by Andrew DeCanniere
With Independent Bookstore Day this weekend (Saturday May 2nd), I recently had the opportunity to speak with a number of owners of local independent bookstores — some of which have been a part of their community for many years, and others which are significantly newer. While the following does not, by any means, represent an exhaustive list of the fine independent booksellers in our area, they do represent some of my personal favorites — and, in my opinion, some of the very best that the Chicagoland area has to offer.
Jeff Garrett | Partner of Bookends & Beginnings
1712 Sherman Ave., Alley #1
UR Chicago Magazine: For starters, I always wonder about the history of the bookstore, particularly when it’s something of an institution in the community, as I know Bookman’s Alley — which previously occupied the space — had been in Evanston.
Jeff Garrett: Well, this goes back to October 2013, when Nina and I decided that we wanted to leave Northwestern and do something entirely different and do it together. We thought about various things. I mean, Nina has a cooking degree and thought of starting a restaurant, but that didn’t leave me with much to do because I don’t cook. Then we had the idea of starting a bookstore. Her background is actually in journalism, but she worked at Women & Children First, the feminist bookstore in Andersonville, on-and-off for about 15 years. She has bookselling experience and, as you may know, I was a research librarian for most of my career — for 30 plus years — and so we decided that this would be at the confluence of our interests and made the decision [to open a bookstore]. That very same day, we went to visit Roger Carlson in Bookman’s Alley, because we knew that he was trying to close, and we felt that this is the most desirable space for a bookstore in Evanston.
UR: And it really seems that there’s this sort of resurgence in independent bookstores.
JG: Definitely. There is, and we were aware of that and decided to ride that wave. Also, the economy has been recovering, and bookstores are very dependent on people having a little bit of surplus money. So, we felt that bookstores were coming back and that the time had come to start an independent bookstore in Evanston.
UR: How do you envision the future of the independent bookstore?
JG: Honestly, I think the new book economy is taking shape now, and the new book economy is going to be a parallel development of online shopping — online shopping for either physical books or e-books — and then independent bookstores will continue to recover and multiply. There has to be someplace where readers can have a physical encounter with books and also speak to live human beings to get suggestions and find out of the way things. People come into the store and say ‘What’s that book that has a bird in the title and it has a light green cover?’ and odds are one of us will remember what that is.
It’s very similar to what’s happened in food and shopping and restaurants. Cheaper is not always better. I think that certainly, in a place like Evanston, people have realized that you may pay more for meat or vegetables at a place like Whole Foods, but you’re getting something more for that. If you’re willing to pay a little bit more, you get a whole lot more for it. I think there’s going to be a sort of bipolar book economy. There’s Amazon on the one end and the independent bookstores on the other, and Evanston is just a wonderful laboratory for that because there’s everything. There’s Amazon, there’s Barnes & Noble and then there are bookstores like Amaranth or Howard’s or Market Fresh. Each of them is different.
UR: And I have to say that yours is a wonderful addition. It’s so great to come in and find something new — or just completely unexpected.
JG: We — Nina and I — really like talking with customers who come in, even if they know what they’re looking for. Sometimes, we can tell them something they otherwise wouldn’t know. Actually, 20 minutes before you called, I was talking with one of our regular customers who is a photographer and photography historian. I knew we had just gotten a book in on the Chicago Columbian Exposition. It was not in the photography section, but I knew where it was and he was delighted. There also was this illustrator, and I remember she was asking for books from Poland. We didn't have any books from Poland, but when I was in Germany I found a catalogue of children’s book illustrators. She would never have found this otherwise, and it was from an exhibit of Polish illustrators that took place in New Delhi in 2014. These are things you would probably never find at a Barnes & Noble and you’d probably never find them at Amazon. That’s why human intermediation is a good thing in a certain type of bookstore.
UR: Speaking of making recommendations, would you happen to have any recommendations?
JG: Well, obviously books that I have read and like are ones I am going to recommend to others, if I sense that their tastes go in that direction. One author is Alan Furst. He writes these sort of 1930s spy novels. If someone comes in and says that they have a four-hour plane ride and that they want something to read that isn’t going to upset them but will hold their attention and entertain them in a serious way, I’ll recommend his work. I’ve had a profound affection for Kazuo Ishiguro ever since reading The Remains of the Day, which I think is one of the great quiet novels of the late 20th century. In other words, my likes and dislikes are going to come into play, but I think people appreciate it. Also, customers will sometimes talk with other customers about ‘Have you read this? Is it any good?’ and so there are all kinds of ways we can stimulate new ideas in readers, and that’s a good thing.
