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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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Half a million books make Renaissance a treasure trove


When you read about Robert John and his Renaissance Book Shop in the Milwaukee media, the stories usually focus on the bookseller's battles with the city over property rights and the construction of the Riverwalk. But it's a shame that few often talk about what a treasure, albeit a dusty one, John's shop is in downtown Milwaukee.

It has a fairly ramshackle image, but Renaissance is definitely one book that you shouldn't judge by its cover. The stairs might creak under your feet, but they'll lead you to a selection unmatched in southeastern Wisconsin.

Sure, there are other used bookshops in town, but none can match the scale of Renaissance, 834 N. Plankinton Ave., which has four large floors packed, from floor to ceiling, with books. And, while in the past it may have been difficult to locate the gems at Renaissance and figure out their prices, nowadays, most everything is alphabetized and has a price clearly marked.

If you're just looking for a cheaper copy of a recent Danielle Steel title, Renaissance may not be the place for you, but searching out hardcover fiction -- maybe something by Gunter Grass, Alberto Moravia or Pearl Buck -- from throughout the 20th century? Then this is your place. How about a great '50s paperback with a collectible cover? Renaissance has one of the city's largest paperback collections.

"We try to cover a little bit of everything," employee Henry Smith told OnMilwaukee. "Variety brings in a variety of people. People walk in and are in awe. We beat some libraries in terms of what we've got."

For proof of this, take a gander at Renaissance's stuffed art, history and other non-fiction sections, as well as poetry, mystery, sci-fi, westerns, true crime and the aforementioned ficion collection. They've also got piles of LPs, magazines, travel guides, books in French and German, Wisconsin history, science...

In fact, Renaissance -- which has been downtown since 1976 -- can boast an inventory that easily numbers a half million or more titles.

That means there's still the alluring challenge of the hunt, but it also means there's the thrill of discovery. Where else in Milwaukee can one find not only a biography of 18th century Italian poet and playwright Vittorio Alfieri, but also an English translation of Alfieri's memoirs and a compendium of some of his most important works?

And, by the way, at the time of writing, Renaissance's southern foundation was being shored up and a new facade was in the works. So, soon, you may be able to judge this hefty tome by its cover.

And, no, you can't get a skim latte with a flavor shot there.

Call Renaissance at (414) 271-6850. A second location, with more than 60,000 books in stock, welcomes deplaners on the main concourse at Mitchell International Airport, (414) 747-4526. You can get free parking for up to two hours with a purchase.

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