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The Chicago Book Scene: Breaking with Tradition

January, 2018
By Carlos Martínez

In the late 1980s I taught at a Chicago high school in the old Wicker Park neighborhood, which was then mostly Puerto Rican, immigrant and low-income. Facing the many problems children of this background often bring to school and unwilling to burden my young wife with the day's stress when I arrived home for dinner, I frequently left school frustrated and in search of ways to calm my nerves. One day I was driving down Damen Avenue and noticed a sign on the window of an old white brick two-story apartment building that announced Red Rover Books, with an emblematic red dog underneath. Intrigued, I parked the car and walked up for a closer inspection. Through the small window on which the sign was taped I could see that it appeared to be a one-room used bookstore.

Entering, I was greatly touched by the fact that the shop occupied the front room of a main floor apartment, and was run by a cheerful young man of Bohemian appearance, no doubt idealistic, with a small but interesting stock of older books in the Humanities. I looked around, bought a book on the causes of World War I and, as often happens when talking with booksellers, was told about the recently opened, much larger Myopic Bookstore a few blocks north, run by yet another young man. An hour later I stopped by the Myopic, where after another purchase the owner pointed me to the newly opened branch of longtime Chicago dealer Howard Cohen's fabled Booksellers' Row on Milwaukee Avenue, about a half mile west. At that point, and after an hour's browsing, I decided I owed my long-suffering wife a postponement of my bibliophilic ambitions!

I did not yet know that the legendary Occult Bookstore and the anarchistic Revolution Books were also nearby. Or that there was another single-room bookshop on Milwaukee Avenue, the name of which I no longer recall, but whose book-filled large porthole windows would stick in my memory. At the time I was only familiar with O'Gara's and Powell's, the two South Side used bookstores serving the University of Chicago, and close to home. It happened that I first learned about this city's varied bookshop culture by accidentally bumping into yet another nondescript little bookshop while on the way home, in the old and just turning trendy Wicker Park neighborhood.

Since that day, Chicago has changed a lot, not just because of the gentrification of older neighborhoods like Wicker Park – the bookish scene has also changed in ways unpredictable. Gone are Red Rover, Revolution Books, the porthole bookstore, and even mighty Booksellers' Row, despite its location in the old and abandoned but attractively stone-columned People's Gas building fronting busy Milwaukee Avenue. The now upscale neighborhoods like Wicker Park and the DePaul University area used to be home to many fine secondhand bookstores, and beginning in the mid-1990s they disappeared because of rising prices of storefront rentals and Chicago's burgeoning redevelopment, which has deprived the city of many of the old buildings that used to shelter Bohemian artists, writers, and booksellers – as Jane Jacobs famously pointed out in her Death and Life of Great American Cities. These changes have driven bookstores into less trendy and developed areas, like Pilsen and Rogers Park, where there are still plenty of older buildings with lower rents. A late example is Heirloom Books on North Clark Street in Edgewater, with its optimistic motto, “Once you're here, you won't want to leave.” Located inside an old, rather small storefront, it offers comfy couches, attractive artwork, and a modest, eclectic stock of literary interest.

Recently I was reminded of my city's persistence as a bookseller's oasis when I bumped into Pilsen Community Books (PCB for short) on 18th Street near Halsted. At the time I had retired from the stresses of my teaching job, and was a full-time online bookseller in search of books wherever I could find them. One day while driving along 18th Street in hopes of discovering a thrift store with a nice stock of books, I saw a double-fronted bookstore in one of the many old three-story brownstones that grace what is still a mostly immigrant neighborhood (formerly Czech, lately Mexican). On the windows in small white letters were the words ‘Pilsen Community Books.’ After parking and entering, I was greeted by a young couple, probably in their thirties, straight-laced in their smart jeans and to judge from the surroundings, probably idealistic. How idealistic may be judged by the store's mission statement, emblazoned on a sign: “Our hope is that Pilsen Community Books can be more than a bookstore. In addition to selling new and used books we are here to support Pilsen's schools. The first step toward promoting literacy in our neighborhood is to provide each student with books. Every dollar that you spend directly supports this mission. In the future we want to work to provide all-encompassing literacy services for Pilsen. Eventually, we hope to be able to do the same for other neighborhoods in Chicago.”

These are more the words of an educational crusader rather than a merchant, although characteristic of the best kind of community bookstore. But PCB was not kidding about its expansionist hopes. It has done so well in its first location, selling a mixture of quality remainders acquired from Powell's Book Warehouse on the South Side and a few shelves of older, donated or purchased books, that on November 10th it opened a new branch in the Fine Arts Building, taking over the second floor quarters of the just-vacated Selected Works Bookstore. Ambitiously named The Dial Bookstore after the legendary literary journal that once had its offices there, the branch is a precedent-shattering departure from the recent trend of bookstore closings in the downtown area. I wondered how they had succeeded. Clues came from the Yelp website (all the bookstores mentioned here can be Google-searched for addresses and websites) where the following reviews, besides describing the store itself, should be of interest to aspiring booksellers:

“I love their floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with sliding ladders. There's (sic) little scented candles and old typewriters and pretty lamps everywhere.”

