Chi Lives: the travels of Bob Katzman, bookseller | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Chi Lives: the travels of Bob Katzman, bookseller

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Bob Katzman was 15 when he opened a newsstand in a three-by-four-foot wooden shack at the corner of 51st and Lake Park in 1965. He called it Bob's Newsstand. The business was a success, and as it grew and expanded--eventually becoming a walk-in store--it began to acquire an international flavor. Katzman sold European magazines, and, during the war, newspapers from North Vietnam. Twenty years and two fires later he decided the neighborhood was no longer amicable to his enterprise. He closed Bob's Newsstand and left Hyde Park.

Katzman is now 43 and owns the Grand Tour World Travel Bookstore, on Clark just north of Belmont. When he was 18, just enrolled in the University of Illinois at Chicago, cancer invaded his left salivary gland. Doctors successfully removed the tumor, but they also had to cut away the left side of his jawbone. They later replaced it with one of his ribs. The cancer is gone now, but after a series of reconstructive surgeries his face remains partially paralyzed, slightly lopsided and chubby. With his dark hair he looks a little like Buddy Hackett in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

Katzman's moral and political attitudes are rooted in his personal and family background. His grandmother--now 91, "tough, not cuddly," he says--was a girl in Krakow, Poland, when her father was beheaded by rampaging peasants in an anti-Semitic pogrom. She emigrated to the United States in 1918, leaving nine siblings, who later were killed by the Nazis. The man who would become her husband also lost his sisters and brothers to Hitler. "I have a heightened awareness of the transitory nature of security," Katzman says. But, he adds, that's made him more willing to take chances. "If I'm going to take a risk in business or traveling, I figure, 'Why not?'"

He thinks of his store as a safe haven, a place to be enlightened. "I figure the more people travel and learn about each other, the less likely they'll be to kill each other." His first trip abroad, in 1990, was to Germany--the place he'd said would be the last he'd ever visit. He went to the Frankfurt book fair on business, and while the plane was over the Atlantic Germany was being unified. "When I took off there were two Germanys. And when I landed there was one." He describes a surreal scene of German streets packed with people singing and carrying torches.

Yet Germany is the European country he's visited most--he's returned twice for book fairs. Visiting the country where the Nazis flourished allowed him to confront his apprehension, he says. "I had a conflict about forgiving the Germans for a long time. But it was a burden to carry those feelings around. And I finally decided that it wasn't fair to the current generation of Germans." Ironically it was while trying to enter a synagogue in Oslo, Norway, that he encountered blatant xenophobia. A man at the temple door wouldn't let him enter because he thought Katzman might be an Arab terrorist.

Grand Tour has an appealingly cluttered ma 'n' pa charm. The aisles, wide enough for only one person at a time, are bordered by walls of travel books, maps, foreign literature, and foreign-language dictionaries and instruction tapes (including cassettes for Cherokee and Haitian Creole). Katzman prides himself on his comprehensive selection of dictionaries, which includes books in Basque, Slovak, Albanian, Catalan, Persian, and his own ancestral tongue, Belorussian. "Not long ago I sold a Czech dictionary to a man who spoke German but no English. I speak some German but no Czech, and we worked it out."

He carries T-shirts ("Kiss Me, I'm Montenegran"), key rings, coffee mugs, and flags for 190 countries. "Everything here is times 190. We try to satisfy the needs of nationalities who never get their name on things." He also carries foreign cigarettes. The inventory isn't computerized, he says, "just organized." There's no office.

The books are arranged geographically, and swarms of international images beckon and entice: San Francisco, Singapore, India, Nepal, Chile. Katzman displays the books facing forward rather than sideways, noting that he doesn't want to waste the talent and resources of all those art departments. Displaying them that way also emphasizes the faces on the covers, the human element behind faraway, unfamiliar places. "I've learned that there are lots of kinds of beauty. My notion of beauty has been an evolutionary one."

Despite the exotic allure of the books in his store, Katzman says a destination doesn't have to be outside the U.S. to capture his imagination; his next trip will probably be to the state of Georgia. "There's something wonderful in every place you visit. Travel isn't just about seeing a series of buildings. It's about the feelings you take away."

Grand Tour, 3229 N. Clark, is open 10 to 9 Monday through Saturday and 11 to 6 Sunday. Call 929-1836.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Sue Hostetler.

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