This profile of A. David Schwartz, owner of the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, originally appeared in the February 22 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Bookseller at War With Tolstoy and Cancer
By Jim Higgins
A. David Schwartz, owner of the
Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
When A. David Schwartz thought he was dying of cancer some months ago, he found a companion for his dark moments of chemotherapy and depression, a cranky old Russian who could argue the big questions of life with him: predestination, the existence of God, and the mechanisms of history.
On many things they disagreed. Schwartz calls himself a non-practicing, non-believing political Jew. His foil was a Russian Orthodox Christian. But if you know Schwartz, the owner of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops and a free-speech advocate, you'd know he'd rather be wrestling with a strong mind than in lockstep with a timid one.
For 3-1/2 months, the ailing Schwartz went mano a mano with Leo Tolstoy.
Schwartz, you need to know, believes that a good book has a soul, and in reading it, the reader is in one-on-one communion with the author and the author's ideas.
"I found a small octavo edition of War and Peace in four volumes," he said in an interview at his home in Shorewood, Wisconsin. "I could hold it in one hand." That was essential, Schwartz said. He would not have been strong enough to hold a regular, brick-like edition of the novel.
"I read it throughout the hospital and people would come and say, War and Peace? I thought it was a much larger book," he said with a laugh.
Schwartz had read War and Peace as a young man. He rarely rereads books, because he's a slow reader and has a nearly infinite list of books he wants to read. But he felt differently about this one.
"It was something I had always wanted to go back to. I saw the physical size of the book and I thought, I can actually hold this book. I saw the actual amount of words and pages and I thought, well, this would be a good book to die with."
Last May, Schwartz, who's 65, was diagnosed with lung cancer. The diagnosis was a surprise, especially because he's not a smoker.
"I had been feeling fabulous up to then," he said, adding that he had just put in his garden.
His right lung and some lymph nodes were removed. Another surgery followed in July to remove cancerous growth in his bowel.
Later testing revealed his cancer had spread to other lymph nodes and additional spots.
"I did not feel somehow that I had been dealt unfairly by life," Schwartz said. "I felt that I had led a wonderful life, I had done everything I wanted to do, I didn't save my money and my experiences until I was able to retire.
"If this had to happen, that was the Fates."
Because it was still there
Tolstoy's War and Peace, like Mount Everest, is a challenge nearly everyone has heard of. It's on many serious lists of the best novels ever written. It is both an epic about Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 and an intimate look at the maturing of several Russian nobles, blending detailed battle scenes with thundering philosophy about the workings of history.
Schwartz believed that, as a young man, he had answered some of his big questions about life. He's an atheist, totally opposed to any idea of predestination, and enough of a socialist to believe that change happens from the bottom of society upward. But turning to War and Peace brought him back around to face those questions again as a mature man.
He still does not agree with Tolstoy about God, or share his position completely on free will and predestination. But he found grappling with Tolstoy's fiction invigorating.
"He is so smart, he's in enough places, that you can find whole avenues that you can walk down together with him before he branches off. And that's why it's an endlessly fascinating book even though I come from a different perspective."
When John Gilligan, a friend who loves talking over books with Schwartz, learned the bookseller was reading War and Peace through his treatment, he told Schwartz he wanted to read it with him.
Schwartz insisted on getting Gilligan the same small, four-volume edition he was reading. Handling those small books helped Gilligan understand the multifaceted appeal of the book for Schwartz.
The pleasure of reading the powerful novel was enhanced by the sheer beauty of the volumes they were reading, Gilligan said. "You almost want to fondle the book."
On the day that Schwartz told Gilligan about his diagnosis, the two men had planned to get together to read aloud Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic about a warrior king who battles several monsters.
Gilligan thinks Schwartz found strength for his own ordeals in the classics he was reading.
It isn't hard to cast Schwartz as a Beowulf in his own life story, one of the last avatars of a way of life that some believe is disappearing forever.
As an independent bookseller with stores in Milwaukee, Shorewood, Mequon, Brookfield, and Racine, he's battling the Grendels of the book chains, the increasing incursion of Wal-Mart and other gigantic discount stores into the book business, and the omnipresent dragon of amazon.com. Schwartz says the business is now basically a break-even enterprise. He's pleased -- if it can make one percent to three percent at the bottom line after taxes.
What keeps Schwartz going, beyond the value of providing work for more than 100 people, is his belief that a book has the power to change a person's life.
He can cite himself as an example.
