Book Shopping, Part II: Arcadia Blends Past and Present

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Many great ideas start with a simple question. For example, “Why doesn’t this town have a bookstore?”

The brick edifice at the corner of East Jefferson and North Lexington Streets in downtown Spring Green was built in 1870 and has been home to various merchants, including a grocer, a florist, and a post office. The earlier question led to its becoming a bookstore, and readers throughout the region are pleased with the results.

James Bohnen has directed plays at American Players Theatre (APT) since 1996 and spends several weeks every summer in Spring Green. His primary home is in Chicago, where he started Remy Bumppo Theatre Company and served as artistic director for many years. Ready for a change in 2010, he announced to the theatre board he wanted to leave in another year and a half. He had no definite plans, but one month later he heard that a building in Spring Green was for sale.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Work on the building began as James continued working at the Chicago theatre. He had a strong vision for the space Arcadia Books would inhabit. In keeping with its name, he wanted the bookstore to feel like it had been there for a hundred years. Contractors uncovered the typical issues of renovating an old building. The brick wall along the side street was unstable and needed complete rebuilding. James turned that into good news by including large windows in the new wall, which allows the store to bask in natural light. The new space received a warm reception when it opened in May 2011. A customer commented, “Don’t you think this building always knew it wanted to be a bookstore?”

The store is open year-round, every day and evening, with only a couple of exceptions. It has consistently outperformed predictions, and summers are especially busy. Customers make time to visit when they attend a play at APT or visit Taliesin. Many are regulars and rely on the store’s online shop to get them through the winter, often sending emails to request specific titles. Even people from Madison think of it as their local bookstore, and it’s not hard to see why they would add it to their list of favorites.

The stock is well curated by store manager John Christensen, Melanie Fleishman, and James. Although they stock under 10,000 titles, there is no particular specialty. “We choose books worth people’s time,” John says. Their target audience is simply readers who appreciate good books. They refer to their selections as “friendly provocation,” and revel in the fact that the River Valley region is full of people with eclectic tastes.

Photo by Katie McGrath

Adam Gopnik wrote, “It is rarely the book you came to seek, but the book next to that book, which changes your mind and heart.” As James repeats the quote, I am sitting with two such books, neither of which I had on my list, and both of which I was thrilled to discover. He notices them. “Are you familiar with Mark Strand’s poetry?” he asks, eyeing the one knowingly. “Then you’re sure to like his short stories.”

James exudes enthusiasm for books of all kinds and freely offers suggestions to browsers. While we sit at a table discussing the store, he answers customer questions so intently that one woman comes back twice to report results. Staff suggestions throughout the store and online include many he’s written, often with references to other works or plays. John circulates throughout the store chatting with regulars and answering inquiries.

Authors are eager to read at Arcadia, and the store has events throughout the year. Several well-known authors have visited, often due to their friendship with James or local connections. Dean Bakopoulos was the first author to read at Arcadia, and Lorrie Moore has read there more than once. When another good friend, David Axelrod, came to see the play James directed this past August, he was interviewed by James in front of an audience of 170 people and then signed over 50 copies of his book Believer: My Forty Years in Politics .

Other popular author visits include Julie Schumacher, whose book Dear Committee Members was a semifinalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. I picked it up and couldn’t put it down; it came home with me. Arcadia also has staged readings, ranging from full cast readings to solo performances. Recently, four actors read a Nathan Englander short story.

Photo by Dick Ainsworth

As if the temptation of books and readings weren’t enough, the store includes a small café which features local, seasonal recipes; fresh baked desserts; and coffee drinks. Jacki Singleton, who is also a stage manager at APT, runs the café with great flair. The food in Arcadia benefits from the same philosophy as the books; diners enjoy the carefully chosen selections, which often stretch their palates in delightful new directions. The success of the café resulted in the publishing of a cookbook, and the winter months feature cooking events, with Chef Jacki demonstrating recipes and sharing the results with the class.

Among the books James recommends is Fates and Furies by Lauren Graff, which was a 2015 National Book Award finalist. “My favorite novel of the year,” he notes. James likes Colum McCann’s group of stories entitled Thirteen Ways of Looking , and points out that the title comes from a Wallace Stevens poem.

James is also understandably excited about the new Hogarth Shakespeare series for which modern authors are invited to write novels based on a particular play of Shakespeare’s. Jeanette Winterson based The Gap of Time on The Winter’s Tale , a play James recommends rereading before you read the novel to maximize your appreciation.

Other authors with new books James favors are John Irving, Stacy Schiff, and David Mitchell. His enthusiasm is contagious, and I leave with a stack of books. Lucky for me the Arcadia rewards club, Read in Utopia , will allow me to earn a $10 credit for every $100 spent.

Yvette Jones is the owner of designCraft Advertising, a Madison agency focused on local businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Arcadia Books

102 E. Jefferson Street
Spring Green
(608) 588-7638
readinutopia.com