Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
He’s 30 minutes late. Then the delay hits an hour. But no one seems to mind.
Soon, Irish author Stuart Neville will arrive, fresh from Mitchell International Airport, though decidedly not fresh in appearance. Slightly disheveled with his wild brown hair spottily matted and wearing a rumpled sweater, Neville bears the look of both a writer who’s been scratching his head at a desk all day and that of a delayed traveler. It’s understandable. Still, on the fourth stop of his U.S. tour, he’s preparing to read from his latest post-World War II crime novel, Ratlines.
In the back of the store, around two dozen people have gathered, waiting out the delay. They’re on leather couches and seated in folding chairs, though no one’s in the first row, known as the “buffer row.” Few, employees say, ever sit there. Unless they’re super-fans. No one today has reached that status.
With everything in order, Stacie Williams takes the mic to introduce Neville, effectively hushing the small yet diverse crowd.
And with that, Neville was up. He stepped to the podium, stood with his back to a shelf of mystery novels, their dark covers set against jarring neon type, and took a swig of water. As he cleared his throat and began to introduce himself, his Irish-accented voice shook slightly.
“Excuse me!” says a woman from the third row of chairs. “Could I get you any tea or coffee?” she asks, nodding over her left shoulder to the attached Starbucks store.
“Oh, no thank you,” Neville says, smiling.
This is Boswell Book Company, a wonderfully eclectic yet remarkably accessible independent bookstore on Milwaukee’s East Side. And like a hostess at a family restaurant, this guest’s coffee-offering gesture doesn’t seem out of place. This is a store where comfort – on all levels – is imperative. After the offer, the crowd laughed politely, but one laugh, booming and just a bit nasally, stands out louder than the rest.
That’s Daniel Goldin, the 51-year-old, khaki-clad man who can often be spotted near his home in Bay View, walking the oft-broken sidewalks of Kinnickinnic Avenue with his face in a book. Or as Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, describes him, “one of the best booksellers in the country.”
Since opening Boswell in 2009, Goldin has made quite the mark on Milwaukee. A New Yorker who arrived years earlier to work for Schwartz Bookshops, he’s made a physical book store indispensable to avid readers at a time when bookstores of all kinds are closing at a rapid rate, and digital is attempting to flourish.
Independent bookstores, in particular, have been in upheaval since the late 1980s and ’90s, when retail bookselling giants like Barnes & Noble and Borders prospered. With the advent of e-books and e-readers, the future of these independents began to look even grimmer. But stores such as Boswell are determined to stay afloat, offering a curated selection of books as well as an inviting atmosphere and a small legion of booksellers with an expansive knowledge of literature.
|Hear more about Daniel Goldin on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” April 19 at 10 a.m.
That strategy is working for Goldin’s Boswell. Sales are up year over year, and Boswell has been instrumental in helping launch the careers of bestselling authors and booksellers. It’s even influenced other independent bookstores around the country.
This all comes courtesy of Goldin, who appreciates the praise but has a hard time sunbathing in the warm rays of success. As the owner, he embodies the worries of the store, scrutinizing everything from the arrangement of chairs at a reading to the waves of fear that come and go with the industry. After all, there’s always another bestselling author to bring to Milwaukee and more readers to convince that physical books are just as worthwhile as their digital cousins.
Born in Manhattan April 14, 1961, to a teacher and a father who was employed both as a bookkeeper and a factory worker, Goldin remembers growing up in Queens and going into bustling Manhattan with his mother. The two would walk down Fifth Avenue, just south of Central Park, to window shop, stopping in the now-closed Scribner’s and Doubleday bookstores. If Goldin was lucky, he’d get to pick out one book to take home.
“Books,” he says, “were a special occasion.”
Now a self-proclaimed Don Lee fan, Barbara Pym “obsessive” and lover of works by the late Laurie Colwin, Goldin can still recall one of the first books to capture his imagination. It was Half Magic by Edward Eager, a book about a set of cousins’ fantastical summer adventures, which Goldin says inspired many subsequent children’s books.
Graduating from Dartmouth in 1982, he earned his undergraduate degree (or “barely got through,” in his words) in math and also studied Russian. Shortly afterward, he began his career in book publishing as a publicity assistant at Warner Books (now Grand Central Publishing) during what he calls the “heyday of office supplies.” The bulk of his duties included an intricate color-coding process for book tours along with the data organizing that was standard for his position. “You had to just make everything and do everything we do with Excel sheets – without Excel sheets,” he says.
While on vacation in Milwaukee in 1986, Goldin happened to meet then-Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops’ manager John Eklund. Goldin and Eklund spoke of Goldin’s experience as a publicist, and soon after that first meeting, Eklund offered Goldin a job as a bookseller at Schwartz Bookshops’ Downtown location.
