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Bookselling in Chicago: Past & Present

July, 2012
By Carlos Martinez

Three years ago a 25-year old college graduate named Gabe Levinson decided to build a tricycle bookmobile, load it with freebies from local indie publishers, and ride through Chicago’s Wicker Park offering books to the sunbathers free of charge.

His reason? To get people to read. For his efforts, Levinson was arrested while on one of his rounds in the park and cited for violating the City’s Itinerant Merchant Code, even though he was giving the books away.

He was eventually released, and his story was prominently featured in the April 2011 Reader’s Digest, but his case remains symbolic of the problems facing anyone who promotes or sells books in America’s “Second City.” Consider these facts:

  1. Chicago, a metropolitan colossus of 7 million, has no stable, regularly scheduled, well-attended antiquarian and rare book fair. Its one nationally-famous jewel for the promotion of new and used books, the Printers Row Book Fair held in June and once filled with over 150 bookdealers from throughout the Midwest and two-days of attendance consistently topping 70,000, has been renamed Printers Row Lit Fest, leaning more toward author readings and reduced to two thirds its former size, its tent spaces priced beyond the means of most used book dealers. A local Alderman even wanted it shut down permanently, saying that it hurt local businesses and inconvenienced the residents of posh town-houses nearby.
  2. The downtown business district, which includes the Loop, has only one small antiquarian bookstore, Printers Row Rare Books, and one slightly larger used bookstore, Selected Works, hidden away on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building. The famed Abraham Lincoln Bookshop lies just north of the Loop.
  3. America’s foremost source of new and used architectural books, the Prairie Avenue Bookshop, was shut down after more than three decades when the Hasbroucks failed to find a buyer for the business. Rent leases simply scared away qualified buyers who might have carried on its tradition of service to architects, designers and artists all over the world.
  4. Chicago’s used bookstores can be counted on two hands, and are concentrated in two city neighborhoods, Wrigleyville/Lincoln Park and Hyde Park.

Belying a storied literary tradition going back to the first of two literary renaissances in the 1890s, and despite a gallery of world-class booksellers that has included Walter M. Hill, Adolph Kroch, Ben Abramson, Hamill and Barker, Wright Howes, Van Allen Bradley, and Kenneth Nebenzahl, Chicago remains, in the words of its expatriate bookseller Richard Cady of Arizona, “a very good place to buy books, but a very bad place to sell them.”

Why is Chicago so hard on its booksellers, bookstores, and even book-givers? As it turns out, it is also tightfisted with its librarians, having shorted their hours and cut already miserly book budgets. How, in spite of all this, does it continue to attract book-lovers from throughout the world?  And what does it need to achieve a status in the book world comparable to Boston and San Francisco, if not New York, with their highly successful book fairs and many centrally-located bookstores?

The first question can be partially answered by recourse to Jane Jacobs’ classic Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which Jacobs cites “the need for older buildings” to protect financially marginal institutions like drama and art studios and bookstores from developers who, converting or demolishing old buildings, make high rents and mortgages necessary and unaffordable for many artists and other purveyors of high culture. Chicago today is in the middle of a building boom that has transformed her business district into a series of strip malls and big box plazas which only national chains can afford to occupy. This is one reason why the Chicago Rare Book Center, one of only two multi-bookseller malls in the country, was forced to move to the adjacent suburb of Evanston. The Fine Arts Building, with Keith Peterson’s Selected Works and other culturally-oriented tenants, is an anachronism made possible by government subsidy and its status as a well-preserved national landmark – and yet it has been bought by Chicago Rare’s former landlord.  Should he lose the building Peterson, who for many years ran his bookshop off a basement storefront in the Wrigleyville area, is unlikely to afford rent space elsewhere in the Loop.

Other major obstacles to the spread of bookstores in Chicago include the city’s high illiteracy and crime rates, documented by perennially low reading scores in many inner city schools and the 74 shootings in the first three months of 2012. Likewise, changes in the way city residents seek recreation, including the internet and cable TV, limit booksellers to the two areas already cited, which have the advantage of location in university enclaves. These conditions are not limited to Chicago alone, but they help compound a problem typified by the Gabe Levinson story. That problem is the role played by unenlightened or uncaring city officials and politicians, who year after year make it harder for small businesses to thrive in the city. Rampant regulations such as those governing signs over sidewalks, strict city codes involving misapplied vendor licenses, ballooning property taxes, and redevelopment policies which favor urban renewal in ways that ignore the “need for older buildings” – all of these factors combine to endanger the survival of bookstores and their contribution to the city’s cultural life.

