As far as anyone can remember there’s been a bookstore in downtown Wausau. Janke Book Store is Wisconsin’s oldest, and this October marks 100 years since its founding. Three gener- ations of effort have made it 3rd Street’s flagship for reliable retail, where local history matters so much they publish their own section on it.
Rows of books reach rows of toys, gloves, soaps, cards and more cards, arrayed neatly right up to a tower of high quality puppets. Puzzles and globes, cozy socks, kites, candles... Yes, fewer ledgers and pens sell these days, but some of the finest fountain pens are made in town by hand, and they are sold here.
Old school is what they like, and the unplugged atmosphere is reassuring.
Flanked by stuffed animals, a ten-foot grizzly bear taken in 2008 by David Johnson in Alaska stands approvingly. Dave's Bear is the proudest, tallest store mascot on trendy 3rd Street.
Building such warm, relaxed environs is hard- er that it seems, especially for the two full-timers on a team of ten. Into their fourth decade on the
job and twelfth year at the helm, sibling co-own- ers Jane and Jim aren't sure which generation will be the next. Cousins and kids all like the jobs they have. Jim Janke envies his daughters and their weekends.
“This wasn't a planned career path, either for Jim or myself,” said Jane Janke Johnson, who
bachelor's degree in business, graduat- ing from UW-Eau Claire. He moved to Minneapolis and worked for B. Dalton Bookseller before home called in 1980.
“We certainly have enjoyed it,” Jane said, “and
we get along. For a lot of brothers and sisters, I don't think they could do it. We’re together a lot, all day, working. Dividing and conquering.”
Can they escape work at Christmas dinner or a nice loud Friday fish fry? “No,” they answer together. “Never.” Jim's even available for busi- ness queries during deer hunting season. “Which,” he points out, “is an international holi- day.” The lounger in their break room seems unused for ages.
Such dedication built unequaled and irreplace- able customer loyalty, and that all blends just fine with modern social media connecting and pro- moting.
The Dec. 1 visit by acclaimed children's author Jan Brett on her “Snowy Nap” tour confirmed Janke's, and Wausau's, spot on the literary map. On April 7 the Wisconsin Historical Society Press booked Janke's to release the latest work by rural guru Jerry Apps. Retired and prolific, this UW Extension agriculture agent's 41st book features the Wisconsin Civilian Conservation Corps. Jane suggested the topic and the author. The rest is history.
As secretary of the Marathon County Historical Society, Jane's dramatic reenactments get rave reviews. Part of a larger theatrical tour, her anguish on the riverside reached deep, crying to family long vanished under waves off Barker- Stewart Island. In May the municipal airport came alive as of old, and she was Amelia Earhardt.
At the store, evolving displays are Jane's domain. So is management of non-book wares. Inventory? “It's all up here,” she smiles, one fin- ger tapping her brow. “We have a very strong children's books, games and clothing area, and that has been expanding for us,” she said. Office supply demand has plummeted, but Swedish dish cloths are selling well.
Jim is in charge of the entire book lineup. “It's always a guessing game. Nothing's guaranteed,” he said. As for how to make the best orders, “You don't know. That's the experience,” he said.
Near the store’s center, a wide staircase eases into a collection of vintage vinyl albums and dominating stacks of used books. That change followed the 2016 closing of downtown's other locally-owned bookstore, just one block north. After it closed, and after a long wait, books from that shop were sold by the bagful. Today, it’s a salon.
In late 2017, Book World announced closures for its 45 stores in seven states, losing 320 jobs. The first store opened in 1976 in Rhinelander, growing into the nation's fourth largest bookstore chain.
“Now, so many towns don't have bookstores. It's really sad,” Jane said. The Book World web- site quotes Dr. Suess: “Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.”
Customers trek to Janke's from across Wisconsin, according to Jane, and events every season boost foot traffic. “Chalk Fest was huge,” she said. Jane, who believes no consumer help line can match amiable customer, says half of the store’s staff is made up of retired teachers. “It's a fun second career,” she said. “We offer such flex- ibility.”
Shelley Miller agrees. This 2nd grade teacher of 33 years delights in guiding visitors through knowledge and joy.
“I've never gone home bummed out or crab- by,” she said.
In her 66 years working at Janke Book Store, Marion Zahrt has seen a lot of smiles. She was hired just six years after co-founder Reno Kurth retired and the present name replaced “Janke- Kurth.”
In 1954 John Janke partnered with his father, Carl, running everything from 1974 until his own death in 2006.
Jim joined the team in 1980, three years ahead of his sister. Their mother Delores worked decades in top management and is retired.