Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Avin Domnitz, 1944-2015.

Honestly, the first time I met Avin might have been when I opened the receiving room door of the Iron Block branch of the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop, where he was transferring stock between locations. He pulled up to the alley in his wood paneled station wagon and we’d carry the boxes down the hall to be loaded, and then take another set of boxes that were coming from another Schwartz store.

What would I know? I was hired by my manager, and was only fuzzily aware of actual Schwartzes. In fact, when I visited the store before applying, my friend at the American Booksellers Association told me the name of the store was Dickens Books, Ltd. Once I got to Milwaukee, I could not find the Dickens store anywhere, but I was quickly set straight, that this was the incorporated name of the Schwartz stores.

This dual name would continue to haunt Schwartz, in a way that it does not seem to affect other stores with operating names differing from the actual store names. But Dickens was important; it was the result of a 1984 merger between A. David Schwartz’s two Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee and Avin Mark Domnitz’s Book Nook in Whitefish Bay*, in addition to three Dickens Discount Books, located in conceptually new factory outlet centers, and a lease on an unopened store in Brookfield.

The Brookfield store opened as a Schwartz. Two Dickens Discount Books were closed, but the third thrived for many years, sometimes being the most profitable component of the company. A larger Dickens was opened in Illinois, with the idea that there might be more. There was only one problem; these stores (by then I was a buyer) really needed to be run like chain stores in order to multiply, and we couldn’t seem to shake our habit of running them as independent bookstores, constantly tweaking them for the market.

Once I moved into our Whitefish Bay offices, I got to know Avin much better – his enthusiasm and drive, his sense of humor, and most of all, his family. His mom or dad might stop by, the latter often to make copies. We’d head to his house in Shorewood for manager meetings and rep nights, with various Domnitz folk wandering the margins. Later on, his daughters worked in the Shorewood cafĂ©. And yes, a whole bunch of us went to Liza’s bat mitzvah, which still stands out in my mind, and that’s coming from a guy who has done a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs. But boy did it feel special to be let into that part of Avin’s life.

And oh those meetings! Avin loved books, but he also wasn’t afraid of numbers, and we’d spend a lot of time going over finances, inventory levels, cash flow. It took a long time for me to emotionally connect with the numbers (and this is coming from a math major) and while I don’t think I am half the person he is, regarding these sort of things, I do credit him with whatever I am in this aspect of Boswell.

Avin Domnitz and David Schwartz’s partnership was a complicated thing and I’m not going to lie and say they always agreed about everything and one of them never told me to do something different than I was told to do by the other one when the first one left the office. They both brought different skills to the table, but really, they had a lot of similarities. Their reading tastes were often different, but they would get behind whatever the book was that inspired them. They were both passionate, inspiring leaders. And they were both were very good speakers, very persuasive. So you can only imagine someone listening to one or the other of them, thinking, how the heck am I supposed to ever match that? Well I can’t and that’s just the way it is. I have other skills, I guess.

Avin eventually gave up doing the transfers, but his old wood-paneled station wagon lived on for a while, with the transfer job traveling to various booksellers. Eventually I used the wagon to commute to our Mequon store, which I managed for a year in the 1990s. It broke down a lot, finally giving its last breath on a highway offramp. I was able to get it off the road, walked to the store, and by the time I got there, the office was calling me wondering what happened, as the police had spotted the abandoned car. We replaced it with a more professional van, but I sort of missed driving the Avin car.

And then, after getting more involved with the American Booksellers Association, including a run as president of the board, he left Schwartz to become executive director. But that didn’t mean we didn’t stop working with Avin. I was involved in any number of panels, including being his backup bookseller for more than one presentation. And sometimes, while Avin was offering the secrets to bookstore survival, he’d turn to me and remember something we used to do at Schwartz. There is nothing like shared memories, right? (At right, Avin visited Boswell the year we opened. We called this our welcoming stance.)

Avin did great things, both for bookselling in Milwaukee, and then later for booksellers all over the country. And of course the wonderful family he raised, the people he guided. He had a number of gifts, not just his ability to lead, but to inspire and to give, and that has touched a lot of people. But perhaps the most lasting gifts are the shared memories, and the thought that when I’m in a bind, I can think to myself, “What would Avin do?”

My apologies if I got some of the details wrong! Here's the Publishers Weekly obituary.

*There were other partners too. We mostly saw them going in and out of board meetings, but generally didn't have direct contact with them. Well, except our lawyer. And one of our landlords. And Elly, our kids' buyer, for at least part of the run.

1 comment:

David LaCroix said...

The Domnitzes lived five houses down from my family, so I remember that station wagon well.

Terrible loss to many, many people.