Soon, Goldin was packing up his life in New York and, having taken a two-thirds cut in pay for the gig, moving into an efficiency apartment in the Blackstone building on Milwaukee’s East Side. There was no kitchen sink, just a half-size refrigerator and a two-burner stove. He used the bathtub to wash dishes. And when cash was tight, Goldin went to Marshall Field’s with his department store credit card to charge necessities like noodles and peanut butter and jelly.
“And that’s how I would get through,” he says.
Within a decade, however, Goldin was tasked with buying all of the adult-level books for the five Schwartz locations to sell.
Goldin is a self-proclaimed slow reader, and good intel has it that he only likes to read one book at a time. This may paint a picture of quiet and calm, but he’s most recognizable in his frenetic energy. Sit long enough in the sandy brown leather couch in the back of Boswell, and you’ll no doubt hear a chorus of “Hello, Daniel!” followed by smiles and waves, over and over.
Often wearing oversized cardigans, you can’t miss his joyous stomping through the store, his shaggy brown hair flopping up and down as he darts back and forth. But it’s his speech that’s most disarming. Goldin’s volume ranges from secret-telling soft to full-throat booming, sometimes in the same sentence, his thoughts scrolling out of his mouth like a news ticker. He speaks in clauses and asides, which take him on tangents neither he nor the listener expected.
As international bestselling author Chris Cleave puts it, “He’s in a state of permanent electrification.”
As the adult book buyer for Schwartz, Goldin met John Mesjak, a sales rep at Abraham Associates, which sells about 10,000 titles a year from some 30 publishers to independent bookstores across the Midwest. He’s been selling to Goldin for 13 years, and Goldin, he says, has a “mania for selling books. Every bookstore owner that I’ve ever sold to has a certain madness. They have to want to go into this climate, and he fully embodies that.”
In March 2009, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers sat atop The New York Times bestsellers list, National Book Award-winner Joyce Carol Oates had just published her 23rd short story collection titled Dear Husband, Amazon’s Kindle e-reader had been on the market for about a year and a half, and, in six months, Barnes & Noble would announce its own e-reader, the Nook. There might have been excitement nationally, but in Milwaukee, there was both literary and literal grief. On March 31, 2009, after 72 years of selling books, the remaining four Schwartz Bookshops closed for good. But only three days later, on April 3, Goldin opened Boswell. He’d bought the lowest-volume store from the Schwartz family and made the 8,000-square-foot space his own.
He painted to add natural light. He procured shorter bookcases with castors during negotiations. And he started building a staff. He needed a team of booksellers who could “hand-sell,” explaining to a customer why a certain book will meet their literary needs, while possessing the skills to keep a small business afloat. He needed someone to handle numbers, to coordinate events, to keep books in stock, to market the store, to maintain the website. Soon, three main people emerged.
Five months after opening, Goldin hired Stacie Williams, the staffer who introduced Neville fresh off the plane, and a veteran of Schwartz. She handles events, marketing, the creation of posters and bookmarks, and Boswell’s social media. She also sells books. For the approximately 250 events Boswell hosts each year, some are held in the store while others head to outside locations – like the Sherman Alexie book reading in November 2012, which drew a record crowd of 650 to the Milwaukee Public Library’s Centennial Hall.
Williams, who describes her preference in fiction as “dark and twisty” and has been known to read passages of books to customers to convince them to buy, can still remember the first time she encountered Goldin. He was the adult buyer for Schwartz, and part of his job was to send early versions of books to individual booksellers, based on what he thought were their tastes. The booksellers would read the books and recommend whether the store should take additional copies to sell.
“He had a really hard time figuring out what to send me because my reading taste is kind of across the board,” she says, “so he would send me just the weirdest things. But I also was amazed that this was part of his job, to try to ferret out the readers for potential books.”
Today, she says, “He can almost always nail it.”
Amie Mechler-Hickson has also known Goldin for quite some time – about 20 years. She previously worked at three Schwartz locations and is now one of the “core” people on the Boswell team. She’s the children’s books and calendar buyer, and also does the bookkeeping.
Rounding out the team is Jason Kennedy, whom Goldin only half-jokingly calls his protégé and also came to Boswell from Schwartz. He started working at Schwartz’s Downer location in 2003 when Goldin was still Schwartz’s adult book buyer and “would actively try to get booksellers involved in what’s working,” Kennedy says.
Now at Boswell 10 years later, wearing the adult book buyer’s hat like Goldin once did, Kennedy is glad he made the move to Boswell. But he’s quick to note that if anyone else had opened a new store after Schwartz, he wouldn’t have tagged along. Boswell, he says, “was a very worthy goal.”
If his staffers have one complaint about their boss, Kennedy says, it’s his reluctance to celebrate the store’s successes. “I don’t know if he ever gets to the point where he’s feeling successful, but I think internally, he probably does a little happy dance,” Kennedy says.
“Amie and I are there to ground him occasionally and say, ‘You know, this is great, and let’s celebrate.’”
Despite Goldin’s reluctance to celebrate, Kennedy says, “It’s been an amazing ride so far.”