Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
As loyal Daily Yonder readers have likely deduced, I grew up in the Midwest’s Driftless region. Viroqua, Wisconsin specifically, where three historic tobacco warehouses sit a few blocks off of the town’s Main Street.
In 2009, signs started appearing on one of these three rather majestic buildings. New lettering over the door read “Forgotten books,” another sign “Used Books,” and the last “Driftless Books & Music.” Of course, I was intrigued. Everyone was. A used bookstore the size of a warehouse in a town of 4,300?
My very first impression of the bookstore has now blurred with subsequent ones, but I can tell you that opening the door to Driftless Books & Music feels a little like entering an alternate universe: floor to ceiling books all around the walls with rows upon rows of wheeled shelves — also filled with books — in the middle. There’s often a jazz record playing in the background, and the light that comes in from the windows is soft and muted.
The man who runs this bookstore, the guy who dreamed it all up, is named Eddy Nix. He’s also a Driftless native, and he’s curating this space for history, culture, and community in the region. Before talking with Eddy I hadn’t thought much about where large collections of books end up, but now I kind of can’t stop thinking about it.
I hope you enjoy our conversation about the “ecology” of books and how bookstores can be sustainable businesses today, even and especially in rural communities.
Caroline Carlson, The Daily Yonder: How did you end up in small-town Wisconsin presiding over a warehouse full of used and rare books?
Eddy Nix: I grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin so kind of in the Driftless region, but somewhere like Viroqua felt a million miles away because La Crosse still had that city feel. I lived in a lot of different places in my twenties and early thirties and traveled around a lot, so I got to see what cities are like versus small-town living.
The book thing kind of happened in a fit of midlife crisis where I was back from California, living in the Driftless Area and trying to figure out a way to justify my addiction to moving around all these old books (which I’d been doing basically all my life). I looked around the internet and found a weird auction where someone in Connecticut had this old warehouse with a dead book dealer’s stock in it — some hundreds of thousands of books. They thought maybe someone would be crazy enough to come and clear it out…and I guess that was me. I ended up bringing two semi trucks back and turning an old post office building into a bookstore in Viola, Wisconsin. Some years later I acquired this old tobacco warehouse and moved it all to Viroqua and it became what it is.
DY: Do you have any idea how many books you have in the warehouse right now?
EN: It’s impossible really to say, but somewhere between half a million and a million. And it wouldn’t surprise me if it was twice that. The truth is that if you’re dealing in books, there’s an unlimited supply all the time everywhere. In the “ecology” of books most of them just go to dumpsters and landfills and get destroyed, even with well-intentioned people trying to find homes for them. So the building quickly filled up. Every year or so we have some bookstore that closes or some dead professor or someone moving and we get 10,000 or 20,000 more books.
I could go off on the tragedy of the ecosystem of books because in most places there are fewer and fewer bookstores. The libraries — especially with Covid— won’t take things in anymore, and if they do, they often ship books out to massive operations that end up pulping everything that they can’t scan with a barcode scanner. Basically anything before 1970 gets destroyed because of this. I’ve really looked into it — there are places that get rid of 20 to 40 million books a year. The whole thing is sad because those books should be kept within the community, especially things that are about the community or were owned by people in the community. I think a lot of our cultural history is being inadvertently destroyed this way.
DY: Can you tell me more about the history of the tobacco building that you operate out of?
EN: Being in this building has really opened my eyes to this whole sort of secret history of tobacco culture in the area. It’s something that most people who come to the bookstore have no idea about. Some folks are even surprised to learn tobacco was ever grown around here. On the other hand, over the years, hundreds of people that have been involved with tobacco culture have come through and said “Oh, we used to drop our tobacco off every year here,” and, “this is where we’d get paid” and all these amazing stories.
The building is about 110 years old and was built as one of three tobacco warehouses in the area. Every year, the farmers would go between the warehouses depending on who was offering the best prices. The whole building was full of tables with ladies that would sort the tobacco and they would then ship it off. They’d also do sweating upstairs, which was this process that would sort of ferment the tobacco, so there were huge heaters and it was very hot in here. Of course, when the tobacco subsidies fell away people stopped growing it.
