The Infinite Library of Bob Katzman: Browsing Skokie’s Magazine Museum

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By Hugh Iglarsh

To enter Bob Katzman’s Magazine Museum (“Where Print Still Lives”) is to leave the aggressively ordinary surroundings of downtown Skokie and find oneself in the weird and disorienting universe of Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentinian librarian whose fantastical tales and essays wrestle with the concepts of chaos and order within a print-defined world.

Katzman’s collection of 140,000 vintage magazines (as well as mounds of posters and flags and banners of every nation) is an overwhelming textual, cultural and historical sprawl, stacked in loose groupings and postings from toe level to ceiling tile. At first glance, it looks like a miniature version of Borges’ infinite Library of Babel, which contains all possible books, including one written in a “Samoyed-Lithuanian dialect of Guaraní, with inflections from classical Arabic”—but alas, no discoverable card catalog.

Among Katzman’s myriad Looks, Lifes, Collier’s, Fortunes, Vogues, Ebonys, Penthouses and Mad Magazines are rare publications dating back to the dawn of modernity and mass literacy—as well as the TV Guides that herald the end of the Gutenberg era. The shop is like an amber bead, preserving messages originally designed for instant absorption and speedy disposal, but which now exude a compelling, ghostly aura. Its close, slightly fusty atmosphere is what time smells like.

Katzman, who has been collecting newspapers since John F. Kennedy died in Dallas, has assembled a formidable resource for those seeking some personal connection to the past, whether it’s a magazine from the week of their birth or a memento of a meaningful event or place or figure. The stacks defy stereotyping: the individual publications are as fickle as their readers. The sleaziest men’s magazine of the 1950s might contain a choice literary nugget, while the New Yorkers and their high-toned peers sometimes glitter with fool’s gold. For those genetically programmed for bookstore browsing, as well as those in pursuit of their own lonely obsessions from Marilyn Monroe to Malcolm Muggeridge, Bob Katzman’s Magazine Museum is a paradise of possibility.

Any attempt to catalog such a miscellany draws one into another Borges whimsy, his Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, a spoof taxonomy of the animal kingdom. The Emporium, supposedly translated from a dusty Chinese encyclopedia, divides the world’s fauna into such skewed and non-exclusive categories as Those that belong to the Emperor, Those that are embalmed, Suckling pigs, Those drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, Those that have just broken the flower vase and, naturally, Et cetera.

When I spoke with the sixty-something Katzman, he and his wife were in the process of creating their own website categories for the trove. Their initial, unalphabetized list of ninety or so topics produced a certain vertigo, as the eye wandered among such entries as Dinosaur cover stories, Dalai Lama, Truman Capote dept., Train-related cover art, Famous Golfers, Mustang-Lee Iacocca and Boris Artzybasheff.

Boris Artzybasheff?

“He did dozens of Time covers in the 1960s—he was brilliant at personifying abstract issues,” explains Katzman. “I include him because—well, because I like him.”

That pretty well sums up Katzman’s business philosophy, which is heavier on idiosyncrasy than MBA-style marketing strategy. The under-construction website is a grudging gesture to the online masses, but the shop itself remains resolutely uncomputerized, with the service personal to a fault and the information contained in bound indices, print files and other archaic media. “I’m on the cutting edge of obsolescence,” Katzman notes with quiet pride.

But the real data storage medium is the proprietor’s little gray cells, which have been trained over the years to perform remarkable feats of recall. I witnessed this firsthand, when my mention of an interest in novelist Nelson Algren triggered a stream of discoveries over the next several days, ranging from a lengthy, insightful 1988 Chicago magazine cover story by Joe Pintauro about Algren’s last days, to a fine and little-known poem by the young Algren in a 1940 Esquire, which also featured one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last stories and pieces by Sherwood Anderson, Gilbert Seldes and Chester Himes. The prewar Esquire is a gem by any standard, written and designed at a level of sophistication impossible to replicate today.

Katzman also managed to turn up Algren’s 1981 obituary in Time, sharing space with Bob Marley’s; Norman Podhoretz’s snarky “Man with the Golden Beef” review in a 1956 New Yorker; and a classic Algren piece about vice squad ethics and cop psychology, which appeared first in a 1965 issue of the mainstream Saturday Evening Post and a few years later, in just slightly tweaked form, in the left-wing Chicago Free Press—and maybe elsewhere as well. The Algren search produced about twenty items in all, dredged mainly by memory from the pulpy depths of Katzman’s shelves and boxes. “I recalled it, found it, offered it—I knew I was right,” says Katzman of a specific magazine I had inquired about.

It takes a certain kind of person to run an operation like the Magazine Museum. A person somewhat like the Borges character Funes the Memorious, who after being bucked by a horse wakes up remembering “not only every leaf of every tree in every patch of forest, but every time he had perceived or imagined that leaf.”

To digitize such a business may add efficiency, but it would diminish the quirky human quality, the loose and sideways and associative logic that may not instantly produce what you think you wanted, but over time can turn up what you really did crave and didn’t know existed. At the very least, any historical search leads to an encounter with higher-level magazine culture in its prime, a culture of word and thought has been largely supplanted by one of image and celebrity. To some, that lost world can be appealing indeed.

But apparently not to very many on this summer day, as I have the stacks almost to myself. The Skokie incarnation of the store is about a year-and-a-half old, following a twenty-year run in Morton Grove. Not everyone seems aware of the move, and in this economy, paid advertising is not an option. Hence the new online presence, not as a profit center in itself, but rather as a conduit bringing people into the shop and introducing them to the Bob Katzman experience.

There are plenty of Internet sources for back issues, but only a handful of brick-and-mortar stores—and that’s a loss, he and I agree. “Where you walk in and there’s a guy who knows his stock answering questions—that’s disappearing.”

