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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014

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In Marketplace

Abigail Olson opened The Book Cafe three years ago instead of going to Tennessee.

In Marketplace

Bright and airy, The Book Cafe sells used books and Door County coffees just off the Carroll University campus.

The Book Cafe stacks up as unique Waukesha business


The Book Cafe, 304 N. East Ave., located just off theCarroll University campus in Waukesha, is part coffee shop, part used book store and prime community space. Owner Abigail Olson likes it that way.

"The cafe doesn't run a whole lot like a business, because I become really good friends with the people who come in here," Olson says.

The cafe will celebrate its three-year anniversary Saturday, Oct. 1 with free cake and live music. There will be an open mic / jam with three scheduled performers on guitar and piano filling in throughout the day.

Many members of the community, including Carroll students and staff, use the cafe as a meeting and work space. It hosts a writing club the third Saturday of every month at 3 p.m. Olson says anybody, writing anything, can attend. People discuss their writing, giving and receiving feedback, talk about how to get published, and enjoy the coffee and each other's company. An intern from Carroll set up the writing club last year.

A knitting club takes over the space on Tuesday nights from 6 to 8 p.m. Other upcoming events include an "Orientation for Literacy" on Thursday, Sept. 29 at 1 p.m., where people can learn how to become literacy coaches. The cafe is also one location in the county-wide "Waukesha Reads" program, in which residents are encouraged to read the same book, get together and discuss it (this year, it is "The Hound of the Baskervilles").

The Book Cafe offers brewed coffees by Door County Coffee and Tea Company, pre-packaged snacks, Tazo iced tea, numerous hot teas and hot chocolate. A 12-ounce cup is just $1.19, 20 ounces sell for $1.67 and refills are 75 cents.

"Door County coffee is less acidic, making it really good for drinking all day," says Olson.

Olson is originally from Indiana and has lived mostly in the Chicago area, for a few years in Sheboygan and a few more years in various parts of Tennessee. Interestingly Olson, who worked retail and food service in Chicago, ended up owning a coffee shop and bookstore in Waukesha because she was on her way to Tennessee, after her husband lost his job in Chicago.

"I fully intended to go to Tennessee, but visiting my daughter in Waukesha, I fell in love with this store as soon as I drove by. It was for rent at the time. I couldn't get it out of my head," says Olson.

Olson said she didn't know what to put in the store at first, but said that somewhere in her head she kept hearing "books." Olson contacted the owner, who operated an antique store in the space but was retiring and asked to take over the space.

The owner agreed, giving Olson the first month's rent for free (while moving all the antiques out) and explaining that a used bookstore would be great for the area, as long as Olson sold the right ones.

"She said history, children's and religious books were the 'right ones'," says Olson.

Olson's husband Brian built the bookcases, and with her daughter Pam doing the accounting, Olson was able to open her store, deferring Tennessee perhaps indefinitely. Opening a new store is a daunting task, but the Book Cafe simply fell together for Olson.

"If I said, 'I can't do this because of' ... then that 'because of' appeared for me," she says. Like when she needed a sink for the cafe area, and the neighbor brought one.

The Book Cafe has expanded its selection greatly in three years. While not yet as overflowing as Milwaukee used bookstores like Renaissance and Downtown Books, the Book Cafe has a good selection of vintage kids literature, classics, collectible condition and regular condition science fiction paperbacks (priced accordingly, with the collectibles kept in plastic bags).

The Book Cafe has a local authors section, signed editions, memoir and popular thrillers. There are videos and audio books and several non-fiction sections including political history, biology and economics. There is a section entitled "Gothic / Paranormal" worth checking out and, yes, still a religion section, complete with new Bibles which, according to Olson, people prefer to used copies.

Additionally, some antiques remain from the previous store operator. "If anyone is interested, I collect the money for her," says Olson.

The store operates on people's feedback, input and, sometimes, their willingness to take over. Customers who enjoy Westerns informed Olson that there are Western paperback readers and Western hardcover readers. These shelves were rearranged accordingly. Other customers told Olson there wasn't enough room for her behind the counter and said they plan to rearrange the cafe area sometime "when she isn't looking."

"The people who come in here chat, get to know each other, help each other out. To me, that's worth more than all the books," says Olson.

The Book Cafe is open Monday through Friday, from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m, except Tuesdays, when the cafe is open until 7 p.m. There's a bit of a rush each morning for that Door County Coffee, including Saturdays, when the cafe is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For now, Olson opens the cafe on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m., but that might change in October.

"There haven't been a whole lot of people coming here on Sundays during football season. So, we'll probably start closing on Sundays next month unless, like most things, I hear otherwise from people," says Olson.


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