Reading local: Don’t turn the page on some of Chicago’s best bookstores
May 13, 2019
It was late April but snow was pouring down in Chicago. Undeterred, though, by unseasonal cold weather or gray slush beneath their feet, an influx of Chicago book lovers scoured the city for Chicago’s Independent Bookstore Day. The literary extravaganza, put on by the concerted efforts of 37 independently owned bookstores in the city, was designed in the vein of the pub crawl, swapping fermentation for fiction. The participants flocked to different neighborhoods, traveling from shop to shop to get a stamp on their “passports” — 10 visits meant 10 stamps and 10 percent off books for an entire year.
Nationally, there’s been a 40 percent increase in independent bookstore numbers since 2009, said Ryan Raffaelli, a Harvard University professor and author of an upcoming study on the independent bookstore business, in an interview with National Public Radio.
But German author Takis Würger said during a reading for his new novel at DePaul that before buying his own book for a friend at an independent bookstore, he took pause, almost deterred from purchasing it because of the price.
We traveled to independent bookstores across the city to find out why, or if, they are the pulse of Chicagoan readers.
Barbara’s was first erected on Wells Street in 1963, and has been owned by Don Barlin and Janet Bailey since 1967. The store has expanded since then, touting six locations in the Chicagoland area and one in Boston’s South Station, but they still adamantly consider themselves an independent store. Instead of being self-contained institutions, all seven locations are housed within another business or space. Scout Slava-Ross, 23, manages the Loop Barbara’s that lives on the ground floor of the Macy’s on State Street. Patrons mill around it—some shop for home goods, others get a bite at the food court kitty-corner to the books. It’s not uncommon to hear people going through the Pedway, their conversations carrying through the walls.
Slava-Ross attributed Barbara’s longevity to its partnerships, insisting they are still able to maintain integrity.
“It is a lot harder for independent bookstores to be the standalone bohemiths that they used to,” Slava-Ross said. “That’s how Barbara’s stuck around: by morphing, but still keeping all that good, independent bookstore mentality and selection of books.”
She said each store has autonomy and that there is not a formula to which they all must adhere.
On libraries versus bookstores, Slava-Ross understands the dichotomy more than most. Her mother was a librarian who also owned a used bookstore, and the family lived in it for a few weeks in between moving houses. Slava-Ross said her name is eponymous to the “To Kill a Mockingbird” protagonist.
“There is something special about owning a book — to be able to lend it to people and have it be a permanent fixture in your life,” she said. “You can build whole communities and relationships over having books.”
Slava-Ross said she still believes there’s no comparison between online books and the real deal.
“Nothing beats browsing a bookstore,” she said. “There are times I wouldn’t have heard about a book unless I had happened to see it on the shelf. I would have never have thought to search for it online, but I’ve come across it now.”
She added that for college students, independent bookstores are the way to go.
“Having a local, dependable independent that you can visit is a great way to become immersed in a community,” Salva-Ross said. “You don’t always have a lot of time as a college student to read what you want. It’s all the more important to find that good book that’s worth that time.”
Chris Mahin started working at Barbara’s in 1997. For the first couple of years, he presided over the Barbara’s in the lobby of Northwestern Memorial Hospital. It was in that setting that he realized the vitality-giving power of reading, and the important role the arbiters of reading material have.
“You really have the sense that for people this is really what made the difference,” he said. “In some cases they didn’t make it. You were selling to or buying for them that were comforting them. Or they had a family member didn’t make it, but at least they had a book to read while they were waiting by the bedside.”
He said people were surprised, and then overjoyed, to find a bookstore there.
“They need something to read while they are waiting to find out what happened to their relative or while they’re recuperating,” Mahin said. “People would ring up with 10 tabloids. They would proactively apologize and say ‘I don’t usually read stuff like this, but my son was just diagnosed with incurable cancer. I just need to forget for a few minutes.’”
Mahin recalled times when someone on one of the top floors of the hospital would call down and make an order. The bookstore attendants would run it up to them, and oftentimes, the patients would try to tip them. He said he would decline and think to himself, “No, no this is the best part of the job. To be able to give a sick person some sort of comfort.”
Mahin said even though these situations are unique, they tell a broader truth about independent bookstores.
“Even in less extreme cases, it’s nice to be able to make a connection with a customer, no matter how fleeting,” he said.
The Book Cellar
At The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, the whistle of steaming milk can be heard as baristas prepare lattes.
Owner Suzy Takacs works through a stack of papers she has at her table. Above her, a liquor license is hung. She decided to open up her bookstore with a name that invokes the thought of a winery.
