By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jun 02, 2013 at 9:02 AM

According to a handwritten sign in the window, Schroeder Used Books and Music, 7629 W. Greenfield Ave., is open from 9 a.m. until midnight. However, the co-owner, Alma, says the shop is always open.

Even if the doors are locked and the lights are out, customers are encouraged to call Alma – her phone number is also on the sign – and she’ll come over, day or night, and open up the place. Sometimes she’s sleeping inside and can let customers in right away, other times she might be a few minutes or hours away and will inform them when she could meet.

When we stopped in last week, Alma was propped up in her usual corner a few feet from the doorway, sitting on a stack of magazines, wearing a lopsided wig, unwashed dress and a leather fanny pack. She was surrounded by garbage and half-eaten food items and stacks and stacks of movies. She flashed a huge smile as soon as she saw us.

William Schroeder owns the bookshop, but Alma (who would not disclose her last name) is his life and business partner. She says she first met Schroeder 56 years ago when he came into Artists and Display, 9015 W. Burleigh St., where she worked for 24 years.

Schroeder owned two bookshops Downtown, both called Schroeder Books and Records, and would sometimes stop into the art store to buy materials for sign making.

"We only said ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ for many years," says Alma.

When Schroeder offered her a job at his bookshops, she didn’t want to take it, but her sister encouraged her to do so.

Alma says the 6th Street bookstore was destroyed by a fire and later the 7th Street bookshop was forced to move to make way for what are now the Library Hill Apartments.

"It is terrible to move a bookstore. Terrible. There were 500,000 boxes," says Alma.

Schroeder’s is both chaotic and yet somewhat organized. There are labeled sections as well as massive piles and teetering stacks of books, records, cassette tapes, DVDs, VHS tapes, 8 tracks, reel-to-reels, old magazines (including an impressive selection of vintage porn), comic books, TV guides, appliance manuals, encyclopedias, stuffed animals and much, much more.

It’s a bit overwhelming – especially when you realize that there are rows of books and records behind the seemingly endless rows of books and records. It's also a bit surprising that Schroeder’s doesn’t smell worse, considering the amount of uneaten and exposed food left in nooks and crannies.

"William has things in here from day one," says Alma. "Just when you think you should put something in storage, someone will buy it."

Even though she spends most of her time in a bookstore, Alma says she is neither a writer nor a reader.

"I never was a reader. We lived on a farm with one kerosene lamp and we didn’t have the money to pay for the kerosene. We lived by candlelight. So when we got home from school, everything was dark," she says. "I don’t think I could read a book. My parents never read. I read those little books in kindergarden, but reading a book, or a story or a novel? I couldn’t do that."

And yet, Alma has an appreciation for books.

"Throwing away books is crazy. Old books should be kept, not thrown away. Those writers took a lot of time and energy to write these books. Especially back then. Now they just slop it together to make money, but then it would take years and years to write a book," she says.

Alma, now 83, was born in Milwaukee and lived on a farm in Michigan for 10 years with her family before moving back to Milwaukee. Today, she says she and Schroeder live "everywhere."

"We’re like the movie stars. People don’t know if we’re coming or going," she says.

In the ‘30s, Alma and her family raised rabbits, pigeons and Guinea pigs. She says they sold the pigs to hospitals for experiments and ate the rabbits. She says her father built roads along Milwaukee’s lakefront and was often given groceries for payment.

"All they gave us was salt pork and my father liked meat so he grew the rabbits. When we sold the Guinea pigs we’d get $7 or $8 and that was a lot of meat in those days: pork chops, sausages," she says.Alma remembers going to local farmers markets as a kid and her dad "sweet talking" the farmers into giving them free lettuce for the rabbits.

"And sometimes their coconuts would break open and they’d give them to us for free, too. Or we ate out of garbage cans. My uncle said, ‘Don’t eat that, you’re going to get poisoned.’ But I’m still here."

Some of Schroeder’s stock is priced, but Alma does a fair share of on-the-spot pricing. She definitely knows the market. Nothing’s dirt cheap and the prices for the most part are fair. And she’ll haggle – especially if she likes you. During our visit, a teenaged boy offered her 35 cents for a book marked $3 and she shrugged and dropped the coins in her fanny pack.

That’s not to say there isn’t the opportunity to find a treasure or two. Alma says one of her customers who "dresses like a million dollars" is from New York and travels all over the world, but always stops in at Schroeder’s when she’s in town and claims it’s her favorite bookstore.

Another customer found a jazz record he had been trying to find for 20 years.

"I would have sold it to him for $9, but he gave me $150. He said ‘I’m just so glad I found this,’" she says.

Business these days, she says, is the same as it ever was. Unpredictable and just not lucrative enough.

"It’s the same as it always was. Never any different. No one’s gonna make millions of dollars on a bookstore," she says. "We need money. But where else are we gonna get it? We can’t shake down a tree."

Alma says she never had children, but Schroeder has five kids. She claims together they own properties, storage units and businesses, but they are in "way over their heads" and in need of money.

"We own everything under the sun, except the sun," she says, laughing.

Richard is Alma’s only employee and has worked at the bookshop for five years. He designs the window displays which are packed with carefully arranged stuffed animals, statues, dolls, knick knacks and books. He also changes all of the lightbulbs.

"Those are my two talents: electronics and decorating," he says, "I had some Bugs Bunnies hanging up there (points to one of the large storefront windows), but I took ‘em down. That’s what I do."

"Richard’s a hard worker," Alma says. "He does a good job on the decorating as long as he doesn’t fly through the window." (They both laugh.)

Alma says, for now, she is not buying any more books from the public because they have so many already. She says they used to travel to buy collections, but these days, people are willing to part with their items more readily because they prefer to read online or need money.

"More and more people are unemployed and they’re selling whatever they can. They’re going back to live with their parents. They’re selling everything. People graduate from school and what do they do? Go back and live with their parents. People are going to college in Tallahassee and they’re living in cardboard boxes to get through college. It’s rough. Going to college – what good does it do? You can’t get a job and you live with your parents.

"People are living in their cars. Ten people live in one home now. The big leaders are getting all the money. There won’t be no middle class people – just poor and rich. It’s a lot worse than what they’re telling the people. And the interest rates? Forget it. You might as well save your money in a garbage can," she says, laughing.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.