UR: Any plans for Independent Bookstore Day yet?
JG: Yeah, on May 2nd we definitely do have plans. First of all, it’s a national event — so we signed up with 399 other bookstores to take part and we’re getting a lot of the special books that have been created for this event. For example, Roxane Gay has put together a collection of essays that will be available only through independent bookstores and it will premiere on May 2nd. We are also going to be taking photographs of people holding a whiteboard with the author and title of their favorite book of the past year. Those photos will be going up on Facebook.
UR: It’s amazing how much the event has grown. I know it initially started in California, and it’s just really taken off.
JG: We’re also doing something else you may not have heard about yet, because we’re just beginning to crank up the publicity. It’s the Evanston Literary Festival, which is going to be from May 11th to May 18th. We’re one of the sponsors, together with Northwestern, Evanston Public Library, Northwestern University Press and the Chicago Book Expo. So, we’re the only sponsoring bookstore in that group. We’re going to have some really wonderful events.
Bookends & Beginnings is owned by Nina Barrett and is operated by Nina and her husband and bookstore partner, Jeff Garrett. The bookstore is located in the heart of Downtown Evanston, just blocks from the Davis CTA Purple Line station. To locate the bookstore, locate the alley on Sherman Avenue, about halfway between Church Street and Clark Street on the west side of the street. Enter the alley and you will come upon Alley Gallery. The entrance to Bookends & Beginnings is directly across from the entrance to Alley Gallery. You can learn more about Bookends & Beginnings by visiting their website at www.bookendsandbeginnings.com. You can also find the store on at www.facebook.com/bookendsbeginnings.
Stephanie Hochschild | Owner of The Book Stall
811 Elm Street
UR Chicago Magazine: First off, I’m kind of curious about the history of the book store. I know that The Book Stall has been a part of the community for many years now.
Stephanie Hochschild: Yeah. The store has been here for over 30 years and Roberta Rubin, the store’s previous owner, really made it what it is today — a thriving independent bookstore that’s known for doing an incredible array of events. We have lots of authors that we bring in with our downtown partners — The Union League Club, The Standard Club, The University Club and The Women’s Athletic Club. At one point our family moved from Winnetka, and when we were moving back, I wanted to make sure we came back here, because I wanted to be close to the bookstore. Little did I know what that would mean for me in the end.
My kids grew up learning to read here. I came up here all the time. Every time I read a book review, I’d come here to buy the book. Then, at a certain point in my life, I was thinking about what to do and a friend of mine mentioned that the bookstore was for sale. I called Roberta and asked if she wanted to have coffee. We started talking and continued talking for all of that summer. In September of that year, I started sort of working here — shadowing people, learning as much as I could about what to do — and then, in July of the following year, there was a transaction and I became the owner. It was unlike anything I’d done before, but I did always follow the publishing industry and I have read avidly my whole life.
UR: What did you do before taking over the store?
SH: Right after college I had a job at Merrill Lynch in finance. Then, I went to law school and worked in law for several years. After that, I stayed at home a little bit with my kids, but I always loved reading and loved the publishing world, so it just seemed like the stars all lined up.
UR: Sounds like perfect timing.
SH: It really was. I consider myself incredibly lucky.
UR: How do you see the role of the independent bookseller or the independent bookstore in the community?
SH: Apart from functioning as a bookstore, of course, I also think that they’re community places as well. There are lots of conversations that are struck up in different sections of the bookstore, or even as you’re waiting to buy your book. People see what book you’re buying and they talk. It’s the kind of thing you can’t duplicate easily in another way. It has to be a bricks-and-mortar operation. So, I think we’re sort of opening up the world to people who want to come in here. I think people come to the bookstore because they like looking at a curated collection of books. I mean, there are so many books out there you can choose from. It’s hard to know what you really want to read. People here are very committed to keeping up-to-date and reading, and who love to talk about books and recommend books. That’s one reason to come in. It’s great to bring your kids in here, because developing a love of reading early is so important in life. Then, it’s a great place to sort of connect with authors and other readers.