Sometimes city officials may even be manipulated in ways that hurt bookstores. The Myopic Bookstore, in Gabe Levinson’s Wicker Park, has a longstanding policy of cushioning the absurdly low prices it offers to its neo-Bohemian clientele by forgoing the standard dealer courtesy discount, which is usually 20%.  Its owner told me how one time a high profile bookseller asked for the standard discount after piling up a large purchase on his counter. The owner refused, explaining his policy. He told me that the bookseller was upset, which was understandable, but then added an ominous note: shortly after, a city inspector visited the Myopic and cited it for violations of the Building Code. The Myopic does have facilities that some visitors find unsafe, having been converted from a restaurant to a bi-level store with a rather shaky alcove. One is left to draw one’s own conclusions about the owner’s story, but the fact that the Myopic was inspected is one more example of the difficulties facing Chicago’s used bookstores.

Once in a while a Chicago community and its politicians may come to the rescue of a bookstore in trouble, as in the case of Joseph O’Gara, Antiquarian Bookseller, although one suspects that this could only happen in Hyde Park, with its tradition of independent and reform-minded aldermen and university professors. In the late 1980s O’Gara’s was threatened with eviction from its longtime location on 57th Street, a site highly valued by O’Gara, who had been in the book business since the 1930s, it being the former location of Woodworth’s Bookstore, the longest continuously existing bookshop in the city. With its high ceilings, ample lighting, rolling English ladders, and unrivaled setting next to a park, a school, and a new bookstore, the Woodworth building was a bookseller’s dream. The landlord wanted to raise O’Gara’s rent to reflect those of newer buildings and businesses in the neighborhood, which included Ann Sather’s Swedish pancake house, Kinko’s (now a FedEx Office) and 57th Street Books, the new bookstore run by a neighborhood cooperative (another Hyde Park anomaly). In response, the University of Chicago and Hyde Park communities mounted a petition drive backed by notables such as author Saul Bellow and economist Milton Friedman, and gained the help and influence of the legendary liberal alderman Leon Despres, among others, in getting the landlord to waive the eviction.

Despres, by the way, built a sizable personal library via regular visits to O’Gara’s, and after his passing two years ago it was sold back to the store, which displayed it in an honored place near the entrance, along with his photograph – an unusual example of a politician’s benevolence to a bookstore extending beyond his actual lifetime.

It may be all but impossible to accurately document the value of used bookstores to society, but as with everything else in this mysterious life of ours, it’s worth a try. Perhaps the best estimate of that value was provided by the renowned anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who in his The American Way of Life said that “Secondhand bookstores are the second universities of the land, perhaps the first, for anyone seriously desiring an education can procure it by regularly frequenting the secondhand bookstores and from them building a working library.” This does not seem an auspicious valuation in the age of the e-book, but it is lent credence if we take note of the many writers, artists, scientists, and other intellectuals who have left us their memoirs of visiting and being transformed or inspired by secondhand bookstores.  One thinks of Margaret Langdon discovering Anna Leonowen’s diary in Chicago’s storied Economy Bookstore, and drawing inspiration from it to write Anna and the King of Siam, as she recounts on the rear jacket panel of her book.  Or Vincent Starrett browsing in Walter Hill’s downtown bookshop and coming across the works of forgotten Welsh folklorist Arthur Machen, which inspired him to write the classic “Arthur Machen: Novelist of Ecstasy and Sin” thereby encouraging generations of young people to read Machen’s works with fascination and enthusiasm – no small achievement in an era when motivating youth to read is problematic at best. There are many more examples, but the preceding should be enough to convince the body politic that the disappearing book stores on Main Street are worth preserving.

