Future of Wauwatosa bookstore in limbo as Sweetgreen enters local market

Recent news of Sweetgreen’s entry into the Milwaukee market has been met with excitement from fans of the Los Angeles-based salad restaurant chain – a staple in major metros like New York City, L.A., Boston, Washington D.C. and Chicago. But the company’s plans to put a location in the heart of the Wauwatosa Village area has put the future of one longtime local business in limbo.

For nearly its entire 37-year existence, The Little Read Book has called 7603 W. State St. home. Inside the storefront, shelves are stocked with books of all kinds – from trendy graphic novels and recent releases to memoirs and works by local authors. There are also greeting cards, jewelry and other trinkets for sale.

Inside The Little Read Book in Wauwatosa.

Now, the 2,690-square-foot former bank branch building is poised to eventually become home to one of the first Sweetgreen locations in Wisconsin. The Wauwatosa Common Council on Tuesday approved the company’s request for a conditional use permit to operate the fast-casual restaurant there. However, a lease agreement between Sweetgreen and the building’s ownership has yet to be finalized.

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For Linda Burg, who opened The Little Read Book in 1985 and now owns the independent book store with her husband, Fred Burg, the prospect of a new business moving into the space has meant coming to terms with an inevitable yet bittersweet reality that all good things must come to an end.

“… We’re due to be replaced at some point,” said Burg in an interview with BizTimes Milwaukee. “(The business is) almost 38 years old. Fred’s 80, and I’m getting close. We love the book business, but at some point, we won’t be here.”

At least for the foreseeable future, The Little Read Book remains open for business daily. Its limited operating hours, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., were put in place as the store reopened its doors in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and have remained about all it can manage with now only three employees, including the Burgs themselves.

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“We’re just going day by day, just like we have been for the past couple of (years),” said Burg.

Linda Burg pictured in her back corner office at The Little Read Book store in Wauwatosa.

Tenant-landlord tension

Still, what could be The Little Read Book’s final chapter has arrived abruptly. Burg said she was blindsided by the initial news of Sweetgreen’s proposed plans to move into the space, having received no communication prior to the company submitting necessary requests for approval with the city.

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As a tenant, Burg accepts the reality that the landlord legally has the right to replace her business with a new tenant, but as an existing, longtime business owner, finding out about Sweetgreen’s proposal from local news coverage instead of directly from the landlord was a hard pill to swallow. It has also sparked confusion among customers, she said.

Jon Thoresen, managing principal of Milwaukee-based Founders 3 Real Estate Services, was also caught slightly off guard when he heard the news from the Burgs. Founders 3 had been inching toward a deal with Sweetgreen for the past few months, but Thoresen said he wasn’t aware that the company had gone ahead and filed its requests for approval when it had.

“We can’t always control the entire navigational process of a deal, but we certainly were conscientious of the impact the store has had on the village,” he said.

The Burgs had owned the State Street building for 21 years before selling it last June to Everest Tosa 2 LLC for $305,000, according to state property records. They’ve been leasing the space on an interim basis ever since. As part of the lease agreement, Everest Tosa 2 LLC is required to give The Little Read Book a four-month notice to vacate if and when an agreement with a new tenant is made (and vice versa).

The city’s recent stamp of approval allows lease negotiations to proceed, but there’s more to the process than that, said Thoresen, who is also the managing partner of Everest Tosa 2 LLC.

“We’re very conscientious of going through the steps,” said Thoresen. “It’s not imminent that we’re going to give (The Little Read Book) notice (to vacate) in the next 30 days, that’s not going to happen. There are certain conditions that have to be met … in order for us to give notice, and all those conditions have to be met first.”

Leaving a legacy

For now, the situation is “in limbo,” but when that notice does eventually come – as it inevitably will – The Little Read Book will prepare to close for good, said Burg. The couple has been approached by people who have offered space to relocate the store, and they’ve declined. Not for a lack of passion, though.

Inside The Little Read Book in Wauwatosa.

“If I had my druthers, I would never close that front door,” said Burg. “I love publishing, I love watching what’s coming out, I love reading, I love books, I love to follow authors and see what they’re doing and writing. It’s a neat life.”

One of her favorite parts of the job are the conversations she shares with customers when they’ve both just read the same book.

Burg said she would gladly sell her business and its name if approached by a buyer who could carry on the work and legacy and of The Little Read Book – one that has accrued three generations of customers from across the region and out of state over the years. After all, The Little Read Book remains among the handful of independent brick-and-mortar book stores left in the Milwaukee area, along with Boswell’s Books on the East Side and Rainbow BookSellers for Children on West Vilet Street.

“Some of the really good bookstores are gone, and we’ve picked up a lot of their customers,” said Burg. “It’s funny because we get calls from all over the country for gift certificates for friends or relatives that they have living here.”

One long-distance shopper, who lives in New York, calls up the shop every year to order birthday and Christmas gifts for her brother who lives in town and is himself a frequent customer. And each year, Ann, who is the store’s longtime (and now only) employee, picks out the books, gift wraps them and sets them aside for the man to pick up. The shop gets a lot of calls and emails like that, said Burg.

Asked what the closure of the bookstore would mean for the Wauwatosa Village – an area that has seen a surge of new development and business activity over the past three decades – Burg said it would be like “missing a member of the family.”

“I would love another bookstore to take its place, I would love another book store to crop up, and you never know, maybe one will,” she said.

A fitting addition

The deal with Sweetgreen includes the opportunity for a “sizable investment” in the State Street property, which shares the busy Harwood Avenue intersection with at least six other food and beverage establishments: Vendetta Coffee Bar, Jose’s Blue Sombrero, Cafe Hollander, Buckatobon Tavern & Supper Club, Noodles & Co. and Ristorante Bartolotta. Plans are in the works for new windows and doors, sidewalk seating and a fully renovated interior, said Thoresen.

And the fast-casual concept and health-focused menu of Sweetgreen could resonate with State Street apartment dwellers and young professionals in the area.

“It’s a great location; it just adds one more thing to an incredible village that’s already on the right path,” Thoresen said.

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