WWII, Gertrude Stein & Poetry: The History Of The Bookstore At General Mitchell Airport

Sep 7, 2018

Walk into the public area of Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport, and you’ll see traditional airport sights: monitors for departures, places to grab coffee and food. But you’ll also see a 2,600-square-foot used bookstore, Renaissance Books.

The latest Bubbler Talk — our series that allows you to ask WUWM questions about Milwaukee —  takes us to the bookshop. Question asker Susie Hoglund, of Shorewood:

"What is the history of the used-book store in the General Mitchell Airport?"

Milwaukeeans and travelers who use the airport can thank two men for the bookstore: current owner Bob John and his older brother and the founder of Renaissance Books, the late George John.

Bob John is the current owner of Renaissance Books. His brother and store founder, George John, had an interesting path to opening the bookshop. Bookseller Jim Rosenbaum is at the register.
Credit Maayan Silver

Peak Poet

George's connection to the literary world goes beyond Milwaukee County — and even before the bookshop — back to World War II.

That’s when he encountered one of the most famous writers of that modernist period — Gertrude Stein. She was an American ex-pat in Europe who ran a salon for artists in Paris with her partner Alice B. Toklas. George had gone to Europe as an ambulance driver in the American Field Service during that time. But he didn't just drive an ambulance.

READ: The Archive of Gertrude Stein from The Poetry Foundation

"He was in Paris at the end of WWII after liberation and was a poet," says Renaissance bookseller Jim Rosenbaum. "He had a whole portfolio of his efforts, and he walked over to Gertrude Stein’s apartment and knocked on the door and was totally surprised when Gertrude Stein actually opened the door. And he dropped all the poems on the sidewalk, and she helped him pick them up."

Gertrude Stein, shown here in 1934, was a famous novelist and poet who saw promise in George John.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Stein, apparently, was no stranger to servicemen coming to her door. Toklas wrote that they’d come to Stein’s door to try and get a rise out of her. "And they’d copy poems out of John Donne or Chaucer or somebody, and they’d give her their poems. But she was not fooled, and she wasn’t happy by being the butt of a joke," says Jim. "But with George John, she really appreciated a true poet."

Stein saw that George was different. Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine, says Toklas’ writings confirm this, as do the accounts of literary critic Henry Rago. Rago was there when Stein invited George to come over and discuss his poems. Stein would give input, Rago says, and she knew quickly the poems she liked and didn't like.

In 1947, Poetry magazine published George's work called "Four Poems."

"For a lot of people being in Poetry magazine kind of puts them on the map," says Don. "That’s what happened with T.S. Eliot and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It seems not to have happened with George John, exactly."

George published the book "A Garland about Me" in 1951, which Rago later critiqued. Don Share read Rago's critique of George's works

"He said John is going to have to learn carefulness in his own way. What things to leave in his notebook as mere fumblings. What things to recognize as genuine penetrations. What sort of music is good in poetry, and what sort is a nuisance," says Don. "When a feeling is about a poem and when a feeling is about a feeling." 

Opening Up Shop

By getting into Poetry magazine, George had reached the heights of the poetry world. So, how did he come to open a used bookstore? 

“I think in the late '50s he was unemployed for a period of time, and he liked books. And he basically did it against assorted advice, and the rest is, sorta history,” says Bob, George's brother and current Renaissance Bookstore owner.

After working at various bookstores, George opened his own in downtown Milwaukee in 1959 on a tight budget. It moved locations quite a bit over the next few decades. It last occupied a space on N. Plankinton St. from 1976, when Bob took over. The Plankinton location closed in 2011 and was later demolished.

In the late '70s, a small business in the airport — part concession, part books — closed. Bob says the Association of Commerce sent a letter encouraging him to get space at the airport.

Renaissance Books was in General Mitchell Airport in the 1980s.
Credit Courtesy of Mitchell International Airport

Bob applied and got the space in the airport: originally in the C concourse. It then moved into the public area of the airport and has expanded a few times. Rosenbaum says Bob has really helped push the airport store along and make it the place it is today.

And as for George, Poetry magazine Editor Don Share says that even though he didn’t go on to infamy in poetry, opening a bookstore like this is a real legacy.

" ... For those of us who love poetry, where would we be without bookstores?" - Don Share

"After all, for those of us who love poetry, where would we be without bookstores?" adds Don. "And being able to browse and make our own way through poetry and literature, so it really was kind of a happy ending there."

After getting her Bubbler Talk question answered, Susie Hoglund shared her two cents. “Yeah, a bookstore is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.” She adds it speaks highly of Milwaukee that there's the support for used and independent bookstores.

Renaissance Bookstore celebrates its 40th anniversary next August.

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