Frank Mente sells books, cheap, at Gallery Books
The sign that greets you as you walk into Gallery Books, 2124 E. Rusk Ave., references a book published in 1919, and informs customers not only that the book shop is "haunted" but that their "ghost" will be with them shortly.
The meaning of the sign is deeply layered. Suffice it to say that the book takes place in a bookshop, but not a haunted one – and this shop isn't either – the sign is supposed to suggest that the "ghosts" awaiting you are the power within the books themselves.
But to fully understand that you either need to be familiar with the thrillers of early 20th century writer Christopher Morley or be a book lover and collector for over 30 years.
Frank Mente is both, although he doesn't read often. The owner of Gallery Books says he reads too intently, weighing each word which makes it too time consuming. But Mente knows the value of books, both for resale and for the knowledge these ghosts of the past provide.
Next to the sign is a print of the 1850 painting "The Bookworm," by Carl Spitzweg.
"It reminds me of two old geezers running a bookshop – like me and Malcolm," says Mente, who opened the bookstore in January 1983 with business partner Malcolm Nelson.
Nelson moved to Florida after his mother died a few years ago, leaving Mente the sole proprietor of Gallery Books.
The little book store in Bay View is tucked nicely in the middle of a row of storefronts alongside the old Bay Theater building at the corner of Delaware and Rusk Avenues. An inconspicuous sign mounted near the door over the sidewalk simply reads "Books."
"A customer bought that for me, on the Internet, I think," says Mente, whose old, wood "Gallery Books" sign deteriorated and had to be taken down.
Space for people in the store is tight. Upon entering, you can either walk to shelves directly ahead and continue on to Mente's office behind them or turn to the left or right. The shelves ahead contain mysteries, pulp fiction and books turned into films and TV shows or vice versa.
Turning to the left rewards you with two aisles of floor to near-ceiling shelves with titles in multiple areas, such as local and regional, Irish / Ireland, philosophy, social criticism, poetry, psychology, cookbooks, war, German, Latin, French literature, religion, history, mythology and archeology.
Turning to the right takes you to stacks of movie-related titles, westerns, some college annuals, and many children's and juvenile books. A small stock room fills the limited space behind the shelves on the right.
Books aren't just lined up on shelves, they are on top of other books and in boxes on the floor. In fact, all available space in the store is full of books, except for the aisles and where curiosities of various sizes reside, such as an 18-inch tall Louis Armstrong statue.
Mente seems to know where things are, including a copy of a June 1986 Milwaukee Magazine in which Gallery Books is mentioned in the margin of a brief for a business then located down the street – and which Mente showed this author upon first entering the store to conduct an interview.
"I always thought we'd get written about," Mente says, wistfully but without the slightest hint of "what-took-you-so-long."
The bookseller is erudite and witty. A former insurance inspector going on 82 years old, Mente says the book store was always just "an adjunct to my hobby" and that the city made him turn his otherwise privately-kept collection into a store "because I had a window."
But that was years ago. Mente originally had a space in the Marshall Building, 207 E. Buffalo St., but the building's former owner, real estate developer George Bockl, raised his rent from $100 to $300. (This was in the early '70s, when Bockl instituted his plans to transition the building into an "entrepreneurial incubator," plans which eventually transformed all of the Third Ward from a warehouse district into what it is today.)
An odd coincidence, Bockl was also the man who sold Mente's mother's home when she died 75 years ago, which also sent 7-year-old Mente to an orphanage.
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Thanks, milyorkee. It's true: Frank Mente really is just there for three hours Friday and Saturday. I last stopped by Renaissance in February and the notice from the department of neighborhood services that deemed the building "unfit for human habitation" last October was still there. I don't know about now; might be time to look into it. Robert John's Renaissance books at Gen. Mitchell is still open, though.
Nice article. Never knew about this place. Is he really only open Friday and Saturday for three hours? Speaking of bookstores...whatever happened to Renaissance Books? Last I heard they were shut down for structural issues. Have they moved their stuff? Re-opened?
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