UR: Which, as an avid reader myself, I think is great. Do you have any plans for Independent Bookstore Day? I know it’s coming up.
SH: On May 2nd, we have lots of authors coming in. We have lots of kids authors coming in, as well as adult authors. Renee Rosen is coming in and she’s local. We’ll have Rebecca Makkai and Peggy Wolff.
UR: Speaking of kids authors, another one of the things that makes your store rather unique — and something that stood out to me as someone who has been reading from early on — is that you also have a book club for kids, right?
SH: We do have a children’s book club. Grandparents or relatives can sign up and have books sent to kids on a regular basis, however they choose. Then we have lots of programming for the kids. We have authors who come in, we have events that revolve around a book but not necessarily the author. So, there are lots of things going on.
UR: And, last but certainly not least, speaking of books, do you have any recommendations?
SH: I have a couple of favorite books. I loved The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, which is a novel and it’s sort of a Sci-Fi story, but it’s about much bigger things. It’s about religion and faith and relationships and marriage. I think it’s a really incredible book. I also loved a book called Just Mercy. It’s by Bryan Stevenson. He’s a lawyer who defends death-row inmates. It’s an incredible story. He was in Evanston a couple of weeks ago, and he’s brilliant. Everybody should read his book or hear what he has to say. He’s a great writer and tells a really compelling story.
You can find out more about The Book Stall by visiting their website at www.thebookstall.com. You can also find them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Book-Stall-at-Chestnut-Court/101331066619268 and Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/thebookstall or @thebookstall.
Teresa Kirschbraun | Owner of City Lit Books
2523 N. Kedzie Blvd.
UR Chicago Magazine: To begin at the beginning, could you share a little bit of the history of the bookstore and how it got its start?
Teresa Kirschbraun: I opened the store in August 2012, so about two-and-a-half years ago. I started from the ground up. I gutted the space and ordered the books and everything. It was the first new independent bookstore to open in Chicago in eight years. I think used bookstores and that sort of thing had opened, but Book Cellar opened in 2004 and then I opened in 2012. There were no other independent bookstores that opened in that time. It was good for me because it made an impact. People noticed and were thrilled that the independent bookstore wasn’t dead.
UR: What did you do previously?
TK: I was in healthcare for a long time. I was a provider and administrator. I have a Master’s in Administration. I was a consultant, doing management consulting for large health systems. I traveled for about 10 years and that got difficult, so I stopped and really assessed what I wanted to do. I thought about how I’d managed small businesses, I told everyone else how to manage a business, and I’ve always loved books. I thought maybe I could try to combine that. So, I made a business plan and actually took a course in how to open an independent bookstore. Everything just seemed to be supportive. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 25 years, and it just seemed like a great time to put a place like this here. When I went to the course on how to open the store, I learned the risk isn’t as great as you might think, so I just went forward.
UR: And I always think that it’s a great addition to a community. It really seems to play an important role in whatever community it’s in.
TK: And it develops a community of its own, which has been really cool. I know that I’m part of it, but sometimes it just happens around you that people just start finding this place and making it their own.
UR: It really seems there’s a resurgence of independents and a renewed appreciation for them — a recognition of their importance.
TK: I agree with you. Hopefully when people are thinking about it, they see that it is possible and maybe it will help some people think about opening a store.
UR: Do you have any favorites you would like to recommend?
TK: Ruby by Cynthia Bond was one of my favorite books of the last year. It’s just a beautiful, haunting novel. Also, in terms of non-fiction, The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. It’s a great look at the development of Wonder Woman and the man who created her. Another book that just came out in paperback is Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis. I love her. She can pack so much into a page.
UR: And I know that Independent Bookstore Day is coming up shortly.
TK: I don’t know if you covered it last year, but it was just so phenomenal. I think that the support every store got was incredible. It was like Christmas here that day. It was just a terrible, rainy day and people came out. Some of them had books that they needed to buy and waited to show their support on that day. It’s fun for us to do, but it’s also a phenomenal showing of support.
You can find out more about City Lit Books by visiting their website at www.citylitbooks.com. To learn more about this year’s Independent Bookstore Day events, go to http://www.citylitbooks.com/event/2015/05/02/day.
Susan Takacs | Owner of The Book Cellar
4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave.
UR Chicago Magazine: For starters, I’m kind of curious about the history of the place.
