From Chicago, where I live, it took me about three and a half hours to get there—three and a half long hours of winding, hilly roads that took me through some of the most picturesque farmland you’ll ever see.
Omro is a really small, sleepy town in central Wisconsin, a little outside of Oshkosh and about an hour southwest of Green Bay—a town so small that, if you’re driving through it and blink, you’ll probably miss it. As the flag in the upper left hand corner of this picture indicates, Omro is the epitome of Small Town, America—a perfect example of Americana. The downtown area lasts all of a few blocks and doesn’t have much more than a bank, a gas station, a few bait shops, a corner grocer, and a drugstore—all of the businesses are one side of Main Street. The other side of the street is residential. These are smaller, nuclear-family homes that haven’t been updated or remodeled since the 1950’s. I can just picture the Omro High School marching band—with all 15-25 members—marching down Main Street on the Fourth of July while kids follow suit with their sparklers, senior citizens lining the sidewalks on their lawn chairs, blue skies and the July sun smiling down upon them all.
These are the kind of people I expected to find in this town when I rolled in—people who knew all of their neighbors and waved “hello” to everyone passing through. And when I rang the doorbell of this seller’s house and was greeted by a tiny 80-plus year old woman who was every bit as delightful as I had imagined the townspeople would be, I felt safe and at home. She greeted me at the door and, in her quavering old voice, inquired, “May I help you, son?” “Yes,” I replied, “I’ve come in from Chicago; I was supposed to meet someone at this address who was going to sell me a book?” “Oh, yes, do come in and I’ll fetch him for you.”
I walked in the door and was amazed at the interior of this house—it was obviously a storefront at one time, as it was located on Main Street on the commercial side. The exterior of the building even had the frame of an awning still in place. The interior of the building had a wide open space, a big room that was probably, at one time, a store of some kind—I could imagine it being a pharmacy or a bakery, where a counter would have been installed along the left wall. However, this building had been converted into a home and, over the course of a few decades, had been again converted into a storage space for a massive personal library. The main room was filled with books—books in piles, on shelves, in boxes, covering the floor, covering the walls, stacked to the ceiling… Thousands of books! I stood in the vestibule of their home and just stood there, mouth ajar, ogling all of the books before me.
The little old woman said, “Now, you wait here, I’ll go find Joel for you,” and she left me to dumbfoundedly gape at the massive collection.
After a minute or so, I heard the little old woman coming back with her son and I overheard her saying, “The boy from the Flatlands is here to see you.” She turned the corner of the hallway and found me, introduced me to her son and then said, “I thought I heard a knocking on the door, but I wasn’t sure. Anyhow, he knew to ring the doorbell, so he must be somewhat intelligent!” and gave me a big, toothy grin that had a certain air of superiority to it and, just like that, my ideas of Americana perfection were shattered. I gave a nervous laugh and attempted to play it off, but I knew what was going on.
See, Wisconsin and Illinois have a bit of a rivalry that runs deeper than merely football—the citizens of both states, for whatever reason, have an intense dislike for each other. We’re like the Hatfields and the McCoys; the Kiwis and the Aussies; the Brits and the Micks. Wisconsinites call us Illinoisans “flat-landers” or “low-landers” and we refer to them as “cheeseheads”—no matter where you go in Wisconsin or Illinois, you’ll find locals ribbing their neighbors with such juvenile taunts and I’m really not sure why. They hate the way we Chicagoans drive, and we Chicagoans hate their insane state roads; they hate our accents, and we hate theirs. Really, I think that Wisconsinites are just jealous of the fact that we have Chicago, the greatest city in America and, despite their proximity, they can’t have it nearly as much as we can.
Regardless, I was far from home, a stranger in a strange land, and had suddenly become the victim of a geographical slur. The tiny old woman gave me that smug smile and waddled off into another part of the house and left me there with Joel, who gave me a firm handshake and invited me a few steps further into the house. Now, I kind of knew what to expect from this guy purely based on the couple of emails we had exchanged prior to this meeting: I sized him up to be kind of a blue-collar, tough guy. As it turned out, my estimation wasn’t too far off—he greeted me wearing a pair of faded navy blue Dickies, construction boots and a ratty old sweater that was coming apart at the seams.
Apparently, in Omro, he’s a bit of a local celebrity and professional fisherman—he owns his own ice fishing venture and rents out fishing equipment for a living. He’s also appeared on ESPN and made a couple instructional fishing videos. He was a rough guy, which I also induced from our correspondence: the first time I wrote him, I told him all about the Pulitzer Project and the rules that Joshua and I have set up for ourselves and explained that I needed this book, but had to buy it in person. I asked him if he could help me out and he wrote back “Ummmm??? Sounds like you are either gonna have to lie and cheat your ass off by hitting the “buy it now” button -or- Drive a hell of a long way to come pick it up…..”
I wrote him a second time and told him that I’d be available to pick it up on Tuesday and he replied: “Sure, I’ll be here with a good psychologist for you.”
