Metro Milwaukee Guide

The go-to guide for activities in the greater Milwaukee area


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Paramount Walking Tour in Grafton

I may be dating myself with this reference, but do you remember the scene in Big where Tom Hanks played the floor piano in FAO Schwarz? (Readers not nearing 30, are you still listening? This is important!) If you don’t, here’s a quick refresher:

That movie scene was a huge turning point for me. It helped me realize that music was more than just notes and sounds – that it was a fun, wonderful way to express yourself. And, it turned me on to the idea of OWNING A GIANT FREAKING FLOOR PIANO. (See? I told you it was important. These things are incredible.) I tracked it down in the FAO Schwarz catalog, circled it in big red marker, cleared out a space for the piano on my floor, and lovingly placed the catalog – open to just the right page – on the table by where my dad put his briefcase after work. Long story short, I never got my coveted floor piano. Or my own personal carousel that I asked for every year at Christmas, but anyway. The movie memory stuck with me until adulthood. So, I think it was perfectly acceptable to nearly have a heart attack when Kyle and I ran across THIS:

A GROUND PIANO!!

A GROUND PIANO!!

On the way back from our honeymoon last year, we decided to make a pit stop in Grafton in Ozaukee County. Like any child of technology, I googled the town to see what we could do. Apparently, Grafton is the original home of Paramount Records (in operation from 1917-1933). Kyle instantly knew all about it (musician and musical historian that he is) and regaled me with stories of the blues artists on the original Paramount label (including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Louis Armstrong), the “race records” it was most famous for, and a little bit of its history. For example. Did you know that the label was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company? Or that the records from 1929 and later were recorded and pressed in-house, in Wisconsin, by the company’s other subsidiary, The New York Recording Laboratories, allowing Paramount to pseudo-honestly emblazon the advertisements with the phrase “Paramounts are recorded in our own New York laboratory”? Well, now you know!

Paramount's in-ground dedication

Paramount’s in-ground dedication

But back to the big piano. Grafton developed an attraction around this nugget of musical history, and the sidewalk ivories are the Walk of Fame. Every year, names of notable Paramount recording artists are etched into the black keys. 2012 saw the induction of Jelly Roll Morton and James Fletcher Henderson. In the Grafton Library or Chamber of Commerce, you can pick up a self-guided Paramount Walking Tour book, complete with historical photos and a map. The tour includes 12 sites around Grafton that showcase the history of the recording studio and its artists. Don’t worry if you’re lazy like me and don’t feel like walking. It’s only a half mile. Grafton puts on a blues festival every year, highlights the location of the old recording studio with a historical marker, and has a pretty neat fountain for visitors to throw pennies in as they make wishes to the ancient blues gods.

Fountain of Musical Greats. At least that's what I call it.

Fountain of Musical Greats. At least that’s what I call it.

Here’s a legendary recording by Blind Lemon Jefferson that was released on Paramount in 1927. Beatles aficionados will recognize the line “will a matchbox hold my clothes” from their cover of the Carl Perkins song “Matchbox”. It was a fairly common expression among blues singers, especially on Paramount. Ma Rainey used that line three years earlier on her Paramount release “Lost Wandering Blues.” Not only was Paramount a highly influential label filled with some of the most talented musicians of the day, they were also helping to lay the foundation for rock ‘n roll nearly 30 years before Elvis Presley’s first record.

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Schroeder Used Books & Music

Please allow me to introduce you to a lovely lady named Alma. She’s eccentric, unique, and just happens to run one of the greatest used book stores I’ve ever been to. If you’ve never been to Schroeder Used Books & Music in West Allis, you’re in for a rather extraordinary experience. This is as far removed from Barnes & Noble as you can get. This isn’t anything you’ve ever seen before.  Floor to ceiling, literally, shelves packed entirely full of books. And in front of the shelves, stacks of even more books. In the middle of the store, bins filled to the brim with vinyl records. On the floor near the records, bags of groceries that she may or may not have purchased recently. This place is a trip.

Books and Music

The open sign isn’t lit up, but she’ll be there soon…

I first found this place while walking to the State Fair Park. It’s right across from the park on the corner of Greenfield Avenue and 77th Street. Before I delve more into this shop, let me first establish a set of guidelines that I highly suggest sticking to.

  1. No children. This is not the place for them. You’ll thank me that you didn’t bring them.
  2. Call Alma before you go. Her sign states that she’s open from 9 AM until midnight. She’s not always there though. Her cell phone is 414-476-8618. Just tell her that you’d like to stop by to look for some books, and she’ll tell you if she’s there or not. If she’s not there, she’ll let you know how long before she will arrive.
  3. Set aside several hours to browse. You’ll need it.
  4. Bring cash.
  5. Don’t be put off if the door is locked. Knock on the doors, knock on windows, if she’s in there, she’ll gladly let you in after she turns all the lights on.
Store Hours

Definitely call before going!

Ok, rules are set. Time to start browsing the shelves. Despite the initial appearance, it is quite organized. Plus, she knows where every category is. Once you get used to the system in there, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It can be frustrating at times but with some patience, you’ll find exactly what you never thought you were looking for. One of my favorite things about this place is the sheer variety of books there are to look at. Stuff I never could have imagined. If you’re looking for a specific title, just ask her. She’ll swear she saw it right there just the other day, but she’ll tell you exactly where to look within the proper category on the shelves if it’s not right there anymore. And 99% of the books are clearly priced, very inexpensively priced I should add, written in pencil on the first page of the book. If you love books, I dare you to leave this place empty handed if you spend more than an hour in there. If books aren’t your thing, maybe you’ll find some good vinyl. This requires much more patience because the bins and shelves are packed so tight, you have to pull out a stack to flip through them easily. Or perhaps you’re interested in VHS tapes? 8-tracks? Adult films? Alma has it all.  I’d hate to ruin the rest of the surprises this store has. But I will share this video I found on the web to give you a nice glimpse of the experience. (This is the cleanest and neatest I’ve ever seen the store, by the way).

Plan your visit:
Address: 7629 W. Greenfield Avenue, West Allis
Phone: 414-476-8618
Hours: Daily, 9 a.m. – 12 a.m. (maybe)
Parking: Ample street parking available on Greenfield and on side streets.
Public Transportation: MCTS bus stop at S76 & Greenfield. Buses 44, 44U, 56, and 76.