The long-running independent bookstore will lose its downtown space to redevelopment.
Independent bookstore A Room of One’s Own is leaving the State Street area after 46 years of doing business downtown, ahead of a massive proposed development that calls for demolishing its current building at 315 W. Gorham St. Co-owner Gretchen Treu says the store is close to finalizing a lease for a new space on Madison’s near-east side, and anticipates moving on a “spring into early summer” timeline.
“I’m not at liberty to say exactly where yet, but it will be in the Atwood area,” Treu says. “It’s going to be really exciting. It’s going to be a much more stable situation… in terms of whether it will get developed out from under us.”
The Wisconsin State Journal reported on Wednesday night that Core Spaces, the developer of high-rise gentrification landmarks like The Hub and The James, is planning a new 10-story apartment and retail building that would take up most of the 300 block of State Street. Pending approval from a city government that tends to roll over in the face of aggressive development, the project would displace several other businesses, including Community Pharmacy, PowerNine Games, Casa de Lara, and the Red Rock Saloon.
Treu and co-owner Wes Lukes have known for quite some time that the store would need to move by 2022 at the latest. Treu credits the store’s current landlord, Urban Land Interests, with helping the business prepare.
“The clear implication was that they planned to redevelop here, so this isn’t a total surprise for us,” Treu says. “It’s just the worst timing in terms of COVID and everything.”
Treu isn’t ready to tip their hand with too many hints about the planned new location, but is “98 percent sure,” as of Thursday afternoon, that it will happen. “It’s really beautiful,” Treu says. “There’s gonna be a lot of good natural light in it.” The planned new space is a little smaller than Room’s current location, so the store will have to make a few changes to work with that, including tightening up its selection of used books, Treu says.
The store will be making an announcement on Thursday evening through its email newsletter, and will release further details there as well as through its Twitter and Instagram accounts. Staffers have also set up a dedicated email address—[email protected] —for people to send their questions, concerns, and memories. Treu regrets that it likely won’t be safe to have a blowout goodbye celebration or sale for the downtown space, so they want to make the effort to commemorate it in other ways.
“I’m looking forward to hearing people’s memories of this space, because obviously I have a lot of them,” Treu says. “I was a baby queer who came to Room when I was 15, and like, bought a Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist chocolate bar to give to my first girlfriend, that kind of thing. This has been an important business to me for all of my adolescence and adulthood.”
A Room of One’s Own opened in 1975 on West Johnson Street, and this isn’t the first time that the rapid gentrification of downtown has forced it to move. Eric Hovde’s massive Ovation development pushed the store out of its space at 307 W. Johnson St., and in 2011 Room moved into its current space, which previously housed Avol’s Books and Canterbury Booksellers. Co-owners Sandi Torkildson and Nancy Geary put the store on the market in 2016, but took their time weighing offers and considered turning the store into a cooperative. Treu and Lukes, both employees at the time, took over the store in 2018, with fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss as a silent partner.
The history of 315 W. Gorham goes deeper than books, too. Among other things, it once housed The Factory, a music venue that hosted some downright legendary acts in the 1960s.
“This space has been so many different things,” Treu says. “Jimi Hendrix played here. Otis Redding, when he died, he was on a plane that crashed in Lake Monona, coming here, to this building, to play.”
“I’ve been working downtown for 17 years,” Treu adds. “I went to college here and I had a volunteer gig at Rainbow Bookstore, and seeing what happened to them sucked.” That store, literally in the shadow of Core Spaces’ Hub development, closed in 2016 after 27 years as Madison’s other crucial hub for radical literature.
Room has always been a political and explicitly feminist space, and the current ownership and staff have put their own joyfully radical, abolitionist stamp on things. Room staff member Misian Taylor touched off a nationwide movement called Bookstores Against Borders in the summer of 2019, taking a stance against the Trump Administration’s gruesome immigration policies and raising money for the immigration legal-aid organization RAICES. It started with just Room, but as word spread, Taylor realized the campaign’s potential, and drew in dozens of small bookstores and publishers across the country, eventually raising more than $100,000. For a recent gift guide and line of new sweatshirts, the store commissioned art from Madison’s own Terrence Adeyanju (below) that explicitly supports police abolition, sex workers, and Black and queer liberation.
During the 2020 protests and riots against racism and police violence, Room was among a handful of downtown businesses that expressed full-throated support for the protests and declined to make property destruction the central issue. Civic and business-community leaders have been keen to focus on the damage from the riots, less so on the rapid gentrification that has been driving up downtown rents for years with their encouragement, combined with the crushing economic pressures of a pandemic. For a few months, the store had plywood boards up over its windows bearing quotes from Angela Davis and James Baldwin, and reminding passersby that “Stonewall was a riot.” Despite Madison’s (often exaggerated) reputation as a hotbed of radical leftist politics, Room was a marked outlier in its stance.
A Room of One’s Own has also adapted to the pandemic. The store has been taking online orders for delivery and contactless pickup, developed a subscription box program, and continues to hold online book events. Treu sounds pretty optimistic about the state of the book world, pointing to developments like Roxane Gay’s Audacious Book Club. They’re also, of course, reading a lot of new books they’re excited about, including forthcoming titles from Rivers Solomon, Angela Davis, and Hanif Abdurraqib.
“We haven’t had customers inside our store for close to a year, but we’ve been doing fine,” Treu says. “Our sales aren’t actually down that much compared to 2019. We feel really supported by the community.”
Leaving this particular space, and leaving downtown, will be hard on a lot of levels, Treu acknowledges. “My kid Oliver said something really sweet, like, ‘I want to leave this heart I drew on the bookstore because I know we’re gonna leave this space and I want it to remember me and how much I loved running around the bookshelves,'” Treu says. Then again, it proved impossible for the store to find an affordable space downtown that wasn’t also vulnerable to redevelopment, and moving to the Atwood neighborhood promises to be a refreshing change.
“There’s a lot of things about downtown that have become pretty frustrating,” Treu says. “I have little kids. It’s really hard to get your family downtown. During COVID, the economic hardships and the ways downtown has gone during COVID, has not been very impressive.”
Treu says they haven’t heard from downtown Alder Mike Verveer, who is quoted in this week’s State Journal story on the development. “It would have been nice to have our elected officials come and talk to us about things like this that affect us,” Treu says. Core Spaces has also not reached out to Room about possibly accommodating the store in a retail space in the planned new development.
Verveer, in an email Thursday night after the initial publication of this piece, replied: “I was emphatically asked by the Core Spaces development team not to approach any of the impacted business. The development team stated to me in our first conversation that Urban Land Interests owner Tom Neujahr was personally working to notify and assist each of the impacted businesses. They did not want me to get involved. I feel awful that Gretchen and Wes feel slighted by me. I will certainly attempt to make amends…. [T]he very first concern that I raised with Core Spaces was the impact on the existed beloved businesses. I reminded them of the very unpleasant experience of the several impacted State Street restaurants that were forced to close or relocate when the Hub was built.”