He handed the book to me and a well of joy burst inside of me; I told him, “Joel, you have no idea how amazed I am to be holding this book right now.” He chuckled and quipped, “Man, you are a fuckin’ freak, dude!” Of course, I was a little taken aback by his completely inappropriate response, so I had to ask, “What makes you say that?” He replied, “Shit, man. You drove almost four fuckin’ hours, out to the middle of fuckin’ nowhere to buy a fuckin’ book. You are a straight-up book FREAK!” and chuckled to himself again. I bit the bullet and admitted, “Yeah, I supposed you’re right there. But I have to ask—how in the world did you end up with this book?? I have been searching for it this entire year and until last week, I had never even seen this guy’s name in print!” “Huh,” he replied, obviously uninterested. “I don’t know, man. All of these fuckin’ books are my parents’ and my grandparents’ shit. They’ve been collecting all these damned books for fuckin’ years and years and I don’t give two shits about readin’ so I’m just selling them all online. I’m gettin’ tired of packin’ all this shit up and moving it all the time so I just want to see it go.”
This made sense to me: the thousands of books that lined the walls, floor, and ceiling of the house had been collected by two generations of a family for the past hundred or so years. Most of the books were bought decades ago, read once, and have been sitting in boxes ever since. The copy of Honey In the Horn was printed in the 1960’s and is in almost mint condition—it doesn’t look like it’s even been read! I was probably the first one to crack the binding of it since the day it was bought almost 50 years ago.
Joel told me that he needed to look something up online for it and invited me to his office so I asked him, “Is it cool if I look around? I need five other books and, from what I’ve seen so far, I think it’s a fair assumption that you probably have a couple that I need in this massive collection of your’s.” He shot me a very serious look and replied, sternly, “No way dude. Nuh-uh. I can’t let you do that.” I thought he was kidding, so I laughed it off a bit, until he said, “No, really. I can’t let you look at my books.” Obviously I was dumbfounded and had to ask why. He said, very matter of factly, “Every now and then, I get a freak like you in my house, wanting to look at all my books. I used to let people do it but then it became a problem. I’d have people browsing around my house, looking at all these damn books like they’re getting off on it and I’d have to kick them out because they’d just look around for a couple of hours. I don’t want you fuckin’ book weirdos in my house lookin’ at my shit!”
I really couldn’t believe the lack of respect I was being shown. This guy was ridiculing me right to my face and all I was doing was trying to give him money!
“You want some books?” he asked, in a smug way. “Here: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Haven’t listed it yet. It’s your’s, free. Here have this one too,” as he tossed to me an old Roald Dahl book. “The Honey book is ten bucks, but I should probably just give it to you for free, just for being such a fuckin’ book freak, driving all the way up here from fuckin’ Chicago!” At least he had courtesy enough to write down the titles of the last couple books I need so that he could browse his collection for me. “You’re right,” he said, “My folks have been collecting this shit for years, so they probably have whatever you need.”
Before I knew it, I was back on the road, bewildered at the interaction I drove three and a half hours to have, but brimming with joy for being the proud new owner of Honey In the Horn. I drove alone, through the hilly farms of central Wisconsin to the sound of gunfire, echoing from the woods and fields, all around me. Old men in camouflage and bright orange vests toting shotguns around, firing at pheasant and turkey and flat-landers like me.
Since I was in Wisconsin anyway, and heading back to Chicago, I figured I might as well stop in Madison for an hour or so. When Joshua and I were in Iowa for the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, we were told a few different times that Madison, Wisconsin was a bibliophile’s paradise, so it’s been our goal throughout this journey to eventually make our way up there. Unfortunately that opportunity never came, so I took matters into my own hands and went by myself—an action that Joshua is still upset with me about.
I only went to three stores, since it was getting close to 6pm—a time that I’ve discovered is fairly characteristic for used book stores to close shop for the evening. The first, Avol’s, while a great store, didn’t have at all what I was needing. The second, Book Browser’s (or something like that) was a really great store and I had two near misses with Ernest Poole and Upton Sinclair (as usual). The third, however, Paul’s Book Store, provided me with my second find of the day…
After browsing around fruitlessly for about 20 minutes, I finally asked the owner if he could help. I told him the list of books that I need and he quickly replied, “All Pulitzer winners!” “Yeah, they are actually… How did you know that?” “Well, I recognized a few of the titles—a couple came here last week looking for all these same books, but we only had Willa Cather’s One of Ours.” As it turns out, the owner of the store is an incredibly knowledgeable gay man who teaches Best-Selling Literature at the University of Wisconsin, so he was very familiar a few of the winners.
The two of us couldn’t find any of them on the shelves, but he informed that he had a basement full of old books that hadn’t been priced and shelved yet, but that he’d go look for me. I perused the shelves and sipped at my coffee while I waited and about ten minutes later, he emerged from the basement with a first edition copy of T.S. Stribling’s The Store. He handed it to me and said, “Does $12 sound fair?” I gave him $15 just for being amazing.
I now have only four books to find to complete my Pulitzer collection: His Family by Ernest Poole, The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson, Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, and Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair. Joshua has three remaining: Dragon’s Teeth, Years of Grace, and Honey In the Horn. These are our remaining white whales. However, after finding my copy of Honey In the Horn, and finally tracking down The Store, In This Our Life, and Guard of Honor, I’m finally feeling like we’ll able to finish this collection before the end of the year.