Book endurance

(First published in the February 7, 2019 issue of City Pages)

This year marks the 100thanniversary of Janke Book Store


Jim Janke and Jane Janke Johnson at their downtown shop

Siblings Jim Janke and Jane Janke Johnson are excited about 2019. It’s the 100th anniversary of their business, Janke Book Store, which has been in their family for three generations.

The store in downtown Wausau has lived through the Great Depression, a dramatically changed downtown, the rise of mega chain bookstores, and the onslaught of Amazon and Kindle. It’s one of the oldest continuously operating stores in the Wausau area. It might be the oldest. (Some restaurant and bar establishments are older. Local historian Gary Gisselman notes that the Mint Cafe shows up on city directories in 1920 but could date back further; the Glass Hat dates back to 1880).

The store originally was Collie’s Books, first opened in 1874, Jim says. Jane and Jim’s grandfather, Carl Janke, bought the business in 1919 when he returned to Wausau after World War I. Janke’s expanded in 1983, moving to 525 Third St., and then moving across the street seven years later to its current location.

According to the American Booksellers Association, independent booksellers has been recovering the past several years after nearly a decade of decline. The stores that survive and thrive do so because they expand beyond books.

Janke’s fits that mold, though some things haven’t changed much. The store has always carried books, and greeting cards have been a significant part of the business as far as Jane and Jim can tell (Jim started working at the store in 1980, and Jane in 1983). During the Great Depression, Jane says, the store rented books because people couldn’t afford to buy them. “He adapted and made that change,” Jane says of her grandfather. “That’s been a common thread throughout out past 100 years: You have to keep adapting. You can’t stay the same, or you will die.”

When the 1983 opening of the Wausau Center mall brought Walden Books, Jane and Jim worried what it would do to their business, as did the opening of Barnes and Noble in Rib Mountain in the early 2000s.

So how has Janke Book Store survived even while as many as 40% of independent book stores closed since the mid-90s? For one, they’re always changing and adding. “It’s always our goal to keep the store fresh and interesting and fun,” Jane says.

Visitor see far more than just books. A large greeting card section is framed by a section of art supplies. Toys and puzzles are numerous enough that some kids have quipped that Janke’s is their favorite toy store, Jim says.

And the store has a sense of community. Jane and Jim are the only full-time employees in a staff that includes many retired school teachers. Jane is active in local history events, playing Amelia Earheart or one of Wausau’s historic figures.

“We are definitely a community hub,” Jane says. “You can walk in and there are always conversations going on. People know each other.”

One of the most recent changes has been adding used books in the basement level. Diversification has been the key to succeeding, with puzzles, games and gift items alongside a book selection that includes several Wausau history books, some written by Jane herself. The one rule: No electronic gizmos or devices.

Janke Book Store is planning a celebration in October to thank the community for 100 years of business.