The Schwartz family has sold books in Milwaukee since 1927, when David's father, Harry, opened his first bookshop on Downer Ave. David Schwartz grew up in a home that prized books, and that meant serious books. The only time he saw comic books was on visits to the barbershop.
He formally joined the business in 1963. A few years later, he read the book that was his first big bookselling triumph, and that changed and wrecked his life: Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counterculture (1969), a social and political view of youthful and ecological opposition to a corporate, technocratic society.
Passionate about civil rights and social change, Schwartz thought it would be the book that would remake America. "We sold hundreds and hundreds of copies of it, shamelessly, aggressively," he said.
Schwartz was so convinced of its message of community-building that he and his first wife and two other families decamped to Maine in 1971 to create a commune there. A year later, his marriage had fallen apart and Schwartz had what he called a nervous breakdown.
Despite that painful experience, Schwartz still thinks Making of a Counterculture is a wonderful book.
"Community is still foremost in my thoughts," he said. "Building community is the only way we can resist devouring capitalism."
He returned to the family book business to channel his community-building impulses there.
As it became clearer that he might die soon, Schwartz became more distressed.
After counseling with his doctors, he went on anti-depressants for the first time in his life.
At the end of July, he started chemotherapy. With both kinds of medicine, he gradually made a discovery. "All the chemistry works quite well," he said.
After the first round of chemotherapy, his cancerous growths had shrunk. After a second round of chemo that ended in October, his medical team reported the tumors couldn't be found. Schwartz had more chemotherapy and more tests in December, which confirmed that there was no evidence of active cancer.
"My oncologist said that I'm just exceedingly lucky," Schwartz said. "I was lucky in the way the chemo reacted."
Because the cancer had already metastasized, Schwartz is continuing on a maintenance plan of chemotherapy and other medication. "I feel reasonably fit about half the time, and half the time sort of tired."
But, he says, that beats the alternative.
"I'm now here, basically six months later, with sort of an indefinite prospect for the future."
But he doesn't live day to day.
"I can look into the future a bit."
He felt well enough recently to spend 12 days in Costa Rica with his wife, Carol Grossmeyer, climbing up and down wild places with her son, Jason Niebler, who is an agriforester there.
Schwartz began planning for the future of his bookstores several years before his illness.
In 1999, he bought out several partners to become sole owner of the business. Three years ago, he hired Mary Catherine McCarthy, who has more than 20 years of experience in retail and wholesale books and in publishing. In July, she began running the company's daily operations, with Schwartz moving to the Bill Gates role of planner and developer.
When he dies, his wife Carol and his daughter, Rebecca Schwartz, will own the business, with the entire business flowing to Rebecca after Carol's death.
"I know Rebecca feels about the bookshop very much like I do," Schwartz said. "She would shepherd it ... with the assistance of the booksellers."
David Schwartz credits Rebecca with starting Schwartz Bookshops' author visits program in the early '90s, a program he calls "fundamental to our existence." More than 250 authors visited
Schwartz stores for readings and book signings in 2003.
Schwartz said he now works 20 to 25 hours a week, mostly from home, though he does go to the office or the bookstores at times.
"I'm surprisingly satisfied with that. I was somebody who never thought I would retire, surely not at 65. I'm now quite satisfied to spend time at home reading, and talking to my friends, and being with my wife. I'm simply not an unhappy man."
When it comes to loving books, Schwartz is not monogamous. He spreads his passion around.
He talks with rapture about E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, which Schwartz believes helped revolutionize the study of history by looking at change from the peasant class upward. He calls Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger one of his favorite books, and "one of the best anti-imperialist novels ever written." He is proud of having sold many copies of John Egerton's Speak Now Against the Day, about the generation before the civil rights movement in the South.
Sometimes he hears good books. Now that he's feeling better, he has returned to cooking dinner, something he loves, while his wife reads aloud to him. Recently, she's been reading Jonathan Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude to him.
But he persists in being a passionate advocate for Tolstoy's novel.
"I have been able now to convince close to a dozen people and, finally, my wife, to read War and Peace. I'm not sure they all have the equal enthusiasm that I had, and some of them are bewailing their commitment to it, but they have (read it). So I have remained a bookseller through and through."
Near the end of an interview, his wife walked into the living room and spontaneously brought up the subject of that book.
"He recently won a very big battle," she said. "He's been telling everybody in the world to read War and Peace, and I've been saying, I'm never reading War and Peace.
"And I'm reading War and Peace."
© 2004 Journal Sentinel Inc., reproduced with permission.