June 8, 2004
News & Opinion: Remembering
I decided post the entire obiturary from today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, so you could get a better view of David Schwartz and this unique company:
Bookseller aimed to feed soul
Owner of stores stood up to chains, fought censorship
By JIM HIGGINS
Posted: June 7, 2004
Like his biblical namesake, local bookseller David Schwartz battled the Goliath retailers of the book world with slingshot precision. And like that earlier David, he could sing a beautiful and stirring psalm when the subject was books.
A book has a soul, Schwartz said many times. That soul, according to Schwartz, can leap from the heart and mind of the author to the heart and mind of the reader and change someone's life.
His belief in that soul-quickening power is what fueled his energetic and stubborn leadership of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, the family business, for more than three decades.
Schwartz, 65, died Monday of complications of lung cancer at his home in Shorewood, said Mary Catherine McCarthy, vice president and general manager of Schwartz Bookshops. He is survived by his wife, Carol Grossmeyer; his mother, Reva Schwartz; his daughter, Rebecca Schwartz; and his stepson, Jason Niebler.
Visitation will be from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Friday at the Shorewood Schwartz bookshop, 4093 N. Oakland Ave. A memorial service will begin at 6 p.m.
The family suggests donations to Community Shares and to American Booksellers for Free Expression.
The Schwartz booksellers are "going to be devastated, even though we tried to prepare them," McCarthy said.
In May 2003, Schwartz, a non-smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. In the months that followed, he turned for solace and stimulation to Leo Tolstoy's classic novel "War and Peace," a book he expected to die with. But chemotherapy and other treatment gave him an unexpected healthful interlude. He continued to work part time and felt well enough to travel earlier this year with his wife, Carol, to Costa Rica. True to form, he lobbied her and his friends to read "War and Peace," too.
Earlier this year, trade publication Publishers Weekly gave Schwartz its Bookseller of the Year award, commending Schwartz for his strong opposition to censorship and for expanding its Schwartz Gives Back to You program, which both donates a percentage of participating customers' purchases to non-profit organizations and also rewards customers.
About 80 Schwartz employees traveled to Chicago for the presentation of that award at a national booksellers convention Friday.
The Schwartz family has sold books in Milwaukee since 1927, when David's father, Harry, opened his first bookshop on Downer Ave. David Schwartz grew up in a home that prized books, meaning serious books. Young David's only exposure to comic books came on visits to the barbershop.
He joined the business in 1963. A few years later he read the book that was his first big book-selling triumph - but left his life in tatters.
Theodore Roszak's "The Making of a Counterculture" (1969), a look at youthful and ecological opposition to a corporate, technocratic society, so swayed Schwartz with its message of community-building that he and his first wife decamped with two other families to Maine in 1971 to create a commune there.
A year later, his marriage had fallen apart and Schwartz had what he called a nervous breakdown.
Earlier this year, Schwartz said he still thought "Making of a Counterculture" was a wonderful book. "Community is still foremost in my thoughts," he said. "Building community is the only way we can resist devouring capitalism."
The family book business became his outlet.
At one point in the 1970s, the Schwartz bookshop at 440 W. Wisconsin Ave. - at 6,500 square feet - was believed to be the largest bookstore in Wisconsin. But as competition increased in the '80s and '90s, Schwartz countered, adding store cafes and a bestseller discount program, and opening and closing stores. Those changes continue: Schwartz closed an unprofitable store in Racine earlier this year.
Today Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops is one of the few multiple-store independent booksellers left in the United States, with locations on Milwaukee's Downer Ave. and in Shorewood, Mequon and Brookfield. To fight the bookstore chains, the Schwartz people keep their stores' neighborhoods in mind when buying books and programming events.
When Journal Sentinel book editor Geeta Sharma Jensen tailed Schwartz on a buying trip in 1999, he ordered 10 remaindered copies of the racy 18th-century "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" for the Shorewood store but none for the Mequon location. People in Mequon don't go for that sort of book, he said with a grin.
Schwartz began planning for the future of his stores several years before his illness.
In 1999, he bought out several partners to become sole owner. Three years ago, he hired Mary Catherine McCarthy, who now runs the company's daily operations.
The business now belongs to Carol Grossmeyer and Rebecca Schwartz, David's daughter, whom David credited with starting the Schwartz Bookshops author visits program in the early '90s. He called author visits "fundamental to our existence." More than 250 authors visited Schwartz stores for readings and book signings in 2003.
"I know Rebecca feels about the bookshop very much like I do," David Schwartz said earlier this year. "She would shepherd it . . . with the assistance of the booksellers."
Passionate about civil rights and social change, Schwartz championed books in those areas. He was proud of having sold many copies of John Egerton's "Speak Now Against the Day," about the generation before the civil rights movement in the South. Schwartz wrote and spoke against the section of the Patriot Act that could compel bookstores to secretly release customer purchase records to the federal government. The FBI already has sufficient subpoena powers, he argued, and such a secret tool was un-American to him.
A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who studied history and literature, Schwartz retained a passion for history. His favorite books included E.P. Thompson's "The Making of the English Working Class," on change from the peasant class upward.
His tastes may sound formidable, but he found pleasure in reading, too. At home, his wife, Carol, often read aloud to him while he cooked dinner.
Over the years, Schwartz reconciled his socialistic idealism with the nitty-gritty of running a business.
"I've learned to be a merchant without being a Babbitt," he told Journal Sentinel book editor Sharma Jensen in a 1999 interview, alluding to Sinclair Lewis' novel about a conformist businessman.
"I'm a part of the community in the way these national chains can't be. . . . (We're) knitted into the fabric of Milwaukee."
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.