An article, that looks like this, came my way recently claiming that the independent bookstore has risen from the status of near extinction and is now “booming.” While this is wonderful news for those of us who love bookstores as much as we love books, it made me question what kinds of bookstores are thriving in the era of Amazon.
Considering the bookstores in my city, I might make the argument that shops that do well in the era of online shopping are bringing something to the proverbial table besides books. Many of us predicted that the saving grace of the indie bookstore would be events and actions that seek to build communities. 57thStreet Books, Unabridged Bookstore, and Volumes Book Cafe— three of my favorite local shops—regularly hold author readings and fun activities in an effort to bring people together as well as sell books. And while I’m not sure if all three are booming, I do know that the first two on the list survived the rise of Borders and Barnes and Noble seemingly unscathed. Perhaps one can surmise that the bookstores that lasted had a dedicated group of regulars willing to support their favorite shops and ignore the siren song of the Very Big Business. Now that Borders is kaput and Barnes and Noble is limping, these stalwart shops can have the last laugh.
So great— a few venerable indies have survived and a slew of new shops have sprung up, but what exactly have they sprung from? I might suggest that the independent bookstores of today’s Chicago have replaced a kind of shop that is currently on its way to extinction: the dusty, messy, quirky-at-best and cranky-at-worst used bookstore.
And now a bit about me (of course).
I arrived in the north side of Chicago in 1993, having spent my childhood in a series of southwest suburbs without a good bookstore in sight. I would’ve killed for Borders. Ready for a life of literature, art, and aimlessness, I moved north and started haunting the used bookshops. And there were a lot of them to haunt. Almost all of them were helmed by strange men who appeared unable to function anywhere other than behind the counter, usually in a chair, often reading, sometimes drinking. The stores were often “loosely organized,” and browsing required a sense of adventure. One did not stroll in looking for a specific book. Rather, it was best to wander the aisles and let a book find you. These shops would not hold events, as they—too crowded with clothbounds and paperbacks—had no room. They sold no coffee, no scones, no tchotchkes. In the early to mid-1990s, when bookstores were beginning to double as record stores and cafés, these shops were not long for the world.
I worked at one of these shops, the Aspidistra. It remains my favorite bookstore. It is the model for what I look for in an indie: a variety of books, many I might not find elsewhere, many out of print, all reasonably priced. The Aspidistra sold only used books and some remainders, so perhaps it’s not fair to compare City Lit or the Book Cellar to my beloved used shop, but I nevertheless tend to romanticize the cramped near-chaos of a used store.
Thankfully, the quirkiest, dustiest, most disorganized and downright impossible of used bookshops still remains. Bookman’s Corner (AKA Chandler’s) has been in its location at 2959 N. Clark Street since… actually, I have no idea how long. I do know that it was there in 1993 when I first walked in, and that little has changed.
If anything, it’s gotten less organized in the last 25 years. The window display may have once been carefully arranged with eye-catching titles and art books, but any plan has long been abandoned. The shelves are homemade, uneven, towering, sagging in places, double and sometimes triple-stacked with books in the loosest order imaginable. There’s no register—John, the owner and (usually) sole employee—does the math in his head or longhand on a scrap of paper. The prices are unbeatable. Most of the time, there’s an ongoing sale on anything older than a year; what we used to call “deep discounts” are ample. There are packed history sections separated by region, a recent infusion of philosophy texts, art books aplenty, and fiction that spans most of an aisle.
Somehow, among the clutter, there’s a system. Navigating it is part of the fun. Earlier I stated that these sorts of shops require a sense of adventure. At Bookman’s Corner, browsing is more of an extreme sport. Piles of books litter the floors to the extent that knocking them over, while not appreciated, is de rigueur. Large stepladders double as shelves. Getting lost in the space seems easy—claustrophobics will certainly be triggered before placing both feet through the door. There’s a spot in the store where shelves narrow and nearly converge, making movement to the next aisle difficult for many a Midwestern body.
I love this shop. It’s everything that commerce shouldn’t be in the year 2018. Few favors are done for the patron used to uniformity. There’s no cell phone usage allowed, photos are discouraged (whoops), and the owner will likely not know if a specific book is on site. To enter Bookman’s Corner is to travel back to a time when consumers were not aided by user-friendly interface, where exact needs were not catered to, where one might devote a chunk of time to the experience of meandering among physical content and fall down a rabbit hole of the printed page. Dare I argue that vanishing opportunities of disorientation and discovery are important in a tech-saturated culture predicated on the immediate satisfaction of every desire?
It’s fair to say that the old model of bookstore management—indifferent-to-grumpy customer service, a casual relationship with order, lack of adherence to posted operating hours—is ineffective. Your average patron would surely welcome the sleeker indie bookshop. Can’t fault anyone for preferring organization and regularly dusted shelves. Nevertheless, I don’t know what to think of a world where places like Bookman’s Corner won’t exist. The absurdist in me believes that these soon-to-be-extinct shops represent something profound and essential to our culture, and that their absence will cost us more than we know. I’m at a loss to articulate what exactly is so important about cranky little shops that alienate as many customers as they enchant, but important they are. To me, at least.
So while I’ll gladly drop my cash at Volumes, 57thStreet, The Seminary Co-op, Unabridged, and The Dial, I’ll also make time to savor Bookman’s Corner before the inevitable occurs and the old beast goes belly up. Hoping that’s not too soon.