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The year in Chicago bookstores

Amazon is coming, but the indies have built a true community for the city’s readers

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SIMONE SHIN
  • Simone Shin

The biggest news in the Chicago bookstore world in 2016 was an announcement of something that won't happen till 2017: Amazon plans to open a brick-and-mortar store in a former Irish pub on the Southport corridor.

The Amazon Store, based on the one that's already open in Seattle, follows the model of the website: it's not so much about selling books as it is about providing a showroom to demonstrate ways the company's technology can collect data to customize the shopping experience. There are no price tags at the Amazon Store. Instead shoppers scan things they're interested in buying using an app on their smartphones, which keeps track of past purchasing data and can offer discounts on the spot.

Almost immediately after the announcement, which came at the end of August, Chicago booksellers began to take action. Within a week, 17 stores had issued a joint statement enumerating the ways they're better for the community than Amazon. In October, 23 stores formed the Chicagoland Independent Bookstore Alliance to promote authors and literary events around the city. Yes, they acknowledged, customers often have to pay the full cover price on books they buy at an independent store. But those purchases generate tax dollars that go back into funding local services: there's extensive data about how much money states and municipalities have lost through Amazon's reluctance to pay sales tax.

Most importantly, though, neighborhood bookstores create community spaces. They cater to particular clientele, like Unabridged Books in Boystown, which has a large LGBTQ section, or Read It & Eat in Lincoln Park, which stocks mostly cookbooks and hosts cooking demonstrations, or Roscoe Books in Roscoe Village, which holds story hour twice a week for the stroller crowd. They establish a small sanctuary from regular daily life, like Curbside Books & Records, a retail offshoot of indie publisher Curbside Splendor that opened last summer at Revival Food Hall in the Loop to provide lunchtime browsing for office workers. And they're staffed by people who like to talk about books. At Bookworks, a used bookstore that closed this fall after 32 years in Wrigleyville, you could stand at the counter for hours chatting about odd finds and everything else in the world with owners Bob Roschke and Ronda Pilon. (Bookworks still exists as a website, but without human contact, it's not the same.)

But even before the threat from Amazon, Chicago's neighborhood bookstores in 2016 demonstrated what they do best. We asked booksellers to tell us about the events this year that made them feel most proud of what they do. Here are a few responses:

In June, as the Seminary Co-op's annual member sale was getting under way, Jeff Deutsch, the bookstore's director, sent a letter to its 13,000 members outlining the store's current financial struggles and asking people to buy more books. The Sem Co-op and its sister store, 57th Street Books, don't conform to standard "best practices" of bookselling by stocking only books that have a better chance of selling; that business model, Deutsch wrote, goes against the bookstore's mission of providing books that customers didn't even realize they needed. "Inefficiency has its place," he wrote. "In raising children, in most artistic endeavors, and in bookselling, a modicum of inefficiency is in order."

The letter generated hundreds of written responses and social media shares, and an increase in business. "Included in the responses were personal memories, thoughtful suggestions, simple notes of devotion, and declarations of love," writes Alexandra Houston, the bookstore's marketing manager. "This is a cultural center like no other," one customer wrote, "and your message underscores how lucky we all are to be part of that culture."

Suzy Takacs, owner of the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, felt "a heartfelt connection with the community" at the store's Harry Potter party at the end of July, which also turned into a birthday celebration for two customers. She recognized many of the guests from the neighborhood. Everyone was in a good humor, despite the long lines. "It was a great time," she writes, "and a positive, playful night."

Quimby's in Wicker Park, the city's best source for comics and zines, celebrated its 25th birthday in September with a party and, appropriately enough, the publication of Ever Evolving Bastion of Freakdom: A Quimby's Bookstore History in Words and Pictures, a history zine by founder Steven Svymbersky, current manager Liz Mason, and musician Keith Helt. "The party was a blast and it was nice to meet folks I'd been corresponding with for years (and some only heard about) but never actually met in person," Mason writes in an e-mail. It also kicked off the Wicker Park and West Town Lit Fest.

The day after the presidential election, distraught customers came to Women & Children First in Andersonville to commiserate with like-minded feminists and fellow readers. It wasn't the first time this year, though, that the bookstore had been a place of comfort for the community. A week after the Pulse nightclub shooting in June, the store hosted You're Being Ridiculous, a live-lit series. The emcee, Jeremy Owens, decided to begin the show not with a moment of silence, but by asking the audience to make as much noise as possible to honor the dead.

"The nearly 100 attendees packed inside our little bookstore joined together to shout, stomp, and clap our love, strength, and pride," co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck writes in an e-mail. "As I screamed and clapped, I started crying. And then I looked around and so many people in that room were continuing this mighty roar with tears streaming down their faces. That moment was everything. And it was inside our bookstore."  v

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