Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Milwaukee-Phoenix Axis: A Visit to the New Changing Hands in Central Phoenix.

Over the years, I have written about Changing Hands, the bookstore in the Phoenix area that serves the Valley the way Boswell attempts to serve Milwaukee. We both share a lot of events, and I've gotten any number of good ideas from Gayle and Bob and Cindy. I still remember the first book I bought from the store, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, back when their sole location was near the ASU campus. I was in the middle of reading it, but lost my copy while traveling.

Years later they relocated to a shopping center on McClintock in Tempe, about three miles from where my sister Merrill lives in Chandler. I think I walked there once, but I'm a little irritated to realize that I'm not quite definitive on the subject, so now I feel the obligation to make the trek next time I visit. Hey, it's closer than my home is to Boswell and I make that walk several time a year. 

For some time, the folks at Changing Hands have been discussing a second location*, in Phoenix proper, with the goal of it being on the new Valley Metro light rail line**. Well, they opened that location, and this past week I had the opportunity to visit the store. It's in an old steakhouse called Beef Eaters that was repurposed into The Newton, a multipurpose structure that houses the bookstore and bar, a restaurant, a gardening shop, offices, and meeting space. Mention the Beef Eaters to a longtime Phoenician and they have a story. I said something to Amie and sure enough, she'd eaten there with her grandmother. I can't wait to hear what my friend Marcy has to say; she grew up in Phoenix where her family had a popular shoe store. 

The store itself is a little smaller than the Tempe location, with more space taken up by The First Draft bar. Having a bar as part of your marketing plan is a relatively new concept, but the bookstores that have them (Book Cellar in Chicago, Bookbar in Denver, various other stores that have liquor on their restaurant menus) are the envy of many others. Hey, it's one of the few things that seem to be immune from internet competition. And if you're into the concept of Third Places, I think bookstores and bars are probably both in the top five for community makers. 

The shelves are low and the ceiling is high, and that gives the place a real open feel. The staff writes on the shelves with liquid chalk, and there are several very clever seating areas that double as photo ops, due to some clever word bubble placement. Changing Hands has a top-notch event program which is featured (Brandon continues to astonish me with his energy and ideas), and they are well known for their gift selection, which has a major presence at the store. Like the Tempe location, the store has a good assortment of second-hand and bargain books, as well as what we'd call first-hand titles (retronym alert), and the staff is very friendly and knowledgeable. 

While the retail is in transition since the building of the light rail, there are already a number of established restaurants. Merrill and I ate at St. Francis, which is a reasonably priced restaurant that features locally-sourced ingredients. We also stopped by The Windsor, which is sort of upmarket pub, not unlike Cafe Hollander, only less Beneluxy. And at The Newton itself is Southern Rail, a contemporary take on American Southern cooking.

Does this sound a bit like a sales pitch? In fact it should be, as Milwaukee and Phoenix have many ties, most notably that many branches of Milwaukee families move there, and Wisconsinites make up a substantial portion of the Valley snowbird population. I first noticed it years ago when I spotted the Milwaukee Sentinel at a newsstand. Those newsstand days are gone, but it's still common to see Wisconsin license plates and Badger shirts around town. So for all of you who travel back and forth, make a pilgrimage to Changing Hands and if you've been to Tempe, by all means try the Central Phoenix location.

While I am nothing short of a bookstore obsessive, there are very few stores where I've actually worked the sales floor, but for several years, when my family met at my sister's for Thanksgiving, I put in a short shift at the Tempe store. So I told Gayle that the Thanksgiving gatherings had switched to New Year's and for the first time in several years, I was joining my extended family there. And of course she wasted no time in noting that the Tempe location has their big New Year's sale; did I want to work the sales floor?

*Many iconic bookstores are expanding of late, but I think one store is all I think I can handle.

*I'd taken the light rail once before with my sister, but on this most recent trip, I used it three times, and used the Sky Train connector at the airport as well. That's one fancy system. One wonders why in conservative states like Arizona (and North Carolina, and Georgia, and even Texas), light rail is good for business, no matter the cost, but in a state like Wisconsin, it's a punching bag for the right and is starved of funding.

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