Nevertheless, the hostile political climate affecting Chicago’s cultural and bookish institutions cannot be relieved on a wide scale by simple appeals to more enlightened members of the City Hall circle. Acting on behalf of the local booksellers association, the MWABA, I once wrote a letter with a proposal to Maggie Daley, the late wife of former Mayor Daley, asking her help and support on behalf of bookstores, booksellers, and book fairs. She sponsored the “One Book, One Chicago” reading program, among other projects, and was said to be the Mayor’s conscience in cultural and human affairs. Although I never received an acknowledgment, I must emphasize that Maggie Daley was an outstanding and caring individual, having done a lot for the Chicago Public Library, however because of her illness it’s possible she never saw the letter.

The few bookstores that do survive and thrive, despite high-rent locations, have done so by adapting and changing. In place of the multi-level book emporiums of the past – like the aforementioned Economy Bookstore, Central Bookstore and Kroch’s & Brentano’s, all formerly in the Loop – one now finds small, high-turnover storefronts in well-trafficked arterial streets run by one person with the occasional assistance of a trusted scout, a college student, or a retired colleague. Stores like Bookworks and Bookman’s Corner on Clark Street, the Gallery on Belmont, and Bookleggers’ on Broadway, fit this profile. Their stock is in the low to mid-priced range to encourage turnover, which is critical to keeping them fresh and viable for regular browsers. The vast majority of their books are not listed online, so they have less competition from the internet for the patronage of both collectors and casual browsers. Small glass-enclosed sections or shelves behind the counter hold rarities which are also priced to move but protected from careless handling.

The exceptions to the rule are Chicago’s oldest bookstore, the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop, (which shares space in an old Chicago Avenue brownstone on the Near North Side) and Powell’s. Taken over by Daniel Weinberg from the renowned Ralph G. Newman, who founded it in 1938, the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop has one of the world’s greatest stocks of books and autograph documents relating to the Civil War, the Presidency, and Lincoln. As for Powell’s, it just opened a third store on Halsted Street, in space that was formerly the site of a recently closed new books indie in University Village, adjacent to the University of Illinois at Chicago. The attractive shelving left behind was stocked to mirror Powell’s successful Hyde Park and Lincoln Park models, with a mixture of remainders and a few older scholarly titles, including a small antiquarian section.

The turnover in these small stores is high, and collectors and dealers need to be vigilant if they hope to catch the rarities that disappear quickly thanks to the consistently modest prices. Placing one’s wants on the store’s buying list does seem to yield a higher frequency of success than periodic visits.

Where one can expect to consistently find stock comparable in quality and rarity to those of the legendary bookstores of the past is in the private offices and home-based businesses of dealers such as ABAA members Thomas J. Joyce of Joyce and Company and Paul Garon of Beasley Books, both of whom are partners in the Chicago Rare Book Center; John Rybski of American History Unlimited; and Helena Szepe of Hyde Park. (The present writer is honored to be part of this company as founder of Bibliodisia Books located near Rybski on the Southwest Side.)  These dealers, who receive visitors by appointment, have more time to study their inventory and their specialist markets, and more freedom to move about and hunt down rarities. Together with the low-priced small storefronts, they are another reason why Chicago continues to attract out-of-state buyers while retaining the promise of bearing comparison with more favored cities on both coasts.

How can that promise be fulfilled? The solution lies in booksellers making contact with the public, preferably in a creative manner. The unconventional might be something like buying the long unused book trailer behind Howard’s Books in Evanston and taking it to local flea markets and farmer markets. Longtime Chicago used book dealer Howard Cohen (whose three Bookseller Row outlets are more sorely-missed victims of high rents and redevelopment) inherited the late Connie Reuveni’s Booknook Parnassus, with the famed book trailer that she used to bring books to Printers Row – it attached to most vehicles, had sides that opened to reveal bookshelves, and a rear door leading to a tiny bookroom. (At last report, any enterprising bookseller could have it for $400.) Conventional methods might be through book fairs and lectures before clubs and associations; by means of blogs or other electronic mediums; and in every possible manner, such as this article, to persuade the public that not only is reading a civilized value, but that building a personal library, besides being an exciting and educational hobby, is a form of preserving and conveying good literature for future generations.

(I ignore the negating influence of e-books intentionally. There is strong evidence from many quarters, including the published statements of local authors like Jonathan Lethem and Dave Eggers, and especially the testimony of Booklist editor Donna Seaman in that marvelous Chicago authors blogsite, Literary Chicago, that books are the preferred choice for recreational reading, if not for academic study.)