“Well lit, like a scene out of Harry Potter. The staff is friendly, the designs are cool, the book collections are well labeled.”

“The bookstore now includes a monthly book club, organizes events for local and touring authors, and sells books in Spanish for the Latino community in the city.”

PCB may become the model for Chicago's used bookstores in the future, but even though it seems to be the most successful, it is not the first of its type. In Rogers Park on the North Side we have the Armadillo's Pillow Bookstore, opened a few years ago with similarly artsy decor and stock, including incense and sculptures by the owner's artist wife. Serving the Loyola University Community, APB occupies another old storefront in a building that has not yet been redeveloped, therefore making the rent more affordable. APB specializes in academic books for the needs of the Loyola community, but it also has some exciting genre fiction, notably sci/fi, mystery and suspense – and the books are older and mostly non-remaindered.

I recall entering the store one Saturday afternoon with my wife Ofelia, and how we were struck by the ottomans, strong smell of incense, and curious objets d'art on the walls and shelves. She made a beeline for a reddish ceramic face, about 4 inches in diameter, hanging from one of the shelves. “This reminds me of the moon's face in Trip to the Moon”, I said, referring to an early French silent film. “It was made by my wife”, said bookseller Mike Gale, pointing to other ceramic sculptures nearby.  After browsing for an hour I had a stack of books and Ofelia bought the red ceramic moon “to help support this nice store” she said afterward. The ‘moon-face’ now hangs on the wall of our kitchen next to an Arthur Rackham print, both mementos of two “nice bookstores”.

Yet another artsy community-oriented bookshop is Space Oddities, opened four years ago on California Avenue in the Humboldt Park area. Its website features an eclectic gallery of local artwork displayed along with a small but interesting stock of older books laid out in tall bookcases behind an area set aside for readings by local authors. Like PCB, Space Oddities tries to serve its community by providing a venue for local events featuring writers and artists, and even creates attractive posters for the purpose. It too is located in an old building in a less trendy neighborhood undergoing demographic change, as more young people move into the area.

None of these bookstores carry rare or expensive books, although one never knows what will turn up (like my finding a Virginia Woolf/Hogarth Press first in dust jacket, or a color-plate book illustrated by Rackham). Instead, they offer literature their communities want at prices most people can afford. In this respect they are crusading institutions for the cause of culture and literacy, doing so more effectively than the “mahogany paneled potentates” (legendary bookman Charles P. Everitt's term for the carriage trade book firms). I say this not to offend rare book sellers, but to point out that most book collectors start out as impecunious buyers looking for books to read and, whatever their motives, these do not yet include ‘investing’ in rare books or building a large and important library. It is unfortunate that book trade magazines like Fine Books and Collections limit their readership by concentrating too much on the carriage trade and too little on Bernie's Book Barn, to cite two bookselling extremes.

Having worked as an online secondhand bookseller for 25 years, and knowing the Chicago book scene since my early visits to Red Rover and the Myopic – I have seen bookstores and booksellers come and go in this great city. The death of Florence Shay of Titles, Inc., the retirement and passing of my colleague and mentor Roger Carlson of Bookman's Alley, and the recent closing of the Chicago Rare Book Center partnership of veterans Ann Dumler, Thomas J. Joyce, Patricia Martinak and Paul Garon, mark the exit from the scene of the old school bookseller – bookmen and women who began when the Chicago area still had many wealthy book collectors and private libraries of the Edward S. Ayers and Abel Berland type to keep the supply of fine and rare books flowing into their bookstores through auction and estate sales. (As I write this, I got word that Larry Van De Carr's Booklegger's Used Books, a 30 year old traditional bookshop on Broadway near Fullerton, is also closing) The new generation of bookseller emerging from college campuses is more scholarly and hyper-modern in bookish tastes, and depends for most of its stock on suppliers like Powell's or the Texas Bookman, library and charity sales, or on a younger community with smaller collections of mostly newer books. I suspect the same trends may be seen in other major U.S. cities.

Since 2010 this new wave of used bookstores has come to include Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston on the North Shore (run by a former Evanston Public Librarian in the same location as the legendary Bookman's Alley); Looking Glass Books of Oak Park in the western suburbs; Uncharted Books on North Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood; and Open Books on Des Plaines in the West Loop which, while a charity and literacy center, has an ‘extraordinary’ bookstore stocked with over 20,000 donated books in all categories attractively laid out, with colorful decor and, importantly, space for public events – another feature that distinguishes today's used bookshops from those of an earlier era. (Again, all these stores can be searched by name to view their websites, precise locations, photos, etc.)

