A Quest For Quality

By William Morder

Chris Chiu defies easy description. He is extraordinarily well read, politically informed, an inspired cook, diligent gardener, social activist, occasional teacher, and, for many years now, my friend. While he is uncomplicated, he has seen and done so much that it boggles the mind.

People’s Books was always there — or, was it? Indeed, I only halfremember that moment, long ago, when first my eyes beheld his wonderful selection of titles. Like one of those immortal sages of Chinese legend, Chris wandered out of the mist to bless us with his wisdom, perfect simplicity, his kindness and gentle laughter.

I reckon his age at somewhere between 50 and 300 years. Maybe I exaggerate, yet I have seen some very old pictures of him, and he looks the same today, and certainly carries himself like a young man. I tried to discover his secret elixir, but that, says Chris, is only exercise, eating right, and meditation.

He modestly refuses interviews, making him hard to write about. I learned that he came here from Taiwan, to study physics. Milwaukee is home, he says; where his friends live. Chris bikes everywhere, often sixty miles in a day, and Yuki, a Siberian husky, is his constant companion.

Chris has many spiritual interests, yet talks mostly about practical things: organic food and farming, compost, carpentry, solar power, ecology, and building computers. Chris Chiu is living proof that idealism can be good business. He is radical in the pure sense of the word: he gets down to the roots, and works with his hands.

He has a knack for offering a cup of tea and hospitality when it is urgently needed, and many times I took shelter in the peaceful atmosphere of his store.

October 2007, People’s Books closes for good. But I will picture Chris in his same nylon exercise suit, covered with dog hair, biking into the next chapter of his life’s adventure; cleaning up the Milwaukee River, perhaps, or teaching others how to build an inexpensive greenhouse.

Everywhere in his store are quotations, from Lao-Tzu, the Talmud and Einstein, for example. I remember one from Che Guevara, though, his bookstore’s motto since the beginning:

Quality is respect for the people.

For my money, People’s Books is still the best in Milwaukee. I doubt we will see its like again.

Like No Other Place by Jean Scherwenka

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” -Talmud

People’s Bookstore is like no other book place I know. Chris Chiu first opened his gem on E. Irving Place in December 1974. Three years later he moved to the Farwell location where I first walked in, where my eyes were immediately drawn to walls postered with words of wisdom like those above, and where I read the sign, “Shoplifters Will Be Criticized.” I knew I was in a very special place.

Today you’ll find People’s Bookstore on Locust and Maryland. When Chris started handling expensive textbooks there, a surveillance system needed to be installed. A new sign now reads: “This monitor is as much an affront to our sensitivity as to yours. So let’s work together towards a day when this is no longer necessary.”

See what I mean? Chris cares about people; you know it when you walk in the door. Signs, posters, selection of books, overheard conversations. Every Christmas and New Year’s Day he invited us all in for homemade healthy food and punch in the quiet company of his books – mostly affordable paperbacks – to read, snack, or chat with others all afternoon.

Through the years Chris has filled orders from prisoners wanting good books. He mails their requests at 20% discount, but due to strict guidelines on subject material, the prison returns most of them. Chris continues what others might consider futile efforts because he wants prisoners to know that someone on the outside cares.

Come October of this year People’s Bookstore will close unless someone wants to carry on in the same spirit with a similar selection of books. “I will be glad to stay around to help the transition and even volunteer one day a week to help the new owner or owners,” says Chris.

He is not abandoning “the work” however. Once a week he and his Siberian Husky Yuki will clean up the Milwaukee River. He also plans bicycle trips across the country with Yuki visiting organic farms. Chris will help anyone start an organic garden on the East Side, in Riverwest, or Bay View. “You pay for the materials,” and he’ll donate his time, energy and know-how. He volunteers at Growing Power Community Food Center at 5500 W. Silver Spring Drive because it’s a great place, and “they can use a lot of help.”

If you care to buy his store, request his help with your garden, or join him in his work, please email Chris at . To buy his books at 20% off, visit him at 2122 E. Locust, Monday-Saturday, 12-6 between now and mid-October. Please thank him for all of us.

Riverwest Currents online edition – June, 2007