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Remembering Wrigleyville’s Bookworks, which will close this fall

A former employee speaks with the store’s proprietors, Ronda Pilon and Bob Roschke, about the shuttering of their long-standing bookstore.

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On August 1, Crain's reported that Bookworks (3444 N. Clark), my favorite bookshop, would be closing on October 15, after 32 years in business. Bookworks has been an oasis on that particular stretch of Clark Street, just south of Wrigley Field. It's a bibliophilic haven.

I've been a customer of Bookworks for more than 20 years. I'm also a former employee. I worked there from about 1995 to mid-1998, before I left to start what ended up as a 14-plus-year tenure at the Reader. I loved working at the shop and for the owners, Bob Roschke and Ronda Pilon, who are a couple of the nicest people you could ever meet. For a big reader like myself, Bookworks was a wonderful place.

Important note: Working in a bookshop is not all glamour, people! Each box of books, hauled up from the filled-to-capacity basement to be priced and shelved, was received with anticipation. (Pro tip: avoid the evil clown in the basement.) Since the vast majority of the stock is used books, each title is researched and priced individually—that takes some time. Of course, not every box contains treasures. On a rare occasion, you might get a box of paperback romance novels to price and shelve. Ugh! (Not judging, though! Bookworks caters to readers of all stripes.)

Shelving takes some skill too. You need to make sure the books aren't packed in there too tightly, so that covers aren't damaged and titles aren't too hard for browsers to remove. You need to cull older titles that may have been on the shelf for years because the person who's looking for that very book hasn't walked through the doors yet. You need to keep circulating older titles with newer ones so that your regulars will stay regular, knowing they'll find something new to them.

It can be a lot of work, but when a customer comes to the register with a book that you happened to shelve recently, having put it in the perfect place, and she's just thrilled to have found just what she was looking for, your heart sings. And it's rewarding to help customers try to find a particular title, even if (especially if) they can't remember exactly what title they're looking for. (Once I saw the actor Tim Roth browsing the True Crime section. I didn't want to bug, because sometimes people just like to be left alone while browsing.)

One former employee, Patty Templeton, even used Bookworks and Bob and Ronda themselves as inspirations for her supernatural novel, There Is No Lovely End. (The fictional bookshop is haunted; fictional Bob fights demons; fictional Ronda is a ghost.)

Bookworks' closing was inevitable at some point. The neighborhood has changed a lot during the last few decades, and with all the upcoming construction scheduled in Rickettsville (ne Wrigleyville), not to mention the CTA's proposed Red-Purple Bypass Project (aka the Belmont flyover) possibly coming down the line, more change is certain. That makes for an environment where bar after bar can flourish, but it's awfully tough sledding for an independent bookstore, especially with soaring rents.

I could go on and on with my own remembrances. I asked Bob and Ronda for some of theirs as the physical shop nears the end. (Bookworks will continue selling online; see thebookworks.com. Everything in the shop is 25 percent off right now; starting on August 15, everything will be 50 percent off.)

Roschke and Pilon working behind the counter. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Roschke and Pilon working behind the counter.

Bob Roschke: Eddie Vedder was a personal friend of our business neighbors, Flashbacks and Strange Cargo, and he used to occasionally stop in Bookworks. I remember having a conversation with him one night about an antique health brochure he was buying called Vitalogy. It was a surprise to see it turn up later as the cover of his 1994 release by the same name. I noticed Wikipedia states it was bought at a "garage sale," but it really did come from Bookworks.

I always enjoyed having individuals show up at the store selling items. Opening a box of old books occasionally felt like opening a potential treasure chest. They were often filled with dreck, but when the books were good, they were often very good.

Over 30 years, the constant influx of customers has blurred somewhat. Those individuals who still stand out the most are primarily the dedicated "book scouts" who spent many hours searching for items at estate and garage sales that they could sell for a profit. One of them still is driving a car so jammed with books that it appears to no longer have any springs. Tourists stop to take pictures whenever he pulls up in front of the store.

Ronda Pilon: We've had an incredible parade of customers who were authors [ed. note: including Don De Grazia, Mary Pilon—Ronda's niece—and Reader writers Ben Joravsky and the late Lee Sandlin].

BR: Our former employees have moved on to, or continued to expand, a wide range of careers. On the top of the list there are musicians, professors, teachers, editors, doctors of philosophy, ministers, bookstore managers, artists, published authors, graphic novelists, coffee shop owners, and even a few Reader employees.

A customer browses Bookworks' extensive collection of titles. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • A customer browses Bookworks' extensive collection of titles.

Jerome Ludwig: What will you miss the least?

BR: Fifty-to-70-hour workweeks.

RP: Bar crawls and their impact on the neighborhood. Paperwork. The nonstop responsibility of having a shop opened 360 days a year on a busy Chicago street: keeping it staffed, safe, functioning.

What will you miss the most?

BR: The customers and staff that appreciated and acknowledged the work it took for us to keep the shop successful for 32 years.

RP: Looking through thousands of books and not knowing what you'll see next! Every single day! Books you never dreamed existed but are so fascinating. I just found a book from 1950 called Prison Etiquette, prefaced by Christopher Isherwood, with amazing illustrations.

Playing a part in the encouragement of new readers. Sometimes an entire family would come in with their high school student to find The Red Pony or To Kill a Mockingbird for a reading assignment. Occasionally a new adult reader will be looking for something to improve their literacy. I love trying to find a good match to read.

I've learned to always maintain an open mind. We have Chicago police officers who are building beautiful libraries of leather-bound books, firemen who are collecting early titles on boxing, attorneys who collect African folk art and books.

The incredible education that people shared from their lives, whether it was how to build a banjo from a wooden cigar box, how to bet the horses at the next Kentucky Derby, new research on protein molecule folds, or the latest tattooing techniques. More often than not, our customers know more about the genre they're interested in than we ever could, and talking with them is always an education.  v

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