Thomas J. Joyce, who works as Joyce and Company (a takeoff on Shakespeare and Company) in a loft just west of the North Loop area, is one bookseller who has attempted to make such contact in a variety of ways, including the televised Antiques Appraisal show, presentations before The Caxton Club and the Chicago Corral of The Westerners, both of which he is a member, and annual appearances at the Printers Row and the sporadic Midwest Antiquarian Booksellers Association book fairs. A disciple of Van Allen Bradley, Joyce has been in the business since 1973 and is a member of the ABAA as well as a Past President of the MWABA.  He also co-founded the Chicago Rare Book Center book mall in 1998 to increase public exposure to better books and to booksellers with home-based businesses and no storefront.

I have known Joyce since 1995, and have been fortunate to have him as my mentor in building up my own home-based business.  In numerous talks at Chicago Rare, his loft, and while driving together to the MWABA’s Twin Cities book fair, he has generously shared his knowledge and opinions as to why Chicago lacks an antiquarian book fair of national reputation:

After decades of semi-annual regional fairs, typically one inside the city and one in the suburbs, the series was interrupted and favored venues were lost... a new venue was found  for 2010, but the fair was held in mid-August, when many Chicagoans are vacationing, so disappointing attendance figures and comparable sales discouraged many of the out-of-state and Canadian exhibitors from returning.

… also, Printers Row Lit Fest gets major promotion from its recent owner, the Chicago Tribune Corp., which undercuts the interest in book fairs from other newspapers and other media.  And unlike a smallcity such as Lansing, Michigan, or Rochester, New York, the major broadcast media are too costly to buy advertising in, while the book fair is too small to merit free publicity, even in the dog days of August.

As one of the oldest continuous members of the MWABA, Joyce remembers the association’s founding and its early ambitions for the Chicago book trade. I asked him what would be a practical way for booksellers to unite and establish a viable venue for a Chicago fair, and his answer was telling.

The MWABA was started by Richard Leekley, Van Allen Bradley, Florence Shay and others, and held monthly meetings at bookshops and homes for mutual support and education.  The organization grew to about 150 members, stretching from Nebraska to Arkansas, and from Florida to Canada, with concentrations of members in the Chicago region and the Twin Cities. To address the problems and opportunities created by its size and success, the organization re-constituted itself with governance by a Board of Directors, and its core monthly meeting became optional until it was abandoned. That and the explosion of the internet took most of the energy out of the association, despite continuing and sincere efforts by its officers.

It would appear, then, that some kind of renewal of the association’s early collegial spirit, especially its monthly meetings, might be necessary to confront the problems of declining book fairs, as well as restoring Chicago to its rightful place as an international center for the used book trade. Unfortunately, philosophical disagreements among MWABA members, an aging membership unable to maintain the pace it once did, a lack of new blood, and pessimism about the future of book fairs in the face of the internet have so far undermined efforts in this direction. The youngest members of the MWABA are in their forties, and very few of them seem interested in carrying on the torch. That there are plenty of young booksellers online is not to be doubted, but none, to my knowledge, have come forward.  Possibly one of the MWABA’s goals should be to seek out and invite them to join the association and share in its social and professional benefits, as well as its mutually rewarding responsibilities.

As to the book fairs, perhaps the best recourse according to Joyce would be on the model of Ray Walsh and his Mid-Michigan Book Fair. “Bookseller Ray has been operating it as an owner-operator for decades,” he said.  “But it takes money”. Curiously, Mr. Jay Pritzker, the founder of the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago, recently bought Printers Row Fine and Rare Books from Jack La Pine, who remains as store manager.

Chicago booksellers have received national attention recently, and it is possible that they can overcome the inertia engendered by political disfavor, a volatile economy, and competing entertainment venues. Chicago Rare Book Center has been televised on The History Detectives and a promotional film for the Chicago Transit Authority.  Powell’s in Lincoln Park leased its entire antiquarian and rare book room for the filming of a movie locally. Bookman’s Alley, in adjacent Evanston and founded by longtime MWABA member Roger Carlson, was described in Audrey Niffenegger’s award-winning novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife. Paradoxically, in April, after more than three decades of operation, the avuncular Roger (Joyce’s term) was retiring and closing his shop, and Bookman’s Alley was profiled in several newspapers, with Niffenegger appearing in a video segment broadcast on the Chicago Tonight program on WTTW, the city’s regional PBS station.

