Our Independent Bookstores Are in Trouble
Wednesday, April 29, 2020
By Donald G. Evans
It’s HARD to make a living selling books. The behemoth companies like Amazon do what they do based on volume, millions and millions and millions of little profits that add up to a lot. It’s a nameless, faceless, bottom-line approach that results, for us, in cheaper books but almost nothing else.
Luckily, Chicago doesn’t need Amazon. We have The Book Cellar. And Volumes Book Café. Centuries & Sleuths. 57th Street Books. City Lit. Roscoe Books. And so on and so forth. There are too many great Chicago independents to mention in a breathless list.
These stores make their neighborhoods SO MUCH BETTER. People gather there. They meet authors, hear about books. They share ideas. They learn what’s going on around them: the concerts, movies in the park, the restaurants. Sometimes, people just go there to sit, or to read, or to do a little work. Think of any task—doing your taxes, say, or drinking tea—and then tack onto the end, “surrounded by books.” Whatever it is, it’s a little better that way.
When these owners started, they didn’t think, “Man, this is going to make me rich,” but rather, “Is there a way I could it make it my job to go to a place in which every day I interact with books and the people who love them?”
All of the stores I mentioned and a bunch I didn’t, they support authors. They support parents. They support students. They support the neighborhood. They do what they can when they can to be a positive influence in the affairs of the community. To make our lives better. Rebecca George, at Volumes, welcomes me into her store when I have a book to promote. Teresa Kirschbraun, at City Lit, enthusiastically agrees to whatever Chicago Literary Hall of Fame events I propose. Augie Aleksy at Centuries & Sleuths listens to my idea about doing an exhibit there and says, “Sure, let’s talk about it over lunch.” (Louie’s, across the street from Augie’s store, is where he takes his meetings). Suzy Takacs at The Book Cellar and Jeff Deutsch at Seminary Co-Op routinely give financial contributions to help fund ceremonies honoring authors for their lifetime achievements.
I could go on. And on. The point being, my life is better because of these stores. Your life is better because of these stores. Your neighborhood—be it Logan Square or Roscoe Village or Hyde Park—is better because of these stores.
This is about to change, trust me, unless we do something to help. When this pandemic finally subsides and we resume something resembling normal life, that new normal will not include all of these bookstores. Maybe not even a majority of them. For each, now is a scramble for survival. They die, and you and your neighborhood get another Starbuck’s, perhaps a Subway, probably one of these shitty little half-a-Targets.
Do you remember when there was a Barnes & Noble as well as a Borders near that Clark/Broadway/Diversey intersection? I was looking for Art Shay’s photography book, Nelson Algren’s Chicago—University of Illinois Press, out of print. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I went into B&N—they had never heard of Nelson Algren there. I went into Border’s—they hadn’t heard of Algren, either. I’m going back to pre-internet days, here, but, Jesus. You walk into The Dial Bookshop downtown or Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston or Women & Children First in Andersonville: everybody in there, from the owner on down, knows and loves books. Knows and loves this city.
At the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, we’re doing what we can to promote the various fundraising activities designed to get these stores through this crisis. Check our Facebook page, sign up for our newsletter, go to our website to read blogs like this one. People around our city, in our literary community, are mobilizing. It’s already making a difference. Ten of thousands of dollars have been raised through GoFundMe pages for The Book Cellar and Volumes and Anderson’s. Other people are buying books--more books than normal--or gift cards. These donations will help these stores get through a few more months. Right now, we’re literally buying time—your money allows these stores to operate while the medical community works on a vaccine and we keep out distances from each other. At some point, this will all be over. When it is, we want those good things in our life, like the independent bookstore community, to still be there.