What if I told you I had drawn up a road trip that starts just a few feet from the St. Croix River with a coffee and a brand new book, then runs nearly 200 miles south along the St. Croix River and through the stunning topography of the Driftless Region? For hours, you’ll see thick forests, rocky hills, and lush farmland.
Six unique bookstores await you on this travel. It’s a day trip with a month worth of stories – which I know because my wife and I took this day trip and I wrote that month worth of stories back in April. The Riverside Bookshops, I called it. One is technically a toy store, but it’s the largest toy store in Minnesota and practically has a fairground in its perimeter (and does have a bookstore inside).
Also along the way are two iconic roadside bars. One was made famous by a classic film and the other has historical roots all the way back to 1874.
Due to popular demand, I’ve written up a sort of starter kit for the entire 179-mile tour – including a couple of stops I hadn’t previously written about. You’ll find descriptions of each stop, including their hours of operation. Some shops close early, so you may want to save others for the ride home if possible.
Below is a Google Maps outline of the suggested route. Here’s a link to the route on Google Maps.
Valley Bookseller/Daily Grind Coffee, Stillwater
Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. (9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays)
On the north end of Main St., across the street from Candyland, sits Valley Bookseller, a business that began as a kiosk and has grown up into a nice-sized space just a few steps from the St. Croix River.
With neatly-stocked bookshelves, posters featuring tie-wearing dogs, and inspiring messages like SNACK. NAP. READ., Valley Bookseller strikes an innocent figure. Don’t think this bookstore is afraid to put its proverbial hair down: every month, the shop hosts a Totally Criminal Cocktail Hour at the nearby Dock Cafe with a cash bar and free appetizers.
While you’re there, it just makes sense to hit up Daily Grind Coffee in the same space. The coffee shop maximizes their tight quarters to offer hot and cold drinks, sandwiches, and pastries. Your humble author recommends a Megan, a dark-chocolate flavored iced drink with peanut butter flavor added. Get one of those, and a breakfast sandwich, and you could make an awfully nice morning on the river.
The only downside: at a guess, 10 people can sit in the shop and maybe another 10 on the patio. If you’re coming with your laptop to mooch WiFi, you’d better come early or hope to get lucky. (Read more about Valley Bookseller and Daily Grind here!)
Kings Place, Miesville
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.)
How wonderful! Following Highway 61 guides you past a legendary joint most burgerheads would happily drive an extra hour for. For immediate seduction, look at their Instagram feed and see all the burgers they pack onto their fryer. For less than $10, one of those beauties could be yours. Pay another $5 for a pint of Hamm’s and keep the glass!
Your homie orders the Third Base, with a macaroni and gouda cheese popper, with a slice of classic American cheese, and bacon. He also recommends calling ahead: Miesville might only have a population of 132, but I swear that population swells to 500 during peak hours at Kings Place. If you’re going through on a weekend and the weather is nice, you might want to get something to eat on the way. You’ll be waiting a while. (Read my Kings Place story here!).
Fair Trade Books, Red Wing
Hours: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. (10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays)
If you’re so lucky, you’ll be welcomed into Fair Trade Books by a dog and your first steps will take you right past a coffee station. If you’re visiting for the first time, Fair Trade owner Rick DeVoe offers you a free book to celebrate. I’m enjoying my gift, Mark Salzman’s The Laughing Sutra, so far; my wife was given Vector, by Robin Cook.
Fair Trade dabbles mostly in used books, and offers a discount on newly-brought-in titles – to cut down on inventory time, DeVoe joked during our visit. They offer some other kooky goods in addition to books. A coffee mug decorated with the titles of banned books, ceremonial candles with Albert Einstein and John Lennon, and (my prized purchase) a pair of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-themed socks can also be bought here.
As you make your way through town, you’ll probably see the mural of the Mississippi Queen and a giant boot sculpture to celebrate Red Wing. It’s a cool city. (Read more about Fair Trade Books here!)
LARK Toys, Kellogg
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Around Kellogg, Minnesota, you might find yourself surprised by a building in the middle of nothing with signs posted alongside the highway advertising toys, books, mini-golf and a carousel. Well, that’s LARK Toys: Minnesota’s most famous toy store, and the only place in the state (assumedly) where you could pet alpacas, play putt-putt, ride a carousel, indulge on rich fudge, and wash it down with a bottle of Bug Barf.
