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WATCH NOW: New owner says bookstore rooted in the community

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Pearl Street Books and its owner Beth Hartung

Beth Hartung, the new owner of Pearl Street Books at 323 Pearl St., says it is rooted in the community.

In fact, the words “Rooted in Community” are on the bookstore’s new logo, as are the words “Est. 2000” and an illustration of an oak tree.

“I really want that value to be lived,” said Hartung, who bought the business from founder Jim Auler In September. “I want this to be a place where the community can gather, where we’re helping to inform the community.”

The business has a number of places where people can sit and read or visit with each other, including on the mezzanine level that opened in early 2017 when Hartung began working for Auler at the independent bookstore.

“Pearl Street Books needed a place where people could sit down and relax and enjoy a book, where you could have book club meetings,” Hartung recalled. “So we emptied out the mezzanine,” which was being used to store books. “And we open it up as a place where people could sit and relax.”

Hartung also helped the bookstore increase its social media presence.

“Jim was looking for someone at some point who he would be comfortable to selling the store to, because he wanted to make sure that it could continue to thrive,” Hartung said.

That led to Auler selling the business to her and retiring. “He still will buy (used) books for me, when he’s out and about,” Hartung said. “So if he sees an estate sale or something, he’ll stop” and buy some books for the store. “And he’s there if I ever have any questions. Now he’s my consultant.”

Auler had opened Wees-Kon-San bookstore at 108 Fifth Ave. N. in 1998. In 2000, he moved the store to its current, much larger location and renamed it Pearl Street Books.

“I think Jim’s (business) model was really good,” Auler said of the store, where she has been organizing events.

“We’ve had some live music here,” she said. “With COVID, it’s difficult, because I want to keep people safe.”

She encourages but does not require customers to wear face masks inside the store. “We have a large supply of free masks” in case a customer needs one, she said.

“Some of my friends have played music in the store, just to create more of an atmosphere where people will maybe come in and talk,” Hartung said. “We encourage people to sit and read. You don’t have to buy a book. You can just come in and pick a used book off the shelf and sit and read it.

“Authors also have come in here to do book signings or talk about their book,” Hartung said. “We’ve had a couple of them in to try to test the waters and see how we can keep people safe by spreading them out.”

She hopes to resume meetings of book clubs that haven’t been held recently at the store because of COVID-19 concerns.

Pearl Street Books has an inventory of about 55,000 books. About 95 percent of them are used, Hartung said

The store has a number of antique (at least 100-year-old) books.

It also has special sections, such as one for books about Wisconsin, another for books about nearby states, and another for books by local authors.

“We also buy books from our customers,” Hartung said. “We’ll do it in store credit or cash. We do recommend you call in advance and make sure that I’m going to be here” if someone wants to sell a book to the store.

Hartung, who has three part-time employees, said Pearl Street Books also sells on consignment such things as locally made jewelry, postcards and art.

Hartung said her store and others nearby act as good neighbors by promoting each other to customers. “It makes a huge difference if you shop somewhere local,” she said. Owners of local stores hire local people and often know the first names of their customers, she said.

Pearl Street Books has done well this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Hartung said.

“People maybe have a little bit more time to read” because of the pandemic, she said. “But I also think there’s been a shift in our community about buying locally. I think people are buying gifts or gift cards here to support a local business. We’ve had a really good month.”

Hartung was raised on a dairy farm in Dunn County and received a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in education, both from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She held jobs in the education and nonprofit fields before going into the book business.

“I’ve wanted to own a bookstore since I was a little kid,” Hartung said.

“I enjoy the people,” Hartung said. “This is a happy place because you’re finding books for people. It’s a good business environmentally, because we’re trying to keep books out of the landfill and re-using them. And we’re helping to expand people’s worlds through books. Most people who come into a bookstore are so pleasant and wonderful.”

Pearl Street Books draws customers from as far away as the Twin Cities; Rochester, Minn.; and Madison and Milwaukee, Hartung said. She said they are drawn to the store by “A big selection, good prices and a beautiful environment. And people continuously say they don’t see bookstores like this even in Madison.”

The bookstore is a tenant in the historic J. Burgermeister Building, constructed of brick in 1885. The building is being renovated by Meraki Properties, LLC, which purchased it in 2020.


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