DY: As the name ‘Driftless Books & Music’ suggests, you do more than simply sell books. How does this magically labyrinthine space inside a tobacco warehouse fit into the greater Viroqua community today?
EN: That’s an awesome question, and it’s really at the core of what we do. The music thing started a few years after we came into this building and it was basically local folks who were like, “Hey, my friends have a band. They’re coming through. Could we do a show?” Of course it turned into something so much bigger. In 2017 we did over a hundred events — three or four shows a week, I’d be getting five or six emails a day from bands and promoters and agents. It was a hot thing because it’s a really unique space that everybody agreed sounded amazing because of the wooden infrastructure and all the books tempering the sound.
I feel we’re an integral part of the community, and I think the community has evolved in a way that really supports the bookstore. A lot of people that have moved to town will say “this is one of the main reasons we moved here.” And there are tourists too. It’s a constant influx of people from the cities that are going “we want this unique experience of this big old bookstore,” which is something that’s more or less disappeared over the last 20 years.
DY: I’m curious about your thoughts on the mass shuttering of bookstores we’ve seen in the last decade. Many people will remember when the mega-chain Borders Books & Music closed in 2011, and I know that the only other independent bookstore in Viroqua closed in 2016. Where do you see Driftless Books & Music headed? Is this a sustainable endeavor in such a small town?
EN: Well honestly, I was kind of just trying to survive, and this seemed like a way that — long term — I could accomplish that. I was thinking “if I just catalog enough of these books every day and ship out the orders I can survive.” Everything else was kind of a trial run. I thought, worst-case scenario, it could be a huge building full of books that I sell online and no one sees. But in the best-case scenario it becomes what it is now: a destination. It’s a pretty unique thing among bookstores, and I think it’s an awesome model that I wish more communities would adopt. Of course, it’s kind of a crazy model too and I guess you need someone like me, that’s completely dedicated and motivated and excited by this idea of, well, books.
But I think every community has those people and every community certainly has big, empty, old buildings that no one can figure out what to do with, and a nonstop supply of books. It’s a way to make a sustainable business that people can survive on as long as you’re doing both things at the same time. If it was just a bunch of books without the internet presence it would be a completely different thing, but if it was the opposite, it would be a drag. And that’s kind of what the online book thing has become. There are all these people who could be running shops in little towns, but instead they’re selling books on Amazon from their basement, wishing that they could graduate into a real bookstore.
If I could do anything, I would create a cooperative — which is another awesome model from this area that people outside of rural communities aren’t exposed to as much — to support and grow these bookstores in rural places. I think that most communities have this opportunity to add some culture to the area, especially if they have a large enough space to incorporate other arts — bring musicians in, have an art gallery, a coffee shop. Every town will support these kinds of things if it’s done right. Bookstores are especially interesting because they’re this weird thing at the edge of capitalism. It’s not just go in, buy something and leave. You’re in there experiencing and looking, maybe sitting down and reading for a few hours, which just doesn’t happen with other kinds of businesses. So I think it facilitates more community that way.
DY: My last question, and maybe it’s a hard one, is, do you have a favorite book that’s passed through the bookstore? Or a particular anecdote that stands out?
EN: I think it’s almost impossible to say because the minute I think of something, another thing occurs to me. But I guess it’s more about collections that have come this way, stuff that you would never imagine. This winter a New York City gallery called the Driscoll Babcock closed. It was the oldest gallery in New York City that was continuously open since the 1870s and an important gallery in terms of modern art. The gentleman who ran it passed away from Covid last year and his brother happened to live in Viroqua and connected me with the gallery. I was able to get all their books and catalogs and paper that didn’t go off to a university for archival purposes. It ended up being 150 boxes of really rare art catalogs.
It’s a collection that we can mine over the next few years and slowly put online. Things like this almost no one would walk in expecting to see, and it’s these kinds of collections that are just amazing in themselves. You can’t imagine that they would show up in a little rural town in Wisconsin.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.