Have I even brought up toys yet? The main hallways of LARK feature a toy museum of sorts. You can see thoughtfully-arranged displays of Doctor Who toys, robots, Santa Claus figurines, old-timey games, lawn darts, dolls, and make-believe kitchens. Behind that is a maze of a toy store with every kind of toy you could imagine – except electronic. In a far corner of the building is a bookstore, though it’s mostly centered on children’s books. (Read more about LARK Toys here!)
Slippery’s Bar and Grill, Wabasha
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Much of the Slippery’s Bar scenes in the Grumpy Old Men movies were actually shot at Half Time Rec in St. Paul, but Slippery’s is a real bar and you can visit in Wabasha. It’s right on the Mississippi River and just a few short blocks off the highway.
The Slippery Burger is a third of a pound, topped with carmellized onions and Velveeta cheese, and comes on a bun that resembles that on an oversized White Castle slider. It’s a good burger, though. They also offer a “Putz Burger” with just lettuce, tomato, and onions (“Just like the putz himself,” says the menu); baskets featuring brisket sliders, chicken tenders, and shrimp; and a “Moron Chicken Deluxe,” topped with pepper jack cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and onion. Honey mustard comes on the side.
And of course there’s a gift shop! You can get a plaid hat with “Grumpy Old Man” written on the front, a T-shirt with Grumpy Old Men quotes on the back, and a Green Hornet fishing rod, among other things.
Paperback and Pieces, Winona
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. M-F; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.; Closed Sun.
Our visit to Paperbacks and Pieces was a pretty quick one, but here’s what we know: the bookstore has over 35,000 titles, according to their website, and it’s been in operation now for just over 40 years. You’ll find it on the corner of 9th St. and Mankato Ave. They sell mostly used books, but they get new books in every Wednesday and you can score yourself a 25-percent discount by trading in a book of your own. They also rent out new titles for $4.00 per week. There’s a big gaming table in the back of the shop, too.
A top-10 list on their website advertises tidy arrangement and a bright space, and it’s true. You don’t have to wander as much in this bookstore. It’s less of a destination bookstore than the other stops on the tour, but the staff is nice and the store is a pretty pleasant walk-through.
Pearl Street Books, La Crosse, Wisc.
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. M-F; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 12 p.m.-5 p.m. Sun.
Pearl Street Books owner Jim Auler estimates over 55,000 books are for sale in his shop, according to this story in the La Crosse Tribune. Take a look inside, and you’ll see no reason to doubt that estimate. There are walls of books, aisles of books, and books up to the ceiling. Books at Pearl Street range in age from brand new to over 100 years old.
There’s a small lounge on the balcony where community members can hold meetings, speed-reading contests, board game death matches, or simply read comfortably. A second floor is roped off with a sign that says “PRIVATE.” I could see up there, but that’s private.
Pearl Street Books sits right in downtown La Crosse. If you have time, there’s good walking and people-watching to be done here. If you happen to come through on St. Patrick’s Day, the walking isn’t as great but the people-watching is world class. (Read about Pearl Street Books, and a review of nearby restaurant Buzzard Billy’s here!)
Driftless Books and Music, Viroqua, Wisc.
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (12 p.m.-4 p.m. Sundays); closed during winter
You’ll probably see a few hundred books before you even enter the bookstore. Once you do, you’ll be treated to a truly impressive display of books – hundreds of thousands of books make their home in Eddy Nix’s Driftless books. The shop occupies a building formerly used as a tobacco processing plant, but this is beyond a bookstore: this is one of the most fascinating businesses you’ll ever encounter, of any kind.
Nix can take you right to whatever you’re looking for, but I recommend just walking in and getting lost. You’ll surely re-emerge with books you didn’t even know you needed. I came out with a book on “Assholism” and a cookbook from the makers of Big Gay Ice Cream.
It’s also a great place for music. Performances are scheduled almost daily throughout the summer. You can find their events on their Facebook page. Their website has an events page, too, but it feeds from Facebook. (Read more about Driftless Books and Music here!)