Staged along Railroad Ave in Viroqua, Wisconsin are three beautiful old tobacco warehouses, each one wrapped in rust colored bricks that hold onto the sunlight like a child onto their blankets. One would be sufficient, but all three host tall, cavernous spaces begging for life. Residents of this small, Midwestern town are fortunate that, despite the collapse of the tobacco industry decades ago, these buildings are still being put to good use in the everyday lives of locals in what is now, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, known as “the warehouse district” of Viroqua.
One of the buildings —currently under new ownership and waiting for its new purpose— was previously a palatial flea market, stretching the length of a city block and stuffed with dusty relics of every imaginable classification. As a child, I remember getting lost in there for hours, my mind spinning tales of magic and mystery as I wandered between the shelves and stacks of that calm and cool place.
The second behemoth has been turned into a home, office spaces, an Airbnb apartment, and a recently added co-working space —unusual for a town of this size. The inside of Warehouse One & Workspace reflects the inspired and eclectic style of the family who lives there, including “big blue Jimi” —a floor to ceiling mural of Jimi Hendrix, cast in blue. Every moment spent Warehouse One feels like a trip into another place, another era, something of sophisticated cities and spinning lives.
The third warehouse is the main character of this story — a space we have all come to love for its peacefulness, it’s malleability, its enchanting atmosphere and its consistency as a soulful respite for readers and artists alike.
“Driftless Books”, “Driftless Books and Music”, “The Forgotten Works Warehouse” — call it what you will— this warehouse full of nearly a half-million used books has become lovingly referred to as “The Bookstore” amongst local Viroquians and devotees. As a writer, I wrestle with the fact that even though it is a space chock full of words, no combination of nouns, verbs and adjectives seem to adequately describe it. Even the bathroom — collaged in everything from old posters to stickers to interesting pages of books— is a work of art in and of itself.
This building wasn’t always the marvelous space it has become today. There was a time when it too was just another one of the warehouses, stuffed full of dusty old relics from the tobacco hey-day. For many years, it sat empty — it’s potential unfulfilled. Today, the life story of what we now know as “The Bookstore” is a story of serendipity. Local folk are fortunate to have this magnet of arts and literature in our little town, and it could never have happened without the man who started it all: Eddy Nix.
For those who don’t know him, Eddy is easily recognized as the bearded, smiling fellow who can usually be found either filling up his coffee mug at The Viroqua Food Co-op or in the titanic brick building nestled between Warehouse One and the old train depot. Entering the building, one is enveloped in an atmosphere akin to the original Powell Books in Portland, Oregon, and with few exceptions, Eddy will personally welcome every visitor — taking time away from wrapping rare books in brown paper for shipping (part of his online business), or processing new inventory — to greet old friends or invite newcomers into the space — and the moment you step inside it feels like home. With loving attention and a great deal of time, Eddy has turned a dusty, cavernous space into a bohemian masterpiece —covering the walls with an eclectic mash-up of artwork, stickers, vintage posters, and books, installing rolling shelves that can be moved aside to accommodate musical acts and their audiences, placing couches and chairs to create cozy spots for readers and browsers to relax and drift off for a while, and ultimately cultivating an atmosphere that allows people to take a step back in time, away from their everyday busy lives and just breathe, browse, observe, and imagine.
When I interviewed Eddy last winter and asked him, “Why a bookstore?” he answered with, “Well, bookstores have always been the most comfortable sort of commercial place. I have a hard time with Wal Marts and malls and hyper-capitalism and consumerism, so bookstores are kind of an antidote to hyper-consumerism where you can be a little relaxed, slow down, and take your time.”
Born in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1969, Eddy is a native of the Driftless region. Spending the entirety of his youth in La Crosse, he focused his energy on theater, traveling every summer to Minnesota where he partook in the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company. At sixteen, Eddy took his love of theater into his own hands and started a company called Sneakers, drawing students from seven different high schools in the La Crosse area.
Hit with curiosity and wanderlust as a senior in high school, Eddy realized he needed to get out and see the world. At the time, The Rotary Club was offering exchange programs to other countries, and soon he was off to South Africa, where he spent a year traveling around the country meeting people and giving talks about what it meant to be a teenager in America the 80s. He met a lot of people during that year, and he was amazed by both the differences and the similarities between cultures.
The end of his year in South Africa found Eddy back in Minneapolis, attending college and reengaged in the world of theater. This short stint was soon followed by a four-year stretch in Los Angeles, and that, by ten years traveling the U.S, South America and Europe. Always a bit of a book collector, Eddy tenaciously moved his ever-expanding collection around the world with him, until in 1993 when he returned to the Driftless area, landing at Dreamtime Village —an intentional community located outside of West Lima, WI. There he focused on the shared intentions of plants, permaculture and art, and would call DV home until 1999, when he once again departed the Driftless —this time for four years in California where he had a daughter and was focused on media work and social justice issues.
As Eddy tells it, after moving back to the Driftless region in 2004 “the whole book thing happened within a couple of weeks..I was just at this sort of midlife crises in my 30s, wondering what to do next, and I had been carrying around these books — half of a truck full— I thought I should just have a little bookstore.”
Hearing Eddy articulate it in just that way: “a little bookstore” invites a little chuckle as we stand enveloped by nearly half a million books stacked around us. What has manifested itself into the bookstore today is anything but little. Today, the question of how many books are housed in the Forgotten Works Warehouse is almost impossible to answer. “We like to say ¼ of a million, but I think it’s closer to ½ a million, you know 500,000, if you include everything in the basement, and if you include all the sheet music and postcards there’s well over a million things here.”
After deciding that a bookstore would be his next move, the pieces quickly fell into place. He began researching and buying up the inventories of old bookstores that were going out of business and began looking for a place to call home. For five years, the old post office building in Viola worked as a temporary resting place and was mostly used to get inventory online and the word out. Shortly thereafter, however, Eddy realized that Viola, WI (population: 689) did not have much draw for book-buyers, and after a flood engulfed the first floor of the building it was time to find a new home.
“Then this place showed up, which was kind of a serendipitous moment. The owner of this building just gave it to me (yes, for free!) We’ll call it “guerilla philanthropy.” So we moved everything here and just started a bookstore.”
Housed in the warehouse since 2009, the bookstore has ceaselessly grown, changed and developed —all part of an expanding vision that Eddy hopes will continue. It is a collage of culture and content in a way none could have imagined in the early days, and has now evolved into much more than just a bookstore. Today it is a venue, hosting everything from talented musicians traveling between Madison and Minneapolis, to high school events, to local punk bands to solstice potlucks and most recently, a local flea market. Eddy continues to open his incredibly versatile space to fill holes of community needs and breathe new life into the musical and cultural scene of Viroqua:
“It’s as though the books are a front for conviviality and social interaction is what you hope. I made some different spaces in different places like this but without the books, and so the problem with an art space or a music space or a theater space is that that crowd goes to see it. So with a bookstore, it’s a little more inclusive. Anyone can kind of make an excuse to come in here and pick something up. And thru that the community gets to have another place to interact and socialize and create, you know, which is the hope. It’s kind of like a blank slate but with all these books as background.”
Eddy’s hopes for the future of the bookstore are that it just continues to refine itself. As he says, “There is endless order to be made out of the chaos.” Though the future has yet to be played out, there is little doubt that The Bookstore will continue to be an iconic part of Viroqua culture, providing a welcoming space for travelers, artists and those who seek momentary respite from our fast paced modern world.