It’s been nearly 40 years since Jim Auler began selling books at his Uncle Scooter’s store in the Madison suburb of Sun Prairie, Wis.
Today, at age 69, Auler still enjoys reading and talking with others about books at his Pearl Street Books store at 323 Pearl St. in downtown La Crosse.
Auler moved to La Crosse in 1993. After holding some other jobs, he got back into the book business in 1998 by opening Wees-Kon-San bookstore at 108 Fifth Ave. N. downtown.
In 2000, he moved his La Crosse store to its current, much larger location and renamed it Pearl Street Books. Its inventory has grown to about 55,000 books, up from a few thousand at the Fifth Avenue location.
Used books account for most — and a growing part — of the store’s business. But it also sells new books, such as New York Times best-sellers.
Pearl Street Books also has antique books. “We have quite a few that are over 100 years old,” Auler said. The store also carries books by local authors, as well as prints and greeting cards produced by local photographers and artists.
Besides what it has in stock, Auler said, the store can procure almost any book that a customer might be looking for.
“It’s been a modest success,” he said of Pearl Street Books, although online sales have had a negative effect on brick-and-mortar bookstores such as his in recent years. “We stayed steady during the economic downturn” of the last recession, said Auler, who has three employees.
Auler and a new employee, events coordinator Beth Hartung, have come up with additional activities to draw more shoppers and make the bookstore more of a gathering place. Hartung, who joined the independent bookstore’s staff on Jan. 1, also has stepped up postings on its Facebook page.
Hartung introduced the Blind Date With a Book promotion that some other bookstores have used, during the second half of January and first half of February. Books were wrapped in brown paper and written clues gave shoppers an idea of what they were about. About 80 books were sold through that promotion, Hartung said.
Hartung also plans to hold a singles-night-type promotion on some Friday or Saturday night in the spring or early summer, to encourage singles to come to the store to mingle and browse. Some independent bookstores on the East Coast have been holding such promotions, she said.
In January, Auler opened the store’s mezzanine level to the public. “People can sit there and read,” said Auler, who is still inviting people to suggest a name for the space. The two most-mentioned possible names so far are The Loft and The Mezzanine.
“Writers are also welcome to come in and write” in the mezzanine space, and a few book clubs meet there, Hartung said.
“Tourists have a big impact here,” although most of the bookstore’s customers are local, Auler said.
“I was running out of room at the other place,” Auler said of the bookstore’s 2000 move to Pearl Street. “And this is such a beautiful building. Tourists love it.”
Constructed of brick in 1885, it’s known as the J. Burgermeister Building and many years ago housed Arenz Shoe Store. At the store’s two front entrances, the words “Arenz all leather shoes quality to the roots” are spelled out in tiny tiles.
“We get the nicest people here,” Auler said. That’s one of the things he most enjoys about owning a bookstore.
“It’s also nice to be your own boss,” Auler said. “It’s a nice lifestyle.”
Auler always has enjoyed reading and going to bookstores.
He’s been in the book business since 1978, when he purchased the Uncle Scooter’s used records and audiotapes store in Sun Prairie and added used books to its inventory. He had been collecting books for a few months, planning to open a bookstore.
In 1980, Auler moved the store to State Street in downtown Madison and changed its name to Penny Lane.
That was followed by his move to La Crosse in 1993 and his opening of Wees-Kon-San used bookstore in 1998. Auler moved it to the Pearl Street location in 2000, soon after Red Oak Books closed there.