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Little Shop of Stories

Farewell to Great Expectations, where Bellow got angry, Auden got comfortable, and Dylan Thomas got loaded.

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In October 1999, Evanston's Great Expectations bookstore celebrated its 50th anniversary with a two-day party. On a Sunday afternoon--when the store is usually closed--an overflow crowd filled every aisle, listening to Studs Terkel, Jules Feiffer, and Garry Wills (a regular customer) tell old war stories and sing the store's praises. Former customers, some of whom hadn't been there for decades, made pilgrimages back to town to catch up with old friends and wish Jeff Rice, the store's third owner, success over the next 50 years. But that half century ended prematurely this fall, when Rice decided to call it quits.

"The kind of business I wanted to run was becoming untenable," says Rice. "My kind of bookstore needs a substantial browsing inventory." But keeping that sort of stock without getting into debt was becoming more and more difficult. Asked if Amazon.com was a factor in his decision, Rice snaps, "You bet."

Great Expectations opened in 1949. Bob Geary, technical book buyer for Kroch's & Brentano's in the Loop, had collected so many used books that they were nudging him out of his apartment, so he used them to stock a secondhand store on Sherman Avenue. The business bounced around Evanston until 1954, when it settled into the Tudor interior of 909 Foster, under the elevated tracks.

Even in the 50s the store was a clubhouse for North Shore intellectuals. Andrew Oldenquist, a retired philosophy professor, recalls teaming up with another Great Expectations regular, Hilary Putnam, to test the theories of Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Reich. The pair constructed an energy-collecting "orgone box" by lining an abandoned refrigerator with tinfoil; the gizmo didn't work, but Putnam went on to the faculty of Harvard and wrote many influential books, including Reason, Truth, and History.

Geary was no egghead, but he loved setting the stage for intellectual confrontations. At the rear of his store stood a huge faux Jacobean table that created the ambience of an 18th-century English coffeehouse, and newcomers, eyeing the scene with envy as they pretended to browse, had to jump through a few intellectual hoops before being welcomed into the salon. Hannah Arendt joined the conversation on more than one occasion, and W.H. Auden lost track of the time there, chewing the fat with customers until anxious functionaries from the English department at Northwestern tracked him down. Oldenquist recalls a group of regulars getting drunk with Dylan Thomas at the back of the store. Geary had a knack for making delicious mismatches: he'd pair a dreamy spiritualist with a hard-boiled materialist, or introduce some right-wing political theorist to the guy raising money for Castro.

The owner was also known for his generosity: poor graduate students were allowed to build up big book tabs, and Geary seldom dunned them; in fact, when one was short of cash Geary might even offer him a few bucks until payday. Madison attorney Milton Rosenberg tells the story of Geary being awakened one night by a rapping at his bedroom window and being asked to help bail a graduate student out of jail. Truman Metzel Jr., who assisted Geary in the store's early days, thinks the burgeoning tabs may have prompted the store's move to the more commercial location on Foster, where the owner even stocked greeting cards.

A former academic and schoolteacher, Metzel took over in 1961. He was a more forbidding presence than the elfin Geary: in The Great Pretender, novelist James Atlas describes the store's "scary Dickensian gloom," from which Metzel would "glance up" as customers entered and then "return to his work with not a word." Metzel found the name "Great Expectations" precious and answered the phone with a simple "Bookstore--may I help you?" But help he could--Atlas calls Metzel a font of "uncanny bibliographical lore." Pleased by the description, Metzel once sent a customer to the stacks to read it for himself, but the customer had no comment. "I was puzzled," Metzel says, "so I double-checked the passage. I had mistakenly cited a page in which the protagonist is depicted masturbating."

Hilary Putnam had established the store as headquarters for an after-hours philosophy club, a tradition Metzel continued; the club hosted some notable intellectual jousts, and presenters were traditionally given a book in return for their efforts. Eventually Great Expectations would become one of the premier mail-order suppliers to the world of philosophy. Under Metzel the store's fame increased, and in the mid-70s he moved the business next door to 911 Foster, a larger space where it would remain for two decades. Writing in the German magazine Die Zeit in 1987, novelist Umberto Eco ranked Great Expectations among the world's greatest bookstores, citing the huge philosophy collection that wound its way through the "labyrinthine" space.

Metzel managed to step on some pretty famous toes in his day. One shopper irritated him by complaining that he didn't stock more new hardcover fiction, and when he asked Metzel to order a book for him, the owner suggested that he take his business to a store "more commensurate with his desires." Saul Bellow left in a fury. Metzel would also criticize customers for selecting books he didn't like; Garry Wills, speaking at Metzel's retirement party in 1996, said he'd never before seen a store owner condemn a customer for trying to buy something.

Jeff Rice, the store's last owner, went to work for Metzel in 1974. A student of history at Edinburgh and Northwestern, he became Metzel's greatest resource. "Ask Jeff," the owner would say. "He knows everything." Rice was always ready to drop what he was doing to expound on a book and summarize its reviews, and he tracked the arcs of academic and literary stars with pinpoint accuracy. But Rice can't turn back a glacier: since he took over in 1996, dot-coms have seriously eroded the store's mail-order business, and Borders and Barnes & Noble have siphoned off the customers whose purchases of popular titles subsidized the more obscure offerings.

Bob Geary died in the early 80s, Truman Metzel still lives in Evanston, and Rice has returned to academia at Northwestern. Evanston won't be the same, though, without Great Expectations. There's no substitute for the sense of community and intellectual inquiry that blossomed at 911 Foster, in a space most of its patrons referred to simply as "the bookstore."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Su Metzel, Truman Metzel Jr..

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