Of course for the book collector with an interest in fine, rare and antiquarian books in brick-and-mortar locations, there remains Powell's in Hyde Park, with its wall of rare, antiquarian and scholarly books behind its long counter; William Fiedler's transplanted Gallery Bookstore on Belmont near Clark, with its unique specialties in horror, mystery and sci/fi; and Kurt Gippert Books, a by-appointment bookshop in Logan Square. Mr. Gippert is one of the younger members of the ABAA, and has been involved in Chicago's only antiquarian book fair, the Chicago Book and Paper Show held in June by the Midwest Antiquarian Booksellers Association (a wonderful organization well known to me, as I joined it on becoming a full-time bookseller). His bookshop has an impressive inventory of 30,000 antiquarian, rare, collectible and out-of-print books, historic photographs, autographed and manuscript material, pre-1850 maps and ephemera with specialties including Americana, voyages and travel, natural history, color plate books, architecture and the decorative arts. It is probably the only store of its kind in Chicago, one that combines the best of the old with much of the new (including special events) in an attractive and friendly setting and all under the supervision of a smartly dressed gentleman.

These old-time bookshops, however, are disappearing. One of Chicago's most popular and oldest bookstore, Bookworks, closed last year when its longtime owners, Bob Roschke and Rhonda Pylon, decided that the rents in Wrigleyville, where the Chicago Cubs have created a re-developers' utopia, made their continued brick-and-mortar presence unsustainable. I already cited Bookman's Alley, Selected Works and the Chicago Rare Book Center as similar examples. Among other well-known Chicago-area bookstores that have closed or moved out of town are Howard's Books (Howard Cohen's last venture into brick-and-mortar after he closed his last Bookseller's Row store), O'Gara and Wilson Booksellers (which closed and moved to Chesterton, Indiana), and Rain Dog Books (now in Bloomington, Illinois).

These changes are also reflected in the annual Printers Row Book Fair. Held in the South Loop every June since 1975, it is the Midwest's largest open-air festival devoted to books and booksellers. Once featuring over 100 used, rare and out-of-print dealers, it now emphasizes authors and publishers, with the used book vendors list reduced to less than twenty. Even the name has been changed to Printers Row Lit Fest.

There are, of course, a number of Chicago booksellers who sell all kinds of old, rare and fine books from their homes. Paul Garon, fresh from closing the Chicago Rare Book Center, continues to run Beasley Books on the north side. Thomas J. Joyce, probably the doyen of Chicago antiquarian and rare booksellers and one of my mentors, continues to deal from his loft on Racine in the West Town area. John Rybski continues to run his longtime catalog and internet firm, American History Unlimited, from the old Back of the Yards neighborhood, near Bibliodisia Books, the multi-venue 25,000-volume online business I run with my wife Ofelia from a two-story coach house in nearby Brighton Park, also on the Southwest Side and which, with the recent addition of Powell's Book Warehouse, has become a small Mecca for bookbuyers.

Keith Peterson, who closed Selected Works in the Fine Arts Building, now sells on Alibris. I visited Keith last November at his 7th story apartment in the landmark Parkview apartment complex by the lake in Hyde Park. In a modest two-bedroom flat furnished with antique furniture, posters and curiosa, two rows of bookcases line a hallway next to the entrance. He welcomed me warmly and encouraged me to look over the books. “They are mainly books I did not want to sell off at the closing sale” he said. One bookcase held the classic 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, bound in full brown morocco with raised bands. Another displayed books from the library of Nelson Algren, with his legendary cat illustrations next to his signatures. “I got those at the sale of Algren's library in his Evergreen apartment.” A smaller bookcase had books being offered in his recently opened online store on Alibris, including Algren's rare first book Somebody in Boots. Atop the case I spied Keith's famous cat Hodges, who has been the subject of three books by a local author and illustrator, and who was a longtime resident of his bookstore.

I asked Keith why he closed his shop after over 30 years. “The population is changing. At my Broadway location it used to be more bohemian. Now there are people who grew up with computers.” He explained that his last location in the Loop tried to attract the large student population from Roosevelt University, Columbia College Chicago, and De Paul's downtown campus, all nearby. "It turned out that they were less bookish and arts-oriented. After a few years they began drifting away. My books were old, and by older classic authors. I considered my store a ‘university of self-study’ but they still drifted away.” I mentioned the new Dial Bookstore in his old location; and he said he had been to their opening night. “It was a very different kind of store. Very bright, very neat, very clean, with more between shelves. The books were mostly new, with a small selection of old books under glass.” The new store was crowded with young people, he added. “It was so clean, you would not expect a bookstore cat there, and there was none.” He glanced sadly at Hodges.

After I left I drove the ten miles of old streets along Garfield Boulevard from Hyde Park to Brighton park, passing hundreds of old storefronts, many vacant, on this single route in Chicago's South Side. Ironically, I passed a community reading room with a new University of Chicago-sponsored arts center rising next to it. I was convinced that to survive, the bookstore of the future must follow the models created by the new precedent-shattering stores and be small, community-sensitive, affordable, and yes, crusading. These models are bringing a renewed love of books, not simply as precious objects one might view for potential investment, but as cultural and useful educational artifacts that not only stand out in the age of the computer, but bring some joy along with enlightenment to new generations who rediscover their timeless value.

Carlos Martínez runs Bibliodisia Books, an out-of-print and rare online bookstore in Chicago. Born in Havana and since 1976 a naturalized citizen of the U.S., he is a member of the Midwest Antiquarian Booksellers Association, and has written on books-related topics for The Caxtonian (magazine of The Caxton Club), Book Season, Ashland Life, Substance, and other periodicals.