Susan Takacs: I opened The Book Cellar in 2004, so it will be 11 years this June. It’s an independent bookstore in Lincoln Square, and we feel that we’re very much part of our local community and the Chicago community as a whole. We host author events in the store — both local and national authors — and we have many book groups that meet at our store. We collaborate with the Chamber of Commerce when they do neighborhood events. We have a weekly storytime that’s very popular. We help with off-site sales in other places — so restaurants, the Harold Washington Library, different hotels. When they have a keynote speaker or a speaker with a book, we help provide the book sales in those circumstances. We also have a cafe and serve light fare — we have sandwiches, salads, soup, beer and wine.
UR: How did you get your start? When and how did you decide to open a bookstore?
ST: Prior to the bookstore I was a women’s healthcare Nurse Practitioner. I was in private practice with a group of physicians at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. I live about a mile-and-a-half from the store, and at that time there wasn’t an independent bookstore in the area and I am an avid reader. I really thought that we were missing one, so I went to the Women’s Business Development Center and learned how to create a business plan. I did that and I presented it to the Alderman at the time, and he said that they were actively trying to recruit an independent bookstore. The neighbors had been requesting a bookstore. So, it was very serendipitous in terms of my timing. I decided to try a career change, I took a year to learn all that I could about the book business and found a space. I got an architect and had plans drawn up and permits — and more permits — and we built the store. So, there’s a steep learning curve, because English or writing or publishing — none of that was my history, but I think we’ve come a long way. I think I still learn something new every day, but I think we’ve grown and become a staple in the literary community in Chicago.
UR: And it’s great to see this sort of resurgence of the independent bookstore. Personally, I really do feel that they’re just so integral to a community. Speaking of which, I was wondering what your take on the role of the independent bookstore in the community may be.
ST: I think it’s great that we have such a solid bookstore community in the City of Chicago. I think it speaks highly of the people of Chicago and their love of reading. I believe it’s important. I believe it’s what makes cities and neighborhoods interesting — these little shopping districts. If there are interesting bookstores and other retail shops and restaurants, it’s a great place for when people visit to come and walk around and see the personality of the city. If those little shops go away, and those interesting neighborhoods or shopping districts go away, then when you visit there’s nothing that’s different or interesting to see. It’s all the same. So, I think it adds value to the homes nearby if you have a thriving shopping district. It adds value to a city as a tourist spot. It adds value for the people that live in the city, because it’s often associated with things to do — neighborhood events, author events. We also have a comedy group called ‘The Kates’ that performs at our store twice a month. All these things contribute to the value of a community.
AD: Are there any books you would recommend? What draws you to that work in particular?
SH: I just finished this book that will be coming out. It’s called Great Kitchens of the Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. I was drawn to the book because it had a lot of food references and wine references. It’s a great story. It’s a linked story, so it’s written in an interesting fashion. It’s not just a linear story, so I think all those things led to a great and interesting read.
You can learn more about The Book Cellar by visiting their website at www.bookcellarinc.com. For complete details regarding Independent Bookstore Day events at The Book Cellar, please visit www.bookcellarinc.com/event/independent-bookstore-day. You can also find the store on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/bookcellarinc and on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/bookcellar or @BookCellar.
Sarah Hollenbeck | Co-Owner of Women & Children First Bookstore
5233 N. Clark St.
UR Chicago Magazine: Can you share a little bit about the history of your store? I know it has been something of a fixture in the community for a number of years now.
Sarah Hollenbeck: Sure. The bookstore was started in 1979. The original owners were Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon. They were two graduate students studying literature at UIC and were interested in gender studies. They were very aware of the fact that when they went to general bookstores in Chicago, there were tons of books that were written by men but not a whole lot of contemporary fiction written by women. Most of the books by women were either classics — like Jane Austen — or they were all romance novels and that was pretty much it. In order to fight that disparity, they decided to open a feminist bookstore. At that time, there were actually over 100 feminist bookstores across the country, including two in Chicago. They were committed to promoting contemporary works by women and when the store opened they only had women authors on the shelves. That has changed significantly over the last 35 years. Actually, a lot has changed. Now there are only fewer than a dozen feminist bookstores in the country, and we’re one of them. We do sell books by both men and women, but we are still committed to all of the books that we sell being feminist in some way or promoting gender equality. We believe that feminism is not so much about just fighting for the rights of women now, but challenging the idea of the traditional gender binary. So, that’s kind of the newer mission of the store. In August of last year, the store was purchased from Ann and Linda, both of whom decided to retire, by myself and co-owner Lynn Mooney. We renovated the store in January, so we have a totally reimagined space. It’s much more contemporary, but still has the same heart and the same books.
