed October 15, 2004. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1683&dat=20040608&id=ybcaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=JUUEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6597,6205194.
Joslyn, Jay. “Where Is the Bronze Giantess, Germania?” Milwaukee Sentinel, (April 17, 1981, accessed April 30, 2015, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1368&dat=19810416&id=cdcVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=FxIEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6397,3613025&hl=en.
Ladd, Andrew. “Literary Boroughs #25: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” Ploughshares Literary Magazine, October 31, 2012, accessed November 4, 2014.
Manno, Tony. “Buying Books in Milwaukee: Indie Bookstores Carry On Despite Amazon.” Shepherd Express, July 3, 2014.
[Marti], Yance. “Milwaukee German Newspapers.” February 25, 2011, accessed April 30, 2015.
Marzen, Heidi. “The George Brumder Publishing Company: A German-American Legacy.” Max Kade Institute Friends Newsletter 10, no. 1 (Spring 2001). http://mki.wisc.edu/Newsletter/Newssp01.html#brumder, accessed April 30, 2015.