“Books and wine are two of my favorite things,” she said.
Back in 2003, Takacs was a nurse practitioner at Northwestern Memorial. She saw a bookstore void in North Center and decided she would be the one to fill it. She quit her job and a year later, The Book Cellar was born.
Bill Dalton, a former DePaul English professor, has been frequenting the store for years.
“I introduce myself [as] the mascot,” he said. “I still read books — actual books — so it’s great to still have these stores around.”
Takacs wanted to have a variety of reasons for people to come in, so she included a small café in the plans. Today, the grilled cheese is their most popular menu item. To keep the space filled, the store works events nearly every night, hosting events from comedy shows to nonfiction essay readings. They frequently turn into a traveling bookstore, loading up a car and heading off-site to sell at keynote speaker addresses or restaurants, with chef’s cookbooks in tow. Over 10 book clubs meet at The Book Cellar, and the café sees a fair share of first dates.
Takacs said she works with about 10 employees.
“Everyone does everything,” she said. “We have a mature staff that are avid readers and love to talk about what they’re reading.”
Dalton said this has made all the difference for him.
“There’s several of them that are really good at specifically recommending something because they know me well now,” he said. “They’ll come up to me with a book and say, ‘You’ve got to read this.’”
Years ago, Erika VanDam saw that the missing piece of her Roscoe Village neighborhood was a bookstore. The result of that observation is Roscoe Books. Manager Wayne Giacalone joined the team a year and a half after it opened. Since he was a kid, he wanted to own his own independent bookstore. He says working in one has proven to be even better than he expected.
According to Giacalone, the Chicago indie bookstore community is tight. He sees his contemporaries outside of their stores frequently and is friends with many of them.
“We work together to make this city the best literary city it can be,” Giacalone said. “There’s a lot of great readers in Chicago and a lot of interesting things going on. Sometimes New York and LA don’t realize that. We try to get more authors here and have more conversations about what’s going on and what’s being read.”
Giacalone said he prefers hand-held books to digital ones.
“A book is a tactile experience,” he said. “It’s not just the words on a page. It’s being able to flip through them. It’s something you’re spending a lot on time on; you’re not just clicking and having it sent to you. You’re actually getting to see the book ahead of time. It adds to the experience.”
Greg Zimmerman has been working at Roscoe Books since its inception. He said he thinks people have the impression that Amazon is dismantling the independent bookstore industry and argues that is simply not the case.
“It’s encouraging that Amazon didn’t actually kill the IBS even though it’s what they set out to do,” Zimmerman said. “People want a community when they buy books. They don’t want an algorithm to tell them what to read. They want personalized recommendations and to meet other people who are readers.”
Giacalone said that given their smaller space, the store focuses on having a wide variety of genres within well-curated shelves. The most prominent section is their kids nook at the back of the store.
“Kids love to interact with the books,” Giacalone said. “Having their own space where they can have a one-on-one experience with the books helps them develop a lifelong love of reading.”
Amazon opened its first brick-and-wmortar bookstore in Chicago in the summer of 2017. Located on Southport, Roscoe Books is the closest independent bookstore to the chain. They stand just 1.1 miles apart.
The e-commerce giant moved into the physical storefront sphere in 2015, when they opened their first bookstore in Seattle.
Giacalone said it was scary when they first opened, but that Amazon’s looming presence hasn’t seemed to affect them. Zimmerman agreed.
“If anything, it’s helped us,” he said. “The community rallied around us because they like to see us here. They want us to stay.”
He noted that they offer things that the Amazon store doesn’t, like storytimes for kids and various book clubs.
Giacalone said they offer a more personalized experience in general. Oftentimes, they’ll base the books they order on what they know a specific customer enjoys.
The last decade has seen a revitalization for the industry, according to the American Booksellers Association. Their research shows that there has been a compound annual growth rate of 5.4 percent over the last five years.
“While not every bookstore or community has seen this growth, the national trends are clear,” Giacalone said.
In March, Amazon announced that it would shut down 87 of its kiosk pop-up shops in order to focus more on Amazon Bookstores.
“[We] are instead expanding Amazon Books and Amazon 4-Star, where we provide a more comprehensive customer experience and broader selection,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
Giacalone said this year’s Independent Bookstore Day was their busiest yet and that he was completely exhausted by the end of the event.
“It’s wonderful,” he said. “A lot of the members of the community came out just to say, ‘We’re really happy you’re here. We want to support you and make sure you stick around.’”