Frank Mente sells books, cheap, at Gallery Books
Mente grew up to graduate from Marquette with a degree in journalism. His first job was as writer, photographer and occasional printer for the West Allis Star. He went on to be a construction reporter for the Dodge Corporation, writing copy about buildings, and had a long career in the insurance industry, writing reports and inspecting buildings.
"All I got for severance from (the last company he worked) were the file cabinets and the desk I still have in the back of the store," says Mente.
Children's books are what brought Mente into book selling. He enjoyed collecting children's lit from the '20s and '30s and still carries many of these – and older – shunning more "recent" books like the '50s Dick and Jane series.
"Malcolm was the devil who got me collecting all this other stuff," says Mente of his former partner.
Nelson started his collection by frequenting the Milwaukee Public Library during a time in the '70s when it was discarding many books, including from the rare books collection, for 25 cents.
"Malcolm got a first edition 'Gone with the Wind' for a quarter. He tried to sell it locally for $40, but eventually sent it to Swann Gallery in New York, where it sold for $600," says Mente. "It was actually worth over a thousand."
Nelson knew the worth of that edition and many others that he and Mente sold for well under their "book-value." Most things at Gallery Books sell for six to 10 percent of their real value.
Mente declares his "satisfaction" with this. Like some booksellers with niches in poetry or mysteries or antiquarian, Mente's seems to be in selling things dirt cheap.
"I sold a mint-condition, first edition 'Call of the Wild' for $40 eight years ago. It was worth $3,500 then and it's worth $10,000 now," says Mente.
Hundreds of vinyl records are lined up on a low shelf in front of the shop over a radiator. They are all soundtracks from Broadway shows and Hollywood films and are all listed at 90 percent off the collector price, which Mente often also marks on the LP.
Mente also has about 20,000 vinyl records at his house, mostly jazz, which is his personal favorite.
He used to bring records to sell at Serb Hall and on one of these occasions he got the idea to only bring soundtracks. Afterward, Mente brought the records to the store temporarily, the store being closer to the Hall than his home.
"That was 10 years ago," he says.
Mente is a lifelong bachelor, the kind who is sadly familiar with unrequited love.
"Oh, I loved a woman. Camille. She ditched me. But I ran into her in Miami, along with her mother and brother, Nick, who was working there selling shoes in a Miami Beach mall. Can you believe that? A chance encounter, all of us from Milwaukee in Miami. I drove her around in my car – I had my car there – we went to the theater," says Mente.
But when Mente returned to Milwaukee Camille didn't keep in touch.
The man who loves books for their colors and variety as much as their content also loves stick ball. He has a collection of American League hardballs and bats, which he played into his forties.
"I love the crack of those old bats. Sure, they're worth money, but I never wanted to sell them. I wanted to use them," says Mente.
Mente remembers the day Johnny Logan, Milwaukee Braves shortstop from '53 to '61, was in Milwaukee with his son (he lived in Madison) and approached Mente and his brother, who were playing stickball in the street on the near South Side.
"'Can we play with you?' he asks. We said, 'of course!' He was smoking a cigarette and he never let go of it, not while pitching, not batting," says Mente.
Mente, the man who was once a boy going to ball games at Borchert Field on Chambers Street, is still a Brewers fan but finds it inconvenient to go to games. He doesn't have cable and so only catches a game or two a season.
Gallery Books doesn't have a website, Facebook page or a phone. It's open Fridays and Saturdays from 5:15 to 8:15 p.m. in order to accommodate an old mass schedule at, and Mente's travel time from, St. Stanislaus on Saturdays.
"Why have different hours on the other day? It's just easier this way," says Mente.
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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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