My wife and I spent St. Patrick’s Day making up for postponed Valentine’s Day plans. This year’s romantic adventure? A 171-mile drive to a used book store in Viroqua, Wisc.
We planned stops at four other bookstores along the way, and we stumbled upon one more during the trip. We noshed Cajun food while a St. Patrick’s Day street party closed in around us, had an over-sized White Castle slider at an iconic riverside bar, and passed through scenery that probably would have inspired wonder had we not largely ignored it. We spent most of the drive lovingly reminding each other had bad we smell and how stupid we are.
This is Part 1 of a five-part series documenting the trip. Our day began at around 9:30 a.m. in Downtown Stillwater.
Jerry Seinfeld was once quoted as saying, “Bookstores are one of the only pieces of evidence we have left that people are still thinking.” If the success of Stillwater’s Valley Bookseller is any indication, there is a lot of thinking going on by the St. Croix River.
Get this: according to this Pioneer Press article, Valley Bookseller began back in 1990 as a kiosk. It has since grown into a building space big enough to hold its own coffeehouse. You’ll see it on the north end of Old Downtown Stillwater, across Main St. from Candyland. Per the Press, Valley Bookseller can hold around 12,000 titles. Fun fact: Valley Bookseller became the 500th member of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce, per the Chamber website.
Valley Bookseller might remind you of a library from your childhood. It’s got the playful posters and the spinning card display poles. It’s got bookshelves of uniform heights, and carpeting that keeps your feet quiet. Your childhood library might not have had the “Totally Criminal Cocktail Hour” sign, but I’d bet there was at least one poster with a dog wearing glasses. Valley Bookseller has one, too, and the dog sits happily next to the words “SIT. STAY. READ.”
Another poster reads “SNACK. NAP. READ.” It’s probably meant for Kindergartners, but my wife nevertheless took that on as her life’s new mission statement.
The Totally Criminal Cocktail Hour is no joke, by the way. That’s an event with free appetizers and a cash bar, held at the Dock Cafe. You can see Valley’s entire schedule of events on the Valley Bookseller website. This was the only bookstore on our trip selling only new books.
It was also the only one selling muffins and breakfast sandwiches.
The Daily Grind Espresso Café goes back nearly as far (1992) as Valley Bookseller. It’s a tightly-packed space but it fits quite a lot – I’d estimate 15 seats inside, with more on the patio. Coffee cups hang from hooks over the ordering station, property of regulars. One cup shows you a robe-wearing Mickey Mouse with cracking red eyes; another one booms out COFFEE HELPS ME POOP in big, bold, round-edged lettering. It’s a brown mug, but you already knew that.
Daily Grind serves a worthy breakfast sandwich and a big, fluffy blueberry muffin. They sell chocolate muffins that are malformed, deep brown, and chunky. The pleasure induced from eating them would probably kill you right then and there. I haven’t indulged, not quite yet.
Daily Grind slings what they call “grinders,” and these are important. Their online menu states “We were blending espresso milkshakes before it was cool,” and they taste the way a drink tastes when its maker knows what the hell he or she’s doing. I ordered a Megan – a simple dark chocolate drink – with peanut butter flavor added.
You might drink one of these grinders and realize this is exactly what you hoped for when you asked for it. That sounds like a simple goal, but how often does it actually happen out in the real world? Well, in this little corner, it happens.
Black coffee is always ready (in case you need to … you know), and the shop is armed with a deep arsenal of specialty drinks. One is called “SOB Mocha.” Another is called “Naughty Norwegian,” not to be confused with “Nutty Irishman.” The entire menu can be found on the Daily Grind website.
Back in the bookstore, my wife bought a new copy of Great Expectations, a book she already owned but wanted a cleaner copy of. I had bought Gregg Easterbrook’s new title, It’s Better Than it Looks, making up just a smidgen of the 10-plus years I’ve spent reading Easterbrook’s columns without buying subscriptions. It was probably the first new book I’ve purchased since college, too.
My wife and I left town at 10:30 a.m., with our imaginations fully-charged and eyes wide open, and what did we do? We drummed up a love story, about us. It began with us flying to renew our vows in Las Vegas, but ended with her falling for an Elvis impersonator and me leaving town with a cocktail waitress.
We’ll do the world a favor and leave this one out of print. For now.