Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Organic Bookselling


Eddy Nix and Kurt Zimmerman loading up Z book cruiser

I’m seated in an outhouse thinking fondly of antiquarian booksellers.  The outhouse is complete with wood board butt rest, bucket of sawdust for odor control, and a guest book.  Book hunting can certainly lead to unexpected situations.
            The outhouse is the inexplicable sole restroom for an otherwise fabulous, dodecagon (twelve-sided) home nestled on acreage in the beautiful Driftless region near Viroqua, Wisconsin.  Driftless refers not to a land of unmotivated wanderers, but to a geographic area that lacks glacial deposits known as drift.  The gorgeous landscape is composed of deep river valleys, steep hills, forest, spring-fed waterfalls, and cold-water trout streams intermixed with scattered farms. 
            I’ve spent the last three days in Viroqua in Driftless Books culling five boxes of goodies from the remnants of the reference collection of legendary Berkeley, California bookseller Peter Howard.   Nicole has gathered four boxes of books related to Frank Lloyd Wright from another uncatalogued stash.  
            Nicole and I are staying with Eddy Nix, proprietor of Driftless Books, and Eddy’s roommate, Theresa, a retired marketing executive who owns the home.  Constructed in the early 80s by an eccentric astrologer, the home is designed for communal living with each bedroom having an outside entrance.  The central living area has a massive stone fireplace, ample kitchen, and a wall of two-story windows framing a forest and valley stretching to the horizon.  Our first night’s dinner is al fresco, and we enjoy the panoramic views at dusk – eating wild salmon cooked over an open fire by Theresa’s visiting brother, Pete, along with fresh, roasted vegetables from Theresa’s massive garden, and an ample supply of wine.  The atmosphere is bohemian, the banter eclectic, and shoes are optional.
            I first met Eddy Nix in 2012 at the Larry McMurtry book sale auction in Archer City, Texas.  McMurtry had decided to sell much of his huge stock of used books due to health concerns.  It was an on-site auction at his bookstore with books grouped in large lots.  The sale attracted bidders from near and far, mostly fellow booksellers, or wannabe booksellers.  I attended as an observer, made the mistake of registering to bid, and ended up taking home fifty boxes of material for my private collection.  Eddy arrived from Wisconsin in a small Subaru.  He returned home after hiring a semi-truck to transport his book purchases back to Viroqua. 
            Eddy is the architect of one of the best used bookstores in the country.  His 500,000-volume shop is more than a business, it is a focal point of the community, even a live music venue on occasion, and now part of the local surroundings as much as the farms, trees, fields, and streams nearby.   He has a penchant for bulk acquisitions, absorbing the stock of many defunct stores over the years, including a large batch from Peter Howard’s Serendipity Books.  Uncounted numbers of books fill boxes on pallets in an adjoining warehouse awaiting re-discovery. 
            Nix is now fifty-four, thin and wiry, and spends more time booking than eating, but can powerlift book boxes with the best of them.  His long beard is as expansive and unruly as his bookstore.  His dress code is relaxed, and one might not anticipate the depth of his knowledge or his keen insights.  He has been an activist by nature since his youth, progressive in thought, but pragmatic enough to not lose sight of practical concerns.  We discuss an ongoing effort to save a local historic building from destruction.
            “You have to pick your battles,” he says.
            We talk about the influx of new people moving to his area from urban centers, most with good jobs who work from home, pining for a taste of small-town life and a slower pace.  However, many are reluctant to join in the actual activities of the town, still holding onto habits of anonymity more common in crowded regions.  Eddy is brainstorming ideas to bring the local natives and newcomers together, to blend the diverse elements and enhance the overall experience with books playing an integral part.
Nix’s ties to the small community of ca. 5,000 residents run deep.  A native of Wisconsin, he spent time in his 20s in Los Angeles pursuing an acting / theatre career.  When that didn’t pan out (how many do?), he eventually ended up back in Wisconsin, moving to Viroqua in 2009.  He is on the local Historical Preservation Commission, the board of the Viroqua museum, and involved in innumerable charity events.  He has even hosted his own local radio show.  People ask him to run for mayor.  He demurs.
            “That would cut into your time for books,” I answer for him.    
            The three days we spend with Eddy are a master class in organic networking.  He and I talk about biblio-matters, but I also trail along as his general sidekick as we visit the Co-op multiple times for food and craft beer, a town festival, a farmer’s market, and other local venues, all walkable.  Everyone seemingly knows him and wants to interact.  They receive a warm greeting from him in return – always appropriate to the person – a joke, a hug, a serious remark, whatever flows naturally from the encounter.  There is nothing stilted or rehearsed.  Eddy introduces me to so many people my head begins to spin.  Somehow at the same time it is a most relaxing experience.  And how often does one meet an Amish woman writer of children’s books?  Her booth is at the Farmer’s Market, and she hands Eddy her latest self-published works.
