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.
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.
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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