‘May The Schwartz Be With You’ reopens a chapter of Milwaukee’s history

Photo via Facebook
Photo via Facebook

Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops wrote the final chapter in its 82-year history in 2009. Now its pages are being turned one more time in a new production about the shop’s effects on the Milwaukee community.

This Saturday, the creative collective Cedar Block will present “May The Schwartz Be With You” at Turner Hall at 8 p.m.

Brent Gohde is a curator, emcee and performer for Cedar Block’s stage shows. Often referred to as a “ringmaster,” Gohde has produced six events for the Milwaukee Art Museum, as well as three independent performances.

“May The Schwartz Be With You” finds Gohde and friends at the famous Milwaukee bookstore, Harry W. Schwartz on Downer Avenue. It was here that Gohde met the friends, booksellers and customers who went on to become the artists, musicians, curators and entrepreneurs who now define valued and distinctive parts of Milwaukee culture.

The show is part of Alverno Presents, a performance series based at Alverno College and directed by David Ravel, the husband of the late Marquette theatre director Phylis Ravel.

“This is, in a way, a tribute to her, an incredible woman who was a great role model and human being,” Gohde said.

After successes working with him last year, Gohde pitched a number of ideas to Ravel. Eventually he found one that worked.

“I realized that everyone I’ve met and every opportunity I’ve had since 1997 can be traced back to the day I got hired by Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue when they opened in June of that year,” Gohde said.

Gohde’s experience at Harry W. Schwartz was not the only reason the bookstore was such good show material. The store has a unique history, making it perfect for a show like “May The Schwartz Be With You.”

Harry W. Schwartz opened his first bookshop in 1927 on Downer Avenue.

His son, David, took over in 1972 and grew the business, opening multiple stores throughout the 1980s. Although mega-booksellers were becoming popular, the local chain prospered.

Schwartz intentionally situated his stores in neighborhoods where big stores could not build. Everything he sold was personalized for his local customers, whether it was coffee, miscellaneous items or books. He became nationally known in the book industry for readings with big-name authors in his stores.

Gohde hesitates to call “May The Schwartz Be With You” a play. Instead, he refers to it as a “gonzo variety show” incorporating stories, songs, film and art.

“There is a theme about the purpose and meaning of community and literature, as well as the relationship between authors and musicians,” Gohde said. “Think of it as an episode of ‘This American Life’ brought to the stage.”

Part rock show, part dance performance and part comedic monologues, “May The Schwartz Be With You” is a production that has something for everyone, Gohde said, from college students to adults.

“It’s freewheeling, my friends are really funny and unbelievably creative and it’s just a little something different,” Gohde said. “The audience will hear a lot about the history of Harry and David Schwartz – raconteurs and lovers of books and the city – and they’ll also get a deeper understanding of the Milwaukee community and how we’re all connected.”

Gohde has worked extensively in the past with Milwaukee Day, a celebration of all that is positive about the city. Gohde said people take pride in Milwaukee, and this unique spirit is what makes “May The Schwartz Be With You” so special.

“I’ve always said that Milwaukee is small enough to meet everyone but big enough that there’s something new to do around every corner and on any day,” Gohde said. “The community here thrives from cultural nexus points, and Schwartz was one of them. It’s a badge of pride to be from Milwaukee, and Schwartz plays a huge part for me personally and for the city.”