“Unfortunately, that bubble of interest is for another closing business,” added Joyce, “and does not celebrate the growth of book trade activity. I suspect that there were no cameras at the opening of Powell’s new location near Roosevelt and Halsted, just south of the new Hellenic Museum in Greek Town.”

Although not strictly a Chicago bookseller, Roger Carlson is very close to the city, having exhibited at its book fairs and served on the board of the Chicago-based Midwest Antiquarian Booksellers Association. In an interview for Book Source shortly before the planned closing of his shop in May he told me his customers included Chicagoans from all walks of life. His ideas for customer outreach seem pertinent to new and future Chicago booksellers when we recall that one of the solutions for fulfilling Chicago’s potential as a center of bookselling lies in making contact with the public.

“During the first years I did a number of things to attract customers,” he said. “We had pianists, string quartets, blues singers, and 25 or 30 book auctions. With no sales objective in mind we have also hosted a wedding, a wake, a marriage proposal (accepted) and a small number of author signings. The pleasure of a shop for me was in large part the common interest I shared with a large percentage of my patrons. We like to read. We are simpatico. In my 32 years of operating the shop I have come to know hundreds of regulars, and I remember most of them with some degree of affection.”

Carlson was in advertising for 25 years with several employers, including Fortune Magazine, National Geographic and the NBC network. At 50 he decided to pursue a boyhood dream and open a bookshop. He combined knowledge gleaned from regular reading of literary critics’ newspaper columns, such as Bob Cromie’s Book Beat, with regular bookbuying trips to Kroch’s & Brentano’s bargain used books basement, bringing them to an alley building 100 feet from a heavily traveled street corner with a Marshall Field’s store. Using antique furniture and curiosa from years of personal collecting, and decorating the shop with plants and fresh flowers, he created the aptly-named Bookman’s Alley, which for 32 years drew residents as well as tourists from all over the country.

Why, then, was Carlson unable to find a buyer or successor after he announced his impending retirement late last year? 

“The shop has a number of strong negatives,” Carlson continued. “The building is poorly maintained. It has no plumbing and lacks central air. Then there are the sensible concerns about the future of this business. Finally, I have said to the many individuals who have expressed an interest in buying the shop that it probably requires a degree of fanaticism and the understanding that when they sign the lease they are also signing a vow of poverty.

“Richard Barnes, probably the smartest and most successful dealer in the area, had told me that operating a bookshop involved a vow of poverty. He was right, but for me, after eight years of mostly ten-hour days seven days a week, the shop had produced a marginal but reasonable living.

“The big boxes, the internet, and the reading machines have combined to make this business something of a crapshoot,” Carlson concluded. “ ‘I’ll pass the dice.’ Through the years I had a great deal of help from other booksellers, particularly Ashley Kennedy and Richard Cady of Chicago. All in all, it’s been a great ride.”

As of this writing, Bookman’s Alley is on verge of closing for lack of a buyer. It, too, has fallen victim to the kind of cultural neglect that seems endemic among Chicago’s city officials, developers and legislators. Preserving and maintaining older buildings, enforcing codes fairly and judiciously, and providing public resources to a business that serves important cultural needs – these and other measures are needed to save the city’s bookselling heritage. Judging by the experiences of Joyce, Carlson, O’Gara and their colleagues mentioned above, it remains to be seen if Chicago booksellers will carry on their time-honored trade in a new Renaissance, encouraging the Gabe Levinsons of the world to mount their book bikes in hopes of  promoting books on the sidewalks and in the parks of Chicago by any means possible, or gradually fade from view.


Carlos Martinez is an antiquarian and rare bookseller with a by-appointment shop on Chicago’s Southwest Side (Bibliodisia Books). He is one of the original sellers on Alibris/Interloc, and a member of IOBA and the Midwest Antiquarian Booksellers Association, where he served on the executive board. He has previously written for Book Source Magazine, The Caxtonian, Literary Chicago, and Bookseller Monthly.