“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” — Groucho Marx
Before we get started, I want you to take a moment and dream up what the perfect bookstore experience might look like. I’ll wait.
Now I’m going to recount our visit to Red Wing’s Fair Trade Books, and you might be surprised how well this real-life experience rates against your dream.
Fair Trade Books is the work of one Rick DeVoe, a New York native who moved to the Red Wing area for work. The city of Red Wing drew him in, according to legend, and now he runs a bookstore on Bush Street. Two coffeehouses are less than a block away. A wine bar, too. If you come over here from Wisconsin, you’ll see the iconic Mississippi Queen mural on your way there.
We coasted into Red Wing this way. We didn’t reach the border just in the nick of time after a high-speed chase. There wasn’t a Wisconsin State Patrolman hot on our tails the whole way. The state patrolman wasn’t after me because I’d been speeding excessively. There was no montage of my eyes in the rearview mirror, then red and blue bubbles visible in the horizon, then my foot pressing the gas pedal harder, then my eyes in the rearview again. Our exit from Wisconsin was leisurely and perfectly lawful.
That’s the story my wife would give you. To avoid incriminating myself, I won’t offer my version.
NOTE: This is Part 2 of a five-part series covering a bookstore tour we embarked on between Stillwater, Minn. and Viroqua, Wisc. Find Chapter One here.
The sun does Bush Street a major solid around noon sometimes, just bathing it in sunlight. From the right angle, it can look biblical. You step inside Fair Trade Books and that same sunlight meets you inside.
So does a dog.
Reveler is his name. He greets you with quiet dignity, slow steps, and a plush friend clamped in his mouth. You pay his passage toll in head pats or back rubs, then he goes back to keeping the staff in line.
W.R. Purche once said, “Everyone thinks they have the best dog – and none of them are wrong.” Reveler is the best dog, not counting our dog. If you’re as lucky as we were, Reveler will offer you a free cup of coffee, too.
Fair Trade dabbles mostly in gently-used books, and it’s a gently-used space. Bookshelves of all shapes and sizes are welcome. If I wanted to be really overly dramatic, I’d call the back of the store a mini-maze. Reveler’s footsteps don’t make the floorboards creak, but yours probably will. Every shelf I saw was full. More books are piled on a table. Those are new arrivals, which DeVoe joked about discounting to minimize time spent on inventory.
Speaking of inventory, did I mention you get a free book on your first visit? It’s true. Your gift is hand-picked by DeVoe. You explain to him what you like, he disappears for a moment, then he returns with your gift. My wife got Vector, by Robin Cook.
I said I’d like something well-written, with good humor. I admitted books can sometimes take me a while to read, so I needed something I could pick up after a long time and continue without feeling lost. I was gifted The Laughing Sutra, by Mark Salzman.
My wife also bought a Lord of the Rings box set and two Stephen King books – she already owns them, but three copies isn’t enough when you could have four.
I bought a book called The Panic Encyclopedia. It’s described on its back cover as “a post-alphabetic description of the actual disappearance of facts into the flash of thermonucelar ‘events’ in the post-modern situation.”
The front cover features Prime Elvis and Post-Prime Elvis. I pointed Prime Elvis out to my wife, and continued a scenario we’d dreamed up on our way out of Stillwater after our first stop.
“Is this the one you’d run off with in Vegas?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “My Elvis would have to have something going for him.”
“Not the ‘croak on the toilet’ Elvis?”
My other major purchase at Fair Trade Books was a pair of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy socks, complete with the words DON’T PANIC sewn on the bottoms. All told, we hauled two plastic bags full of property out of Fair Trade. We tossed it into the trunk, and set off in search of another highway to not terrorize and more state patrolmen to not elude.