Searching for community with May The Schwartz Be With You
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In Milwaukee’s headlong rush to rearrange itself into a picture of art, culture, and agreeably urban rooftop concerts, one piece, strangely, is often overlooked: Milwaukee. Sure, plenty of lip service is (correctly) given to the city’s blue-collar past, its enviable location on the shores of Lake Michigan, and, yes, it’s delightfully anachronistic drinking culture. But strip away these markers, and what’s left is something resembling a dozen other Midwest cities in the midst of retiring their Rust Belt origins and attempting to take their places in the new, culture-driven economy. So perhaps it’s better to say that, while the broad strokes of Milwaukee are often included in this re-branding, the people of Milwaukee—the men, women, and various malcontents who make the city unique—are not.
On Saturday, April 20 at Turner Hall, one show will offer a corrective to this problem. Cedar Block’s May The Schwartz Be With You (the final show of Alverno Presents’ 2012-13 season) will not only celebrate an iconic Milwaukee institution—the gone-but-not-forgotten Harry W. Schwartz bookshops—but it will pay tribute to the countless personalities that one man encountered there. The brainchild of Cedar Block’s Brent Gohde, Schwartz chronicles Gohde’s early years in Milwaukee spent working at the bookseller’s Downer Avenue location, and his dealings with the many artists, musicians, and general folks-about-town who would go on to make Milwaukee uniquely, you know, Milwaukee. Storytelling, film, visual art, and the talents of everyone from artist Ashley Morgan and musician Mark Waldoch (formerly of The Celebrated Workingman) to photographer Joe Kirschling and filmmaker Kara Mulrooney (of Gal Friday Films) will be utilized in bringing Gohde’s vision to life. Think of it as a freewheeling, multimedia “Seven Degrees Of Schwartz.”
Gohde’s decision to place Schwartz at the center of his Milwaukee narrative will resonate with anyone who frequented the bookshops over the years. Harry W. Schwartz established the company’s Downer Avenue location in 1927, following a stint as a bookseller in Los Angeles. Schwartz’s son, David, took over the company in 1972, and quickly opened new locations and deepened the bookseller’s already formidable imprint on the city. (At one point in the ’70s, the Wisconsin Avenue Schwartz bookshop was thought to be the largest bookshop in the entire state.) Following David Schwartz’s death in 2004, and amidst the rise of online booksellers and e-books, the company closed its doors in 2009. Today, the Downer Avenue location is Boswell Book Company, owned and operated by longtime Schwartz employee Daniel Goldin.
But Schwartz’s influence on the city and its residents can still be felt today, something Gohde intends to illustrate with his show. By telling the story of how he came to know Milwaukee and the people in it via a distinctly Milwaukee institution, Gohde hits upon the idea of civic pride as hard work, fostered only through years spent slowly falling in love with a city and nurturing flesh-and-blood relationships. While some might see that sort of love as old-fashioned and quaint in the face of social-media-orchestrated meet-ups, Schwartz is a refreshing celebration of a hard-won sense of community, and a tribute to the promise still locked away in Milwaukee’s most idiosyncratic places and personalities.
The last time Alverno Presents and Gohde got together, they set out to find the elusive Higgs boson particle with local music, art, video games, and plenty of booze in a show titled Sexy Results: Cedar Block’s Dig For The Higgs And How The Quest Was Won. Months later, scientists announced that the Higgs had indeed been found. One can only wonder what will be discovered at Saturday’s show.