Books Readings

Sidle Up to the Stool for a Story

Eau Claire’s writer-in-residence releases book on life lessons gleaned from his aunt’s small-town bar

BJ Hollars |

ARE YOU A REGULAR? Local author Ken Szymanski wrote a book about his Aunt Lil's bar in Thorp. (Submitted Photos)

If between 1948-2000 you drove through Thorp, Wisconsin, you inevitably laid eyes upon Leon & Lil’s – a modest bar located on the town’s main drag. From the outside, it resembled most any bar, but upon entering, patrons were treated to an atmosphere that served as the western Wisconsin equivalent of Cheers.

“It possessed a magnetism of sorts,” writes Ken Szymanski in his newly released book Sit Down and Stay Stay Awhile: My Aunt Lil, A Small-Town Bar, and a Lifetime of Polkas, “thanks to the two people with their names on the sign.”

Leon and Lil Kaczmarek, the bar’s owners and operators (not to mention Szymanski’s uncle and aunt) worked hard to create such conditions, though it’s impossible to say precisely how they did.  

“That was one of the fun parts of writing the book,” Szymanski said. “Trying to find that magic.”  

Part of the bar’s magic came by way of polkas, which became regular weekend entertainment at Leon & Lil’s. “We danced our hearts away,” one of Szymanski’s relatives recalled. “Somehow, we found room to do it, even when the bar was full.”

She just brought out the best in people. She was so great at leading by example and bringing people together.



And the bar was always full, thanks to Lil, whose promise of a cold beer and a warm smile kept customers coming to the bar for over half a century. 

“She just brought out the best in people,” Szymanski said. “She was so great at leading by example and bringing people together.”

While Szymanski was well-versed on the magic of Leon & Lil’s – some of his earliest memories include sipping sodas there when he was shorter than the barstools – he didn’t get the idea to write Lil’s story until he’d spent several days visiting his aunt at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, where she was staying for several days in 2019. 

“It was like being at the bar,” Szymanski said of those visits. “We were just having a good time and I always stayed way longer than I thought.”

After days of reflecting on her decades at the bar, Lil remarked, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write a book about it all.”

“I could help with that,” Szymanski offered.

Szymanski started with an extensive in-person interview with Lil and followed it up with phone interviews with her siblings, which resulted in a deeper understanding of Lil’s life and legacy.  

“You may think you know someone,” Szymanski said, “but until you ask them a lot of questions about their life, and find out the parts you didn’t know, and get other people’s perspectives, you only know half the story.”  

Thanks to Szymanski’s efforts, we now know the full story – one which celebrates dignity, decency, and thae virtues of small-town life. While Szymanski’s book provides a half-century snapshot of a community, it also champions the power of the individual. How one person – in the right place and at the right time – can elevate the people around them.  


Lil, now 96 and still living in Thorp, says she loves her book’s cover, featuring the wallpaper pattern from the bar that’s still there to this day. And she enjoys how each chapter brings back a memory of a story lived, and a story told. As for the title, which sums up her welcoming approach to life, she said, “Sit Down and Stay Awhile. I love that. It’s just perfect.”  

Szymanski will read from the book at Chippewa Falls Public Library (105 W. Central St., Chippewa Falls) on Monday, July 18, at 6pm; at the Stones Throw (304 Eau Claire St., Eau Claire) with a live polka band on Thursday, July 21, at 7pm; and at the Volume One Gallery (205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire) on Saturday, July 23, from 11:30am-8:30pm. For more information, visit