            “Would you consider carrying these in your store?”
            “Sure,” he replies.  For Eddy also offers the writings of local authors.
            As we walk away, he explains she has written several other books that he has in stock.
            We juggle her books back and forth as we take turns eating our homemade mini-pies just purchased.  The air is a light breeze filled with the smell of fresh goods and vegetables.  While at the Market, Eddy buys a plant from a friend who is a musician / horticulturist of some repute. 
            “Can you drop it off at the bookstore?” he asks, our hands already full.
            His friend responds with a funny, expletive reply, but agrees.
            Eddy is also entrepreneurial, the owner of a building downtown housing a secondary bookstore filled with Wisconsin history as well as an extensive mysticism section.  Part of the building is rented to a comic book dealer who transplanted from California.  There are rooms upstairs that can potentially be leased out.  It is a work in progress, but somehow he finds time for many projects. 
            We next visit a beautiful tract of land he owns just outside of town where he plans to build a house.  Eddy is also contemplating buying a building in a nearby town that has existing tenants.  Part of it can be utilized for another bookstore annex, he says.  Thus, like roots of a tree, his book offerings expand.  Lest you think Eddy is a silver-spoon kid, this is not the case.  He’s grown his book garden with hard work, a bit of luck, and unusual business acumen.  That and the price of real estate in rural Wisconsin remains relatively affordable.
            Nicole and I are visiting Eddy for three days during a sixteen-day driving trip.  The temperature when we left Houston in early August was 105 degrees.  But escaping the inferno is secondary to our primary mission: books and architecture.  Nicole is an enthusiast and serious student of Frank Lloyd Wright and related architects.  Wright was from Wisconsin and first worked in Chicago, so the general region provides a plethora of homes and buildings to see.  We did a similar tour years earlier, but we only scratched the surface the first trip.  This time, we revisit such famous sites in Wisconsin as Wright’s Johnson Wax Company complex and his home/studio at Taliesin.  However, the intensity of this trip is cranked up several notches when Nicole maps out a journey through multiple states that takes us on ten scheduled tours, a further nineteen interior visits of buildings, and thirty-nine drive-by stops.  It is a work of organizational genius, as many public sites have only limited hours, and our targets are scattered, and timing is everything.   
            We get up painfully early.  We regularly exceed speed limits in our dash, eat hastily of fast food, curse mightily at occasional traffic snarls, but don’t miss a single opportunity.  It is exhilarating and exhausting.  Many Wright homes are in private hands, so we are truly home-stalking, driving hither and yon, pulling up to the curb, out and about to take pictures for a few minutes, typically standing in front of the house, sometimes walking among bushes, side yards, and peeking over fences, all for the Wright experience.  When I can take no more, I just sit in the car and wait.
            Of course, we visit bookstores as well.  Before we return to Eddy’s story, a few bookish appetizers should be mentioned.  While in St. Louis, I find Dunaway Books particularly fruitful.  The store has been around for over four decades, has a nice patina, and is well-organized with a solid stock.  I engage with the long-time store manager Vernon Bain.  Bain is a friendly guy and finds my interest in books about books particularly exciting since they have a good section on the subject, seldom visited.  I root around and discover two gems:  the limited edition of William Dana Orcutt’s In Quest of the Perfect Book (1926) inscribed to fellow bookman, collector, and biblio-author, Frederick W. Skiff.   The second is the limited edition of A. Edward Newton’s A Tourist in Spite of Himself (1930) inscribed to his close friend and fellow collector Barton Currie, who authored the classic Fishers of Books (1931).  It is late in the day and the store is about to close.  My last image of Bain is of him casually sipping a Pabst Blue Ribbon behind the counter as he organizes new acquisitions. 
            Other bookstores follow in rapid succession.  Prairie Archives in Springfield, IL, opened by John R. Paul in 1973, is big and rambling.  They sell cheeky t-shirts reading, “Abraham Lincoln: They’d have to shoot me to get me back to Springfield,” and “Frank Lloyd Wright: I can design a building that would look good even in Springfield.”  John is kind enough to dig around for me once we talk about my interests.  He tempts me with an inscribed book by famed Lincoln collector Joseph Benjamin Oakleaf.
I end up buying ten items, and Nicole finds a few architecture books.  Our timeframe is tight, so we leave not fully satiated.  The main impetus of Springfield is seeing Wright’s famous Dana-Thomas house.  We do work in a bit of Abe Lincoln sightseeing as well.  But how many travelers come to Springfield, which fairly exudes Lincolniana, and prioritize a Wright home and a used bookstore?  We contemplate this over dinner; our initial self-concern soon turns to laughter.
            Two other bookstores of note include Downtown Books in Milwaukee with a sprawling, active stock, super organized, but they pull their better books for online sales, and Prospero’s in Kansas City, a three-story local mecca in an old building that is perfect for browsing. 
