Thursday, February 21, 2013

Treasure Trove

Heather and I share a love of books.

Because our interests are broad and run deep or may be obscure, we especially love old books. And while compiling the bibliography for this project, it struck me again how valuable that love is to learning, as a significant number of titles on the list are out of print but all I had to do to avail myself of the knowledge in 'em was to reach over to the shelves and dig in.

For myself, I've always loved fishing as much or more than catching...

When you walk into a place with rows of shelves stacked full with books from floor to ceiling and the scent of old paper and bindings and wisdom wafts from the walls like incense in a gothic cathedral, the sense of anticipation is palpable because you just never know what wonders you'll find.

Maybe it's a vintage paperback of Traver's folksy Small Town D.A., only tricked out with lurid cover art better suited to Mickey Spillane and too lurid at twice the price to pass up. Or a first edition of Barry Lopez's towering achievement, Of Wolves and Men. Or a moisture bowed and somewhat beat but otherwise sound copy of Sigurd Olson's Wilderness Days, signed by the author.

Maybe you leave the store content that for all you've seen and tried but came up empty anyway, every day in the field is a day well spent, regardless of outcome.

The best of it is when you reach for a title you don't recognise to discover something you never knew existed and it turns out to be essential. Then when you get it home and settle in to read you find a note or news clipping or pressed leaf left by someone else who thought so too, a gift along the trail to learning. Then you gently put it back where you found it, so someday another like-minded traveler will open the book and wonder at the same gift.

Stores where you can hunt the treasure of used, rare or out of print books are fast fading from the landscape, victims of rapidly changing technology and the cultural mores that change with it.  Sure, you can shop on the Internet and I do, but the experience is never quite the same. It's not tactile.

Luckily for travelers around Superior, there remains a better option.

Chequamegon Books is a mainstay in tiny Washburn WI, near the base of the Bayfield Peninsula and hard by fabled Chequamegon Bay. It's one of our favorite stops around all the lake.

Richard & Carol Avol owned Avol's Books in Madison WI from 1979 until 1994. This last summer we traveled to Madison for the first time in years and went looking for our favorite bookstores in town but didn't find them. I wonder now if Avol's wasn't one of those, the timing's right.

Pretty much everywhere but especially true of big cities, the last few decades brought fundamental change to Madison, including steep hikes in the costs of living and/or doing business.  Unable to buy a building despite repeated attempts and though they were making a go of it, in the face of regular rent increases Richard & Carol weren't enjoying their careers as booksellers as much as they ought. So they decided to move on.

With friends from Madison who'd helped start the Big Top Chautauqua and having visited the place in all seasons, the Avols chose the Chequamegon Bay area for their new home. It took some years to find exactly the right building and a couple more to sell the business in Madison. Finally, they put down their stake in Washburn, at the eastern base of the Bayfield Peninsula and hard by Chequamegon Bay.

The search for a better life brought them north, as it has so many others. It's a path many more desire to follow and those of us who haven't yet take heart from those who have.

Folk don't get rich by selling books. For Richard & Carol it's their sole means of support, which is unusual in the book selling business these days. They've renovated their building, live upstairs from the shop and spend long hours at the business.

From Richard Avol:

Most of the visitors who come into our store are amazed such a store exists in this remote rural area. Many are book lovers and are very glad we are here. Most wish they could leave the cities they reside in and do something like we have done. It gives us pleasure to provide a bookstore for them that has real books in all fields, in large quantities on the shelves for visitors to handle, and we hope buy.

Heather & I do our part -- sometimes by the armful -- each & every time we visit the region. We build extra hours into any day planned for the Bayfield Peninsula because there exploration doesn't end when headed back towards Bessemer and we know just how rich the rewards might be, with one final stop made in Washburn.

Today Chequamegon Books is a fixture along a revitalized main street in Washburn. The day I visited in November, their coffee machine was on the fritz and that was the talk of the town. Must be some mighty fine coffee...

Of bookstores, Novelist Richard Russo wrote: ...they're the physical manifestation of the world's longest, most thrilling conversation.

Nowhere around the Basin is the truth of that more evident than at Chequamegon Books, where Richard & Carol Avol continue to honor that conversation through their life's work.

So stop on by and dig in 'cause though you never can tell what treasure you'll find there, you're absolutely assured of being in the very best of company while fully immersed in that most thrilling conversation that never ends...

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