On a winter night last year, a few months after losing the bulk of his personal library, journalist Danny Postel noticed a sign in a vacant Edgewater storefront a few miles from his home: LEFT OF CENTER BOOKSTORE--COMING SOON.
"I picked up my cell phone and called a friend who lives a block from [the store]," Postel remembers. "I must've left a three-minute message. It looked shiny and lustrous, and I could not believe it."
Postel, several friends in tow, walked through the door the day it opened, February 14, 2004, and, in the words of owner Arlene Levey, "hasn't left since."
Postel was just as fortuitous a find for the store as the store was for him. For one, he's bought more than 300 books there, replacing many of the volumes that had been auctioned off by a storage company in a complicated mix-up Postel describes as "one of the worst nightmares of my life." But in the last year and a half he's become more than just a customer: he's also become Left of Center's unpaid champion, networking tirelessly to make the store a stop on the rounds of authors, journalists, and intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens and Victor Navasky, publisher of the Nation. Some, like University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, have given readings; others, like Hitchens, have submitted to lengthy in-store interviews with Postel. (The interviews are usually published later in outlets like Logos and the Common Review.) When poet Andre Codrescu visited Postel recently, Postel brought him to Left of Center after lunch.
"He talks about this place in the royal 'we,'" says Levey. "When [the store is] not doing well, he's like, 'We've got to do something.'
Both Levey and Postel see Left of Center as more than a bookstore. They want to make it a cultural space, a place for conversation. "I always wanted to have a salon, like, you know, the old-time salons," says Levey, who's also a painter. "But there's no way to make money. So how do you get people to come talk to you?"
Many of the customers who wander in do wind up in lengthy discussions with Levey--an openness Postel didn't expect. Given the store's name, he says, "I expected a real political junkie. . . . But Arlene is just this funky artist. Her approach to life is more aesthetic than political."
Born in Germany to a Polish mother and a Russian father who met in a refugee camp after World War II, Levey spent some of her childhood in Europe. She's since lived all over the United States, at first traveling between college towns with her professor father and then striking out on her own. She moved to Chicago six years ago from Columbus, Ohio, working first at Borders in Evanston and then at the Museum of Contemporary Art bookstore. She opened Left of Center, which stocks 5,000-odd titles evenly split between literature and nonfiction, after considering several other spaces, including one in Oak Park. The Granville storefront--close to her Edgewater home and next door to Metropolis coffee shop--seemed a perfect fit. Within a month after she opened the store, Postel was a regular and had helped her set up her first event, with Sartre scholar Ron Aronson.
Left of Center's February event with Hitchens was by far its most successful. Perhaps too successful. The 900-square-foot store was packed to the gills, and scores of people congregated on the street outside, unable to get in. "We really should have done it somewhere else," Postel says, but adds that even if he had known there would be problems beforehand, he probably would have done it at Left of Center anyway.
Despite Postel's best efforts, Levey struggles to pay the bills. She opened Left of Center with much less money than generally needed to start a bookstore--between a quarter and a third of the cash necessary to cover expenses until she found her legs--and though sales have increased every month since the store opened and she's developed a "really serious core" of loyal regulars, "closing could be imminent at any point."
To keep people coming in the door, she and Postel have scheduled an event almost every week for the next three months: on August 4 Purdue historians Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson will discuss their recent book, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. The following week she's bringing in Charlie Cray, author of The People's Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy. The store will be closed for the last two weeks of August, but Isaac Balbus, Dave Zirin, Keith Topper, W.J.T. Mitchell, and Fred Dallmayer are lined up for September, and New Yorker staff writer George Packer just confirmed for November. Landing Packer, who'll be in town for the Humanities Festival, was a coup for the store. His publicist told Postel her client was far too busy, but Postel tracked him down through a mutual friend and got him excited about the gig. In the end, notes Postel, "it all comes down to personal relationships."
Left of Center Bookstore
1043 W. Granville
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson, Joeff Davis.