            Our cross-country dash is also filled with bookish people.  In Oak Park, Illinois, we spend an evening with Geri & Francis Brennan, old family friends.  Francis, at age 87, is still collecting books, prints, and autographs.  He has been a member of the Manuscript Society since 1965.  Francis eagerly shows me highlights of his Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene collections, as well as the latest purchase for his large collection of Piranesi prints.  He is a biblio-role model as I age.  He is also the first book collector I ever met, at age four or so, without realizing the momentous occasion at the time.
            Our second night in Oak Park is spent with book collector Tom Dannenberg and his wife Claire.  They have a finely remodeled 1910 home just around the corner from Frank Lloyd Wright’s original home and studio (now a museum).  Tom reached out to me recently after reading my work.  We discover simpatico interests and our exchange of emails establishes a congenial connection.  He is in his late 40s and started collecting seriously a few years ago.  Tom’s primary focus is the nefarious English forger and collector Thomas J. Wise.  There is a plethora of primary and secondary material available related to Wise.  Tom has already gathered a startlingly good nucleus, including numerous association copies, and a copy of the most famous forgery, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets (Reading: 1847, but really after ca. 1880).  I congratulate and encourage him, although I’m envious of certain titles, as it should be when serious collectors get together.  But I’m most envious of his huge, finished basement.  (Houstonians can’t have basements because of the high water table.)  I jokingly suggest I lease a portion for my own book storage.  We part ways, newly minted friends, and I look forward to seeing him again.
            Our last stop before Viroqua is in Baraboo, Wisconsin, original home of the Ringling Brothers, and now known for its Circus World Museum spread over multiple buildings.  It is not only a museum, but also features an active circus performance during the summer. We explore a plethora of exhibits and experience an exciting display of circus acts. This is not a simple tourist visit for us.  Nicole in her younger days was a professional circus performer, a flying trapeze artist.  Her circus friends Tim & Barbara Tegge live in Baraboo, and Tim has performed in circuses his entire life. Now in his 60s, he still tours the country as a ringmaster for various shows.  His wife Barbara, besides being a college English professor, is a second-generation foot juggler. 
            Tim is arguably the foremost collector of circus memorabilia in the country with a collection of over 250,000 items, including an extensive library.  His knowledge of the field is unmatched.  We spend an evening with the pair, subsisting on wine and cheese, taking a deep dive into the collection – books for me, but also a visual feast of circus ephemera, costumes, and brilliantly colored lithograph circus posters, some dating back to the late 19th century.  We stay the night in the nearby Ringling House Bed & Breakfast, former home of two of the Ringling brothers—another branch on our eccentric road trip tree. 
            The next morning is serene, and we are on our way to Eddy.  Visiting him and his bookstore was a primary impetus for the trip.  Anticipation builds as we approach Viroqua.  I try to tamp down expectations as we emerge from a meandering drive on country roads bordered by a mix of lush forest and immaculate farms, and then we spill abruptly into the town.  And there it is!  Immediately on our right—I recognize it from photos—the main building of Driftless Books.  It is an enormous former tobacco warehouse of red brick, built in 1906, taking up a whole block.  We park.
            The wooden stairs leading to the weathered front door of the store are worn raw, a few weeds grow unchecked, the entrance discreet with no obvious signage.  We enter a vestibule-like space, low ceilinged, compressed.  The walls are filled with a startling array of visual paraphernalia: prints, photos, posters, stickers, a beer can collection, biblio-scat found in books.  To our left is an office door, closed. 
We move slowly down the narrow corridor, feeling somewhat claustrophobic, a small room stuffed with books to our right, no sign of a checkout counter, and we enter a larger space, more books but still constricted, our hearts beating faster, and we see another doorway ahead, above it the sign “Driftless Books” and we step through it.  Then an overwhelming feeling of release as the space expands exponentially.  The wood beamed ceiling soars and surrounding us is a Valhalla of books as far as the eye can see.  It is glorious.  Eddy Nix is amidst stacks of books with a customer.  He smiles at us in recognition, and soon greets us warmly.  We begin our hunt.

The Outhouse. Place of Bibliophilic Contemplation

Driftless Books

Mrs. Z and Frank Lloyd Wright

Kurt Zimmerman amidst Peter Howard's Reference Books

Tom Dannenberg, Kurt Zimmerman, and Thomas J. Wise

Tim Tegge, Living Legend of Circus Collectors


  1. I always appreciate your turns of phrase, but biblio scat is simply genius.

  2. Chal and Judy ZimmermanNovember 30, 2023 at 5:24 PM

    You make your parents proud!! This is an entertaining, interesting and superbly written account of your great trip!

  3. Thanks for letting me tag along. What a fabulous passion, adventure and vivid share. Best Wishes you two. Ken Brand­čî×