Katzman’s journey to Oakton Street has been a circuitous one, driven by necessity and maybe a touch of karma. He has hawked periodicals since the age of fifteen when, under the tutelage of a vendor who had worked the corner for half a century, he built his first newsstand in Hyde Park to pay for his University of Chicago Lab School tuition. Katzman confides that his goal was always “to escape selling newspapers, and to write for a living. But since 1965, I’ve lived by selling to others over a counter—it’s like a sentence.”

Since creating that first stand on 51st and Lake Park, Katzman has gone on, among other things, to open a deli, only to discover he could not cope with the odor of pastrami before sunrise; operate a citywide chain of newsstands, eventually undercut by employee theft; run a magazine distribution business, which involved fighting a bruising circulation war against a well-entrenched rival; buy a huge, ancient and flagrantly illicit downtown newsstand, and appealed (successfully) to the Mob for aid when the city threatened to bulldoze it; and own and operate a popular foreign-language North Side bookstore before Barnes & Noble muscled its way into the neighborhood.

“I’ve always swum against the tide,” he says. “I went into the newsstand business as it was ending, the independent bookstore business when the chains hit and the vintage magazine trade when all the shops are closing. I’m like the death-knell of enterprise—‘Uh-oh, Katzman’s in it, choose something else.’”

His has not been the typical career path of a Lab School graduate. But what Katzman has gained from his blue-collar existence are some serious street smarts, including the key lesson that survival means listening, not talking. In a place like Chicago, what matters is not so much following the letter of the law as earning the trust of the police, which means knowing how to keep a confidence. “Laws disappear once you know the cops,” he notes. As his relationship with the police deepened, he came to understand the role that newsstands played in keeping city streets not only livelier and more colorful, but also safer. “I had a phone and I knew the cops and the criminals,” he says. The boxes that have replaced human vendors can make no such claim.

Police were one important business factor, politicians and city officials another. “I was paying everyone. I learned it doesn’t really matter how much you give them, you just have to offer something to recognize their power over you. Bribing people wasn’t considered sinful—it was the only way, the way you fit into their world. When you run a newsstand, you are under everybody, and nobody really sees you.”

Now Katzman wants badly to be seen and heard. After decades of peddling others’ words, he has published his own memoirs, offers his poems, stories and reflections online, and gives readings of his work wherever listeners can be found. “They’re about a part of Chicago that is invisible, written by an invisible man,” he says. “I know what it’s like for someone to be treated a certain way because of what he does for a living.”

The four printed biographical volumes are for sale at the Magazine Museum, of course, and for a while were also available at one of the major bookstore chains. But in a Borgesian moment, some middle management type decided to shelve Katzman’s books under Sports and Illinois Travel. Katzman fought the placement decision and ended up pulling his books rather than knuckle under to yet another indignity from a white-collar world that, from his perspective, never seems to take him quite seriously.

So maybe the Borges character he most resembles is Pierre Menard, a twentieth-century critic and litterateur who spends much of his life rewriting “Don Quixote”—a book that already exists—and in the process comes to embody the windmill-jousting knight errant. There is something indubitably and wonderfully quixotic about attempting to persuade a BlackBerry culture of the virtues of yellowing print. But Katzman continues to roll boulders uphill, championing endangered media and seeking to make it on his own in a corporate marketplace.

His store is valuable in part simply because it’s unique, and without it, the history within would scatter with the winds. But the shop is more than what it sells. Unlike many museums, it is at heart something other than a cold and inscrutable Borgesian labyrinth or a repository of dead history. It is an expression of its owner’s life and personality, which makes it a living part of the community—even if the community seems wary of embracing it.

And if things don’t work out in Skokie?

“I don’t have a fallback—this is plan B through Z,” says Katzman. “Here I am reorganizing the past in a minute way, and I’m not sure how many people are interested. It’s not like I’m not aware there’s a kind of madness in running a history-based business in a city famous for tearing down its historical buildings. But I don’t know how to do anything in a mundane way—and I know, even if nobody else does, that what I have here is remarkable. I want to be seen as doing something worthwhile—I just need to find people who agree it’s a good idea.” 

Magazine Museum, 4906 West Oakton, Skokie. (847)677-9444. MagazineMemories.com (store), DifferentSlants.com (writings).

6 Responses to “The Infinite Library of Bob Katzman: Browsing Skokie’s Magazine Museum”

  1. Robert M. Katzman Says:

    First, to the story’s writer–I love you!
    Second, just a note about my books. I was in both B & N and Borders and treated cavalierly. My books were in 60 stores in the metro area and I pulled all 1,000 books out when I decided I would not let them treat me any way they wanted to. I have too much self-respect for that. There are ten books completed, at this point, and 5,000+ sold. None of my books are fiction. Shabbat Shalom…Bob

  2. Herb Berman Says:

    This store is a treasure, one of its kind (perhaps in the entire country), and its owner, whom I’m proud to consider a friend, is a talented writer as well as a unique archivist.

    Borges is an apt comparison.

  3. Shehla Arif Says:

    This is a beautifully written story about a wonderfully meaningful project. I salute humanity of those who retain their commitment to making this world liveable.

  4. John Steve Adler Says:

    Bob is a very talented writer and archivest. All his writings are not only based on his life experiences but written extremely well and in a style that is easy to read and enjoy.
    You do not have to be from Chicago or Illinois for that matter to enjoy Bob’s books and poetry, its from the heart and very real.
    He is running a store, not a museum. The stuff is for sale.

  5. Brian Browdy Says:

    The place has to be seen to be believed. Go.

  6. Bruce Matteson Says:

    This story is phenomenal! It just nails the “Bob Katzman experience” square on. Bravo for Hugh Iglarsh and Bravo for Bob Katzman. You are both at the top of your games!

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