Last time I was out on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, my man Hornish and I hit 7th Street in St. Paul after a Minnesota Rollergirls bout a few years back. We sidestepped drunk people. We kicked trash every two or three steps. We stepped in mysterious sticky spots on the pavement, and our shoes made that sound all night. You know that sound. We had Cossetta pizza, though, and we found ourselves walking next to a man wearing an intricate leprechaun suit. It was a good slice. It was a nice suit.
I told him, “I like the suit.”
He told me, “F*ck you.“ I’ll kick your f*cking ass. I’ll break your f*cking jaw and you won’t be able to ever f*cking eat pizza ever again.”
We walked side-by-side for another few blocks without incident. Nonetheless, that was the night I officially declared myself Too Old For This. I haven’t been out for St. Patrick’s Day since.
Fast forward a few years, to a little stretch of Pearl Street in downtown La Crosse. It was 5 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, a Saturday. This little stretch of street was closed to motorized traffic. A local radio station had set up shop in the middle of it. Packs of people meandered up and down this little stretch with green T-shirts and big, orange, fake beards. Some carried drinks.
It was calm, for now. I didn’t want to see what this little stretch of street would look like after sundown. We slid into a parking spot on the next block and set off on a mission: get in, get food, get books, get out.
This is Part 4 of a five-part series covering a bookstore tour we made between Stillwater, Minn. and Viroqua, Wisc. The first three chapters can be found on the website’s front page.
I was so excited about a 55-degree day finally. We had to drive three hours south to enjoy it, but we take what we can get at this time of year (See: April 2018). At times during our drive, I shouted the temperature out like it was a winning lottery number.
And here comes a waitress to brag about the 80-degree heat she had just enjoyed down in Omaha.
“I was sweating down there!” she said, lightly fanning herself as she spoke. I immediately went from grateful for my 55-degree days to jealous of someone else’s 80-degree heat. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
Anyway. We were at Buzzard Billy’s, a block off the Mississippi River and about a block outside of the heart of the action on Pearl Street. A look out the window at Billy’s netted you a good look at a True Value hardware store, and a visually loud sign pointing to a casino entrance.
Buzzard Billy’s has been perched in its building since 1997. The building itself has been at that site for over 150 years, and would have been demolished had the Billy’s team not purchased it. They’ve a restaurant on the first floor, and a 1950s-style cocktail lounge on the second floor called The Starlite Lounge.
According to Road Tips, the Buzzard Billy’s franchise dates back to 1993 with a location in downtown Waco, Tex. The La Crosse restoration project is hardly new to this team: a Billy’s opened in Des Moines, in a building once marked for the wrecking ball on Court Avenue. A fourth location was part of an urban renewal in Lincoln, Neb.
Road Tips and Travel Wisconsin both seem to want to call this place Buzzard Billy’s Flying Carp Café. I found no mention of carp in my brief research, and found very little mention of a buzzard. All I got from the Buzzard Billy’s website was was that a cowboy named Billy had “an untimely encounter with a buzzard.” I’ll let your imagination take it from there.
After the refurbish, Billy’s decorated the restaurant to meet its classic origins. Baseball cards of old Brewers players are lacquered into the table surfaces. The walls are decked out with rusty tin signs advertising companies like DeLaval Cream Separators, Alpen Beau beer, Tydol Gasoline, and so on. A worn-out Huffy bike dangled by chains from the ceiling by our table.
I ordered the fried alligator dinner. The menu states “fried alligator strips” but the strips are tiny and popcorn-like. They tasted fine, but eating this as an entree just felt … off. The hush puppies have more life than you’d expect, and gave me renewed hope for a side dish I’d long given up on. I really liked the creole mustard. A pleasant sweetness meets the tongue, but an eye-watering heat lies in wait to clean out your nostrils.
The gumbo is thick with andouille sausage and peppers. My wife ate until the spice overtook her, and I happily finished the job. The blackened chicken breast – heart-shaped and coated with spices – was nice enough on its own, but dip it in creole mustard. That’s the pro-level move. Soft pretzel sticks come with a cheesy mayonnaise and a less nuclear mustard.
Red beans and rice. I don’t think I’ll ever understand that one.
On the menu, I haven’t said the word “Blackened” to myself since my head-banging Metallica days. Catfish, walleye, salmon, shrimp, prime rib, you name it. Color our world blackened! There’s a half-pound burger called The Swamp Thing with jalapeno bacon, japapeno Muenster, creole honey mustard, and cole slaw.
There’s Crawfish Etouffee (“THE classic Louisiana dish” says the menu), jumbalaya, jerk pulled pork, and Voodoo Tuna – a lightly-blackened eight-ounce cut with red wine sauce. Big Joe Weitekamp’s Beer Cheese Soup is on the menu, with the words “beer” and “cheese” listed as separate ingredients. For the serial killer, there’s a $5.99 garden salad. The entire menu can be found on the Billy’s website.
Pearl Street Books
The reason we came to La Crosse in the first place was Pearl Street Books, a littlebig bookshop on 4th Street and Pearl.
It’s the work of Jim Auler, 69, who in 2018 celebrates 40 years in the bookstore business (per the La Crosse Tribune). It began in 1978, when he purchased a used records and audiotapes store in a Madison suburb and added used books. He moved to La Crosse in 1993 and opened a bookstore in town five years later. That bookstore was moved in 2000 to the location it inhabits today, and the name was changed to its current name.
Auler estimates his shop holds over 55,000 titles, per the Tribune, and the space backs him up pretty well. It’s deep with books, wide with books, and all the way to the ceiling with books. It’s got library-style wheelie carts stacked with books, and an upper back balcony with more books. A small lounge space on the balcony allows for book club meetings, writing sessions, or – in the case of our visit – people to read by themselves in the dark.
My wife dashed through the aisles like a supermarket game show contestant, finding a few Dickens books to bring home as souvenirs. I just found stuff. I found two green-cushioned chairs in aisles that looked like they belonged in a 1970s kitchen. I found a grandfather clock tucked inside the curve of the balcony staircase. I found a wooden schooner figurine. I found bumper stickers for sale, with messages like “GO ORGANIC OR GO TO HELL” and “HONK IF YOU [HEART] CHEESES.”
A second floor is roped off with a sign that says “PRIVATE.” I could see up there, but that’s private.
Pearl Street Books doesn’t appear to have a website – it looks like Facebook is their jam. You can find information on upcoming events and open hours on their page. If you have more time than we had, Auler is quoted in the Tribune article as saying the store has a few books that are over 100 years old.
I didn’t find any, but I did find a book called Wild Cards by George R.R. Martin and a the top half of another book. It read, Gold In Your–
I could see up there, but that’s private.
We left Pearl Street Books around 7 p.m., hustled to the car, and peeled off. As we cruised toward the West Channel Bridge, we could see the streets of downtown filling with people in the rearview mirror. I don’t know what we escaped, exactly, but I don’t think we escaped it by much.