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Local Lit: hasta la vista, Aspidistra

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Ron Ellingson, who opened Aspidistra Bookshop on the 2600 block of North Clark 26 years ago, got a rough start. "I had under $1,000--I was broke in two weeks," he says. After a year, however, he was on his feet, and in 1977 he found a partner, Darrell Simmons. Together they built up the store's stock. "New arrivals is the name of the game. They sell right away and keep people coming back."

By 1988 they were doing so well they opened a second store on Lincoln Avenue, but that shop didn't attract customers the way the place on Clark did. "That was a big mistake," Ellingson says. "We lost hundreds of thousands of dollars." They shut down that store several years ago, and now they'll be closing the shop on Clark as well. Sunday is its last day of operation.

Ellingson, now 55, comes from a family that didn't read much. His father was an insurance salesman, his mother a housewife. After graduating from high school, Ellingson enrolled in college, but, short of cash, he soon dropped out and enlisted in the marines.

He spent three years as a payroll clerk, one of them in Vietnam. He never saw combat, though he filled out "a lot of death certificates." In his spare time he read books. "There was nothing to do," he says. "It's kind of like being at North Avenue Beach for a year. In Vietnam I told them I would open a used-book store, but I didn't believe it. I didn't know there was such a thing as a used-book store."

After being discharged, Ellingson went to Southern Illinois University, where he earned a history degree. He started a graduate program in literature, but then moved to Chicago and found work at Texaco's credit department. Three years later he left that job to open Aspidistra.

The business has changed a lot over the years. From about 1977 to 1982, Ellingson says, it was easy to find plenty of good used books, but then more and more used-book shops and chain stores opened and took away books and customers. Paperbacks also became more popular. During the first year at Aspidistra they represented only 7 percent of sales. That figure would eventually increase to 55 percent. "That's my theory about Krochs--they never figured it out."

Ellingson plans to sell his remaining stock, then open another store within a year. "We'll be back," he says. "This is an easy business to get into. You can get books relatively cheap if you know what you're doing."

Aspidistra Bookshop, 2630 N. Clark, will have a going-away party with free beer and food on Saturday, June 27, from 3 PM to midnight. For more information call 773-549-3129. --Michael Marsh

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ron Ellingson photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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