UR: It’s always just so interesting to me to learn a little bit about the background of the store. Speaking of which, how did the two of you get into it? What did you do beforehand, and how did you come into this?
SH: Lynn and I both worked at the bookstore. I was a bookseller and Lynn was the manager. I’ve worked at bookstores part-time since I was 22, so it’s always been a part-time job. I’ve also worked in publishing. I worked for an independent publisher in Chicago, and then I’m also involved in the creative writing and storytelling community in Chicago. I graduated from Northwestern University with an MFA in Creative Writing, so I’m very connected in the creative writing community here. Lynn also worked in publishing and then had worked at the bookstore, first fox six years as a bookseller and then as the manager.
UR: It seems that there’s really been this resurgence in the popularity of independent bookstores again. Things have kind of come full circle, and people really seem to be recognizing the importance of the independent bookseller in the community and have this renewed appreciation for them.
SH: Definitely. I agree. We’ve really seen a huge renaissance not only in people buying books from independent bookstores, but also in this interest in feminism and what feminism is. People identify themselves as feminists. So, we’ve been hugely lucky. We’re really happy with the tide shifting.
UR: Any thoughts on the resurgence in general and, more specifically, on the role of the independent bookseller in the community?
SH: Well, we’re really lucky. Women & Children First was recruited by the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce to move to this location. We weren’t originally in this location, but they wanted us to move here and serve as a neighborhood anchor. I think we’ve fulfilled that mission. We generate a lot of foot traffic, but also a lot of community support. One example of that is that our recent renovation was funded entirely by an Indiegogo campaign. So, the community made the renovation happen. I think it’s a huge symbol of the way in which people believe in bookstores as being integral to the neighborhood and integral to the local economy. We really do feel an essential part of the area and of the bookstore community.
UR: That is amazing. I had no idea the renovation was funded entirely in that way.
SH: Yeah. We raised $35,000 just from people donating anywhere form $10 to $500 to $1,000.
UR: Well, it’s a worthwhile cause and it’s wonderful to see so many other people feel that way, too.
SH: Yeah. I think they felt it was time to just invest in the space itself. It’s really been a work of love of everyone in the area, not just us.
UR: Any book recommendations?
SH: Sure. I love Eula Biss. Her recent book, On Immunity, was very popular. She is a former professor of mine, and I just really respect the work that she does. I also recently read Citizen by Claudia Rankine. So, that’s been a recommendation of mine. I just started Maggie Nelson’s forthcoming memoir, The Argonauts, and I’m really excited to continue reading that before it publishes in May. We also have recommendations on our website.
Some of my favorite books of the last year were Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I always recommend that one to someone who wants a very engrossing novel. I just read Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade, which is an incredible psychological study of a family in California. It traces their relationships from childhood to adulthood. I really enjoyed Kim Gordon’s memoir Girl in a Band. All of my recommendations are also on our website, womenandchildrenfirst.com.
UR: Do you have any plans for Independent Bookstore Day?
SH: We do. We’re going to start the day with storytime at 10:30 with Miss Linda, the former owner of the bookstore who still does storytime every Wednesday. Then we’re going to have cookies on-hand. There’ll be refreshments all day. The cookies are made from a recipe in Mindy Segal’s cookbook Cookie Love. We’re going to have Aleksandar Hemon stopping by later in the day to sign his new book The Making of Zombie Wars. We’ll be selling exclusive merchandise all day for Independent Bookstore Day, including a Roxane Gay chapbook and a Hyperbole and a Half broadside, as well as a bunch of other stuff. We’re one of the bookstores that will be handing out pages from the original Stuart Dybek short story, and customers have to visit all 12 participating bookstores in order to collect the complete story. The event is posted on our own website and on our Facebook page, so you can always follow up there.
You can learn more about Women & Children First Bookstore by visiting their website at www.womenandchildrenfirst.com. You can also find the store on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Women-Children-First-Bookstore/8326741337 and on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/wcfbook or @wcfbook.