Book City

Exploring Madison’s love affair with literature through eight of its main characters

Tana Elias, digital services and marketing manager at the newly remodeled Central Library

Tana Elias, digital services and marketing manager at the newly remodeled Central Library

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

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Overture Center was packed with people buzzing and talking under the soft, halcyon lights. The audience waited for one man, a slight, bespectacled author whose reading had bombed at a private event at his alma mater, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a couple of nights before. But not so in Madison. The audience hung on his every word. Laughed at all the right places. And generously welcomed him as he read excerpts from his private diary.

It’s true the author and humorist was David Sedaris, who catapulted to fame with his essay “Santaland Diaries,” a hilarious tale of being a Macy’s elf in New York at Christmas. But with the hundreds of readings and book events held locally each year, one thing is clear: You don’t have to be on the New York Times bestseller list for Madison to love you. 

One of the great pleasures of living in this city of avid readers is taking part in its thriving literary scene. Bookstores and author events abound. The library system is progressive, working outside the library in the community, and committed, funding a beautiful, green renovation to the central branch that has quickly become a downtown centerpiece. Many writers find the city a bucolic and inspirational home base. And the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s writing programs feed the fascination and fervor. Its MFA program is now ranked third in the nation by Poets and Writers magazine, and graduates are responsible for some of the city’s best literary showcases, such as the Monsters of Poetry series and FELIX: A Series of New Writing, to name two.

COUNTER CULTURE

Possibly no one has more insight into the city’s bookish tastes and trends than its booksellers. There are many we call favorites: Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, Paul’s, Frugal Muse, University Book Store, Mystery to Me. A Room of One’s Own is another Madison mainstay, with roots in the women’s rights movement that flourished here in the ’60s and ’70s. It began in 1975 devoted to feminist lit but in recent years has expanded its focus to serve a more diverse audience. Co-founder Sandi Torkildson still runs Room today and has witnessed a good deal of Madison’s book traffic over the last forty years. 

“When I look at my customers and people who come in to buy graphic novels or hardcore science fiction or for the latest book that was just reviewed in the New York Times, we have a pretty broad spectrum,” says Torkildson. “People are sometimes surprised we have as many customers under the age of thirty as we have over the age of fifty. They tend to think younger people don’t read, and I have not found that to be true. We have a really large base of young people. They read everything from the classics like Hemingway and Virginia Woolf and Steinbeck to contemporary authors.”

Michael Chaim hasn’t been around as long as Torkildson, but he’s seen the many facets of the book world and culture through a wider lens and can characterize it in the context of the national publishing marketplace. Before it shut its doors in 2011, Borders, along with its competitor Barnes & Noble, was one of two national megastores, pioneering the big-box approach to bookselling. Michael Chaim managed the University Avenue Borders store from 1992 until it closed.

“One thing you see very clearly when you work in a bookstore is that Madison is a terrific book community,” he says. “The interests are not the same as they are in all places and cities.” 

Chaim should know. In addition to having a long career in bookselling, he also personally owns about 14,000 books. He calls himself a “generalist.” 

“There are quite a few good generalists in town who make what I have piled up look minimal,” he laughs.

While the Borders chain eventually went out of business, the local Madison store was always successful. “We made money from the first day until the last,” Chaim says. “We would sell enormous numbers of books on topics you wouldn’t normally expect for Madison to sell. We were ranked number three or four out of five hundred-plus stores in the number of Buddhism books. But that’s not all. Madison is also a great nonfiction town. People areinterested in books of history, politics, science and social science. All kinds of things that drive book events, which are always broader than you might think.”

HOT OFF THE SHELVES

One popular way readers get closer to the books they love, and expand the reading experience, is to attend author readings. In Madison, such events are plentiful, in the hundreds annually, with the Wisconsin Book Festival being the most high profile and highly anticipated each year. 

“Author events take something incredibly personal and somewhat solitary and allow you to meet people that share the same affinity,” says festival director Conor Moran, who attended UW Law School and spent time in Washington, D.C., before returning to Madison.

“We have educated people that love Madison and stay here, and that’s why I’m back,” he says. “We have a really incredible, world-class poetry community here. We have Capital City Comics on Monroe Street, which is internationally renowned for its graphic novels and comic books. Madison really knows what it wants.”

And what it wants seems to be a more localized yet expanded festival experience. Before Moran’s arrival, the Madison Public Library Foundation, the festival’s new administrator, reimagined the event as geographically centered around downtown. This allowed for a more festive, cohesive feel than in years past, where crowds moved in waves from one reading to the far-away next. The Foundation also smartly extended the schedule, offering yearlong programming to increase awareness and hosting authors who publish or tour outside the festival’s October window.

With a more robust calendar and a raised profile, the festival could attract the attention of the elite publishing houses that don’t see Madison as a crucial stop in book tours that include larger Midwestern cities like Chicago and Minneapolis.

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