Downtown Rochester was once a mecca for book lovers.
Yes, you read that correctly. For decades, two major bookstores, Adams’ Book & Art Shop, and the Bookshop of Lucy Wilder, did business downtown.
At least a half-dozen booksellers have followed in their footsteps, some lasting longer than others. But these two shops set an unusual standard in what was still a relatively small community.
The Rochester they served revolved around Mayo Clinic, and the affluence and brain power it brought to town. For an example, look no further than Lucy Wilder, whose husband, Dr. Russell Wilder, was an internationally known specialist in the treatment of diabetes. Mayo brought the Wilders to town in 1919, after they had lived previously in Chicago and Vienna.
In 1933, Lucy Wilder bought an existing bookstore at 113 First Ave. SW, and turned it into the Rochester version of a European salon — a gathering place for people who liked to talk about books and world affairs. Afternoons, Wilder and her longtime assistant, Dorothy Day, served tea and wine to customers, and recommended books to suit every reading inclination. Wilder even started a lending library based in her store.
Meanwhile, Henry S. Adams had decades earlier taken over an established downtown book and stationery shop. The store was located on Second Street Southwest, in what became the Massey Building. Mildred Adams, Henry’s daughter, became owner and manager of the store in 1937. The store was stocked not only with best-sellers and stationery, but also with art supplies, greeting cards, camera film and gifts. There was a toy department in the basement.
For shoppers in the 1930s and '40s seeking that certain gift, both stores offered items that would inspire and educate, not to mention the special atmosphere that can only be found in a good bookshop. Local shoppers and Mayo Clinic visitors, including Hollywood movie stars, would stop in to shop, chat and while away the time between medical appointments.
Lucy Wilder wrote and published her own book, “Mayo Clinic,” used copies of which are still available from various online sellers.
In 1947, Wilder gave the bookstore to Day as a Christmas gift. The Wilders moved to Washington, D.C., where Russell Wilder served as president of the American Diabetes Association. They returned to Rochester from Washington in the 1950s. How are you going to keep them on the Potomac once they’ve seen the Zumbro, right?
When Russell died in 1959, Lucy invited Day to move into the Wilders' Southwest Rochester home. In 1963, Frank Dougherty bought the store, still called the Bookstore of Lucy Wilder, from Day, and moved it across the street into the 100 First Avenue Building.
Around the corner, Adams’ Book & Art Shop was sold in 1965 to Farnham’s Stationery, of Minneapolis. Less than two years later, when the store’s lease in the Massey Building expired, the renamed Farnham-Adams store closed.
Lucy Wilder died in 1968, followed by Dorothy Day in 1969. The Bookstore of Lucy Wilder survived into the 1970s before closing its doors for good.
What might be called the first golden age of bookstores in downtown Rochester had come to an end.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.