'We're kind of like book detectives'
Martha Merrell’s Books celebrates 25 years

By Ashley Haynes

Aug. 15, 2019

 Norm Bruce owns Martha Merrell’s bookstore, 231 W. Main St., with his wife Eve. The duo is celebrating 25 years of business. Here, Norm shows off some of the selection of kids’ activities the store carries.
Ashley Haynes/Freeman Staff

WAUKESHA — Plenty has changed for business owners in downtown Waukesha over the years. The streets have shifted from one-way to two, longtime staples have come and gone, and — of course — several construction projects have been completed.

But over the last 25 years, one thing has not changed.

Martha Merrell’s Books has become a landmark of the Waukesha community, deeply ingrained into the events and offerings that attract many to the downtown area.

“Our store runs now with having niches in a couple different areas,” said Norm Bruce, who owns and runs the Main Street shop with his wife, Eve. “We’re a destination. When you come to downtown Waukesha, people always seem to find things in the store.”

As the duo celebrates 25 years of all things Martha Merrell’s, it’s only natural to reminisce on those first days of running the business and how they’ve adapted in an ever-changing retail landscape.

Martha Merrell’s first opened its doors in 1995, at the current site of Allo! Chocolat.

“We had completed the transaction on a Friday and by Saturday we were open for business,” Norm said. While the business only dealt in books for several years, he explained things changed in 2007 during the recession.

The addition of other products (stuffed animals, puzzles, calendars, etc.) soon came as Martha Merrell’s and Cuddles combined.

Norm explained that Martha Merrell’s has remained a Waukesha staple due in large part to the fact that the business is so active in the community.

He said Martha Merrell’s was actually the driving force behind the first Harry Potter festival in the country in the late 90s, which involved several shops downtown. He said as he was trying to get one of the-then downtown business owners (who owned a vacuum shop on South Street) to take part in the festival, she asked “How would that benefit me?”

 “I said, oh my gosh, you can make the Nimbus 2000 broom,” Norm quipped. “She said, ‘I’ve never had so many people in my store.’” He added that the bookstore sold 500 Harry Potter books in one week.

During the height of the Harry Potter craze, Norm said he really noticed the reading habits of kids who were becoming disinterested in reading begin to shift.

“We’ve just been innovative in those kinds of ways,” Norm said.

 Martha Merrell’s bookstore, 231 W. Main St., in downtown Waukesha is
celebrating 25 years of business.

Ashley Haynes/Freeman Staff

Customer service

Norm said that while anyone can go online to order a book, they’re missing out on the expertise and recommendations they would get by stopping by the store. Norm and Eve Bruce pride themselves in being able to help guests find whatever they need — no matter how rare, Norm explained.

‘We’re kind of like book detectives. We kind of pride ourselves in if we can’t find it, it’s not readily available,” Norm said.

One of the rarest books he has helped track down was one on the subject of bicycles — of which there was only one copy available from a shop in Paris.

He added that if Waukesha residents and visitors alike appreciate the offerings of businesses downtown, they need to continue to support them.


More memories

Another period that stands out within the bookstore’s 25-year history was when Cinnamon Rose, a golden retriever, was a part of the family, Norm explained.

“She was exceptional because she would come out and greet everybody. When she passed, people would bring flowers and other things so it was like a memorial,” he said.

Cinnamon served as the bookstore greeter since Norm and Eve bought the store in 1995, up until 2005. The 60pound canine trotted from behind the counter before leaning softly into each pair of legs.

When the couple first bought the store, there were just three restaurants in the downtown area — and business owners operated in a rougher environment than they do today, Norm said. He said he called the police seven times in his first week of business, but by coming together with other owners and adopting a community policing approach, they were able to help turn things around.

“I just think Waukesha is in a really great place. We want to see Waukesha continue to grow and thrive,” Norm said.