If you walk into Driftless Books and Music too quickly, you’ll miss the headstone leaning out against the front stairway. It commemorates La Crosse’s very own Freddie Slack. “The Original Hipster and King of Boogie Woogie” it proclaims. “He’s Murder on the 88.” You’ll read the big name strip on the building’s front face: VIROQUA LEAF TOBACCO CO. You’ll step through the front door, but you aren’t really in the bookstore yet.
You’ll pass through a sort of introductory space, with posters coating one wall and overhead shelving showing you old-timey beer cans. This room will probably have dozens of books, but you aren’t really in the bookstore yet.
You’ll probably see the laptops nailed to that one wall. You might see an empty pink can of Olde Frothingslosh standing around, the one with Miss Olde Frothingslosh 1969 proudly displayed on the front. You might be tempted to grab a book and hunker down on the couch in this room. But you aren’t really in the bookstore yet.
Your curiosities will find this room quite impressive, and you might find yourself exploring this one room for a little while, but then you’ll really enter the bookstore.
This is the final chapter of a five-part series covering a bookstore tour we made between Stillwater, Minn. and Viroqua, Wisc. The other chapters can be found on the front page.
“A guy’s books,” says Driftless Books owner Eddy Nix, “and a guy who loves books and picked them up all the time.”
The Driftless Books website quickly tells how Nix built the massive collection you see when you really enter the bookstore. In 2004, Nix purchased a collection of books in Torrington, Conn. “That was our first 100,000 books,” says the website.
I got the whole story when I spoke with Nix via phone. It involves a pair of 18-wheelers, $2,000, a building on the brink of gentrification … and an eBay advertisement Nix found by searching “bunch of books.”
“It was literally a whole floor of a warehouse full of books that had been abandoned,” says Nix, 49. “I drove out there with all the money I had … to either get knifed and robbed, or find this massive trove of books.”
According to this story by the Vernon Broadcaster, Nix spent three months sorting through it before heading back home to Viola, Wisc. He estimates one half to three-quarters of the lot was left behind – not owing to lack of interest, necessarily, but to lack of transportation capacity.
Nix ran his shop in Viola until 2009, when he was given the tobacco warehouse in Viroqua – at no cost – by a philanthropist who regularly swung into the old shop.
“I guess it was just right place, right time,” he says. “This guy saw what we were doing. He gave it to me as a challenge to make this thing real.”
Driftless Books is no place to rush in and ask about one specific title. Even if you do that, you’ll inevitably find yourself dawdling down aisles, passing by windows, stepping through sun rays, and hearing the floorboards creak under foot. You’ll probably find the book you’re looking for, but books will also find you.
Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism and the First Sixty Years caught me right in the middle of the store as I passed a large wooden table. It had been hiding next to a leather football, behind neatly-stacked piles of books. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I read the title and thought “That is so me.” It cost $4.
A cookbook written by the proprietors of the Big Gay Ice Cream restaurant chain, titled the same, reverse-pounced (so, I pounced on it) while I checked out the stage in back of the showroom. The rainbow ice cream cone on the cover was glittery, and shimmered when I played with the cover under lights. The page I opened it to, very first one, explained how to make candied bacon. I paid eight dollars for that one.
The discovery hardly stops at books. Look around the right corners, and you’ll find makeshift reading rooms walled by wheeled bookshelves. Look up overhead and you’ll see a continuation of that beer can collection in the front room. You could lose your wife in a place like this, easily. I lost mine twice, but dammit I kept finding her.
She emerged with a copy of Son of a Witch, the sequel to Wicked, and another copy of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre.
The stage at Driftless Books and Music was occupied during my visit by a pair of steel constructs, humanoid in body structure but with bull horns and fish eyes. By now, the concert schedule at Driftless Books AND MUSIC! is well under way.
According to Nix, the inclusion of live music at Driftless Books was first discussed when a friend asked if he could play a show there. It was an easy answer.
“[I said] We have space, so sure!”
So friends came and played. They told their friends to come and play, so friends came and played. Nix worked with local businesses and residents to help secure lodging and meals for visiting acts. More friends came and played.
A story Nix wrote for Love Wisconsin points to a show Duluth-based band Cloud Cult played at the bookstore about a year after first welcoming musical acts as a major moment. Word continues to spread: for the last four years, Driftless Books has booked full musical seasons from spring to mid-autumn.
It’s happening again this year – and now, thanks to a fundraising effort that brought in almost $20,000 Nix and his team are making the concerts free for everyone.
A story by the La Crosse Tribune briefly outlines Nix’s journey from his hometown of La Crosse to South Africa, back to Minneapolis, out to Los Angeles for a few years, then Europe, then South America, then back to the Driftless Region.
When I asked him about this, he mentioned a good friend. He says he first came to visit her, and she passed away shortly after he came home. He talked about the feeling of being that close to a life as it ended. He says he was going through a midlife crisis at the time.
But the very first thing he said was, “This area I live in, it has its own unique beauty.”
The Driftless Region includes parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. The region never glaciated, allowing a distinctly different landscape than what you see elsewhere in these states. Stretches of Highway 61 look like mountain passages. The Mississippi River is complicated by sandbars, wooded islands, and peninsulas. The forest on the horizon is deep green and thick, like heads of broccoli.
Viroqua is a town of 4,362 people and an ascending local food scene. The Wisconsin State Journal explains how the city has become a leader in the state’s organic food movement. At Viroqua’s Driftless Cafe, chef and co-owner Luke Zahm was nominated for a James Beard Award.
It’s also one of the only towns with a bookstore that allows bartering as a means of sale.
“That’s been huge, because of the area,” says Nix. “The other day, part of the roof on a side entrance to the basement blew off, so a guy came and repaired it [in exchange for books]. There are people who will bring me vegetables every week for books. I’d love to trade for books.”
Since moving the business to Viroqua, Nix purchased the inventories of six more shuttered bookstores. More trucks, more miles, and now the Driftless Books website now estimates a half-million books and pieces of related media sit inside.
“Slow media,” they call it – and if you thought slow media was dying, allow me to interrupt you with a story about its resurgence.
Nix says he sees it, too, in his shop.
“I think [online media] is becoming less and less appealing,” he says. He brings up Facebook, and counters that with the increasing number of young people he sees in the shop and the number of musicians whose vinyl record sales outpace their CD sales. “You see something is going on.”