Bookseller David Schwartz Dies -- Guiding Light and Mentor

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

David Schwartz

A. David Schwartz, 65, president of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, died at his home on Monday, June 7, of complications from lung cancer. He is survived by his wife, Carol Grossmeyer; his mother, Reva Schwartz; his daughter, Rebecca Schwartz; and his stepson, Jason Niebler.

Schwartz was well known for his fierce passion for ideas, social change, and building community. Over his three decades in bookselling, he battled the encroachment of chain bookstores, government censorship, and complacency. Schwartz was honored this year with the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year Award, presented at ABA's Celebration of Bookselling during Book Expo America (BEA) last week. Too ill to travel, Schwartz insisted on sending employees of the stores to the convention to accept the award. Over 80 employees attended the emotional ceremony.

According to the stores' vice president and general manager, Mary Catherine McCarthy, Schwartz's announcement to his staff of his diagnosis of lung cancer, surprising for the non-smoker, was made one year ago, immediately after the 2003 BEA convention. During the intervening year, Schwartz prepared for his death by switching ownership of the business to his wife and daughter. Rebecca Schwartz, a teacher, has become chairman of the board; Grossmeyer will supervise store operations. McCarthy will continue to manage the business.

Although Schwartz's health had recently declined rapidly, the large bookstore staff was shocked by his death, according to McCarthy. "Everyone is devastated. Staff people are crying as they ring up customers and the customers understand. They, too, are deeply affected. People left flowers in front of our Shorewood store. He cared so much about the people who worked here -- always asking after everyone's family, their partners. He was concerned this past week, when he was so sick, about one of our staff who was in the same hospital with a broken leg. He worried about her."

McCarthy told BTW that Schwartz planned every detail of his imminent memorial. "He chose the speakers, the location, the music, even the wine," she said. "It will be held this Friday at the Shorewood store. We have 500 chairs; I hope that's enough."

Schwartz is remembered fondly by his fellow booksellers as a paragon of the art of bookselling. Newly elected ABA President Mitch Kaplan, owner of Book & Books in Coral Gables, Florida, recalled Schwartz's lifetime of devotion to the world of books. "David was a mentor to so many of us booksellers. He embodied everything that is good about what we do: passion, commitment, and a heightened sense of community. His loss is our loss, and I mourn his passing."

Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and the city's mayor as well as a former ABA president, told BTW, "[David] was irascible. He was very opinionated and wasted no time expressing his opinions.... But his opinions and his ambitions were noble -- he was always on the side of the less-advantaged, always for books and booksellers, always for free expression, always for the significant and meaningful ways that books shape society, and always passionate about all the above. You had to love him."

In 1972, Schwartz returned to the bookstore business founded by his father, Harry, in 1927. For the decade prior to assuming full ownership, he had struggled both with his father and his own conscience, trying to reconcile his anti-capitalist, countercultural beliefs with his life as a bookseller. Schwartz eventually managed to "resist devouring capitalism" by creating a counterculture community within his small chain of stores.

In 1984, he merged his original two Harry W. Schwartz stores with the Book Nook in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, which included three discount stores. Book Nook was owned by Avin Mark Domnitz, now CEO of ABA. Schwartz and Domnitz became active partners in the new business. There were two silent partners, with financial interests only. In 1999, Schwartz bought out his three partners and became president and sole stockholder of Dickens Books Ltd., which owned a group of four independent Milwaukee bookstores known as Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops Ltd. plus two discount stores called Dickens Books.

For Schwartz, there was no higher calling than bookselling. As he wrote: "Bookselling was and is for me a cultural and political expression, an expression of progressive change, of challenge to oppressive authority, of a search for a community of values which can act as an underpinning of a better world. The true profit in bookselling is the social profit; the bottom line, the measure of the impact of the bookshop on the community."

A visitation period and memorial service will be held on Friday, June 11, at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Shorewood. The family suggests donations to Community Shares and to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.