Martha Merrell’s Bookstore

Martha Merrell, right, in 1942

I grew up going to Martha Merrell’s Bookstore on 6th Street, and I bought some of my first Racine history books there. I remember that there was a store-within-a-store in the back which sold records.

From the Waukesha Martha Merrell’s Bookstore website:

There was actually a person named Martha Merrell, a woman ahead of her time, who graduated from Radcliffe College in 1922, then served as head librarian at the Racine Public Library and established the first Racine bookstore (the original Martha Merrell’s) in 1947. Martha had a wandering spirit and traveled the world as a very independent woman but was also generous in giving back to her community. Because of this, when William Kidd (of Western Publishing) bought the shop from Martha in 1954, he kept her name on the door.

I don’t believe that Martha Merrell’s Bookstore was the first bookstore in Racine. For instance, Botsford & Wooster, a book and stationery shop was located at 532 Market Square in the late 1800s to the early 1920s. Perhaps Martha Merrell’s was the first store that sold only books.

Timeline

  • July 17, 1899: Martha Brooks Merrell born in Superior, Douglas County, Wisconsin
  • 1922: Graduates from Radcliffe College
  • 1929: Martha B. Merrell, from Superior, Wisconsin, appointed head of the adult department at Racine Public Library
  • 1940: Martha Merrell appointed chief librarian
  • 1941: Martha Merrell reports that the library loaned 772,353 books in one year
  • 1946 phonebook: 1438 Main Street
  • 1947 or 1950: Martha Merrell’s Bookstore founded by Martha Merrell, Racine’s librarian at the time
  • September 9, 1947: Advertisement for Martha Merrell, Inc., “Everything in Books” on 516 College Ave.
  • September 18, 1947: “Martha Merrell, former librarian …”
  • 1950: Martha Merrell is first vice president of the Business and Professional Women of Racine
  • 1952: Martha Merrell is elected president of the Business and Professional Women of Racine
  • 1954 phonebook: 1442 Main Street
  • 1954: William Kidd of Western Publishing buys the shop from Martha but kept her name on the door
  • 1964 phonebook: 1442 Main Street
  • July 2, 1992: Martha Merrell dies in Ramsey, Minnesota and is buried in Silver Lake Cemetery, Portage, Columbia County, Wisconsin
  • 2009: Martha Merrell’s Bookstore will close Downtown store

October 14, 2009 Racine Journal Times: Martha Merrell’s Bookstore will close Downtown store

Downtown’s only remaining bookstore, Martha Merrell’s Bookstore, will close its storefront and continue for now as an online business only.

When the bookstore moved into 600 Main St. three years ago, it was its fourth Downtown site. Co-owner Pamala Handrow said Wednesday the store will most likely close at the end of the month.

“We decided to take a break for awhile and do it right when we come back,” she said.

“Certainly we’re disappointed,” said Downtown Racine Corp. Executive Director Devin Sutherland. “Bookstores are an important component to the retail mix of Downtown.”

However, Sutherland added, “The economy has to be affecting them drastically, and I’m sure online sales are affecting them too.”

Handrow said several factors led to her and partner Vaughan Weeks’ difficult decision to close. For one, their initial three-year lease ended Sept. 30.

The leased area contained a coffee shop space that never materialized as a coffee shop when a third potential partner, who would have run it, backed out, Handrow said. So, instead of having a coffee shop to complement the bookstore, they were paying for unused space.

Also, she said, “We had staff that were going back to college, so we wouldn’t be putting people out of work.”

The recession and reconstruction of Sixth Street also may have played parts in sales levels, Handrow surmised.

The owners say Martha Merrell’s Bookstore will continue in business as an online enterprise. They currently supply used and rare books to the customers of large selling groups including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Martha Merrell’s will also market books of Racine and Wisconsin regional interest on their own Web site.

In the future the owners of Martha Merrell’s plan to find a smaller retail space suited to efficiently marketing regional books, rare books and special customer orders.

Martha Merrell’s Bookstore has had a continuous presence in Downtown Racine since 1950. The store was founded by Martha Merrell, then Racine’s city librarian.

It has passed through a succession of owners, each retaining the original name.

Sutherland said the corner storefront should be attractive to other business owners. “But with the current state of the economy, there aren’t a lot of serious business prospects out there.”

One thought on “Martha Merrell’s Bookstore

  1. I knew Martha well, and was pleased when she asked me to work on a program with her—I no longer remember what or for whom, etc., but most importantly, she was supportive of my starting what was I believe the first used bookstore in Racine, on 6th st., second floor, just up from Rehl’s, called The Sign of the Tiger. Probably 1962. It was there I began work on my first book: A Bibliography of William Saroyan, that was published after I returned to and remained for some years in San Francisco.

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