Fiction Review: “The Last Days of California” by Mary Miller

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RECOMMENDED lastdaysofcalifornia

There are plenty of apocalyptic young-adult fiction books these days, but Mary Miller’s debut novel, “The Last Days of California,” has a fresh approach to an end-of-days story. Jess and her family are driving from Alabama to California for what her father believes is Armageddon. Based on the prediction of a prophet from their unspecified church, Jess’ father envisions a scenario of bodies floating up into heaven, as in the “Left Behind” series of books. Fifteen-year-old Jess wavers in her belief as they travel across the country, not quite sure if she’s about to experience the rapture, or even whether she believes in God or the teachings of her church at all.

Sitting next to Jess in the backseat is her sister, Elise, newly pregnant. Although only a few years older than Jess, the world-weary Elise is cynical beyond her years and firm in the belief that the end is nowhere in sight. Her only fragility is her inability to acknowledge her pregnancy, aside from telling her sister and then seemingly forgetting about the topic entirely. Miller’s pacing of the novel is really important, considering what is practically the closed set of the family car and a few motel rooms. While she’s unfolding Jess’ relationship with her family and her evolving ideas about religion, she’s rather brilliantly tied the awakening of a young girl to a ticking clock in the background. Read the rest of this entry »

Shelf Life: O’Gara & Wilson Moves to Smaller Town, Bigger Promise

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After more than fifty years of selling books in Hyde Park, Chicago’s oldest used bookstore, O’Gara and Wilson Ltd., will soon move to Chesterton, Indiana, located an hour east of the city. Current owner Doug Wilson, who began working for Joseph O’Gara as an apprentice in 1972, believes the move will keep the struggling store alive. Last year, Wilson was forced to use his personal savings to help float the store due to competition with e-books and online markets, but he believes the localized economic boom within the small town of Chesterton is promising.

Almost forty years ago, Wilson began his career scouting books for O’Gara. At least 2,000 used books lined the shelves in the Salvation Army, and amidst the sea of worthless book club novels and discarded Reader’s Digests, Wilson rediscovered books worthy of a second look. This process of scouting led Wilson to O’Gara’s bookstore in the early seventies. He began selling used books to O’Gara, once receiving $40 for finding a book written by the man who killed Billy the Kid. He bought that book on a whim for 50 cents. Soon, O’Gara saw Wilson had a gift for finding books, and offered him an apprenticeship. Read the rest of this entry »

Moving With Memories: Hyde Park’s Seminary Co-Op Bookstore Gets a Documentary Exhibition

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Photo: Jasmine Kwong

The Seminary Co-Operative Bookstore, a cornerstone in Hyde Park for more than fifty years, has been busy settling into their new location at 5751 South Woodlawn. And while they’ve moved only a few blocks away, it begins a new era in the store’s history. The bookstore, which operates as a member-owned cooperative, designed the new location with its community in mind. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer an abundance of natural light, a contrast to the former location’s basement browsing area. “The new space has worked out incredibly well,” says the Co-Op’s general manager Jack Cella. “Every day people come in and comment on how much they like it, even those who were prepared to dislike it because they have such fond memories of the old location.”

The Co-Op’s history became the focus of University of Chicago alumni Jasmine Kwong and Megan E. Doherty when their alma mater bought the building where the bookstore had long leased space. The two formed the Seminary Co-Op Documentary Project aimed at covering the bookstore’s rich history. “We discovered that we wanted to document the Co-Op, appreciated that we had complementary approaches, and decided to join forces,” says Kwong. They began to collect documents, interviews and photographs from members and patrons. Read the rest of this entry »

Magazine Junkies: Print Thrives at City Newsstand

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Photo: Heath Sharp

By Nolan Feeney

Mike Oelrich is strolling through the aisles of City Newsstand, cleaning up the racks and putting stray magazines back in their places when something catches his eye.

“Oh, look at that!” he says, reaching into the shelves to run his fingers over five thick holographic “The Hobbit”-themed issues of Empire, a monthly British film magazine that City Newsstand imports. “This is what we need more of.”

Between the faded brick walls of City Newsstand, four aisles of shelves carry more than 5,000 magazine titles. “Newsstand” is really a misnomer—at 2,000 square feet, City Newsstand is a bona fide magazine store. Dozens of food and cooking magazines are in one corner, business and fitness magazines are in another, and subculture titles for tattoo artists and pot smokers are in the middle. There are magazines about scrapbooks, and there are magazines about motorcycles, both for home mechanics and for fans of the scantily clad women sitting atop them. There are political journals in multiple languages, British celebrity tabloids, and GQs from every corner of the world. There are magazines for Civil War-history nerds and for beauty-pageant veterans. There is a $179.95 fashion magazine, Gap Collections, and there is Horse Illustrated.

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Support Group: A New Home for Independent Bookstores Springs to Life in Logan Square

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by John Wawrzaszek

The landscape for bookstores over the past few years has seen a drastic shift away from business-focused large-scale retail. Since the closing of the Borders books chain and the commoditization of online books from vendors like Amazon, the independent bookstore has been elevated to a level of predominance in the local market, giving customers a much needed outlet for physical sales, and the chance to hold a book and flip through its pages before buying. Independent music stores lived through a similar experience when chains like Virgin and Tower Records closed. These changes might have something to do with the fact that in less than two years’ time, three new booksellers have opened in a less than two-mile stretch along Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. The two Blue line stops and the 56 Milwaukee bus make this a prime location for their literary expansion.

The sense of community in Logan Square is strong: from the successful farmer’s market, to the efforts of Logan Square Preservation, which manages the Comfort Station community space. For Teresa Kirschbraun, owner of City Lit Books, which opened in August, her choice to set up shop in Logan Square was in line with a “buy local” mentality. “I have lived in Logan Square for twenty-five years,” says Kirschbraun. “When I made the decision to pursue opening a bookstore, I wanted it to be in my community.” A similar idea was established two years previously when Marc Ruvolo opened Bucket O’Blood Books and Records. Ruvolo has been a resident of the area off-and-on for the past eighteen years. “Everyone around here is super nice and supportive. It’s a great area,” he says. “I love books and all I’ve done is try to sell good, quality books for cheap while fostering some sort of community feeling.” Both banked on support from the neighborhood they knew well as their ventures entered an era of operation out from under the shadow of chain stores. “Borders closing has actually been positive for us,” says Kirschbraun. “Their customers are still looking for a bookstore and many customers tell us they come here for that specific reason.” Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Secret Hideout: Just finding AlleyCat Comics in Andersonville is an adventure

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Nicholas Idell, right

By Alex Baumgardner

Nicholas Idell had been working at comic book shops in Chicago for a few years when he finally decided to strike out on his own. The 29-year-old Rockford native didn’t want to limit himself. He considered moving back home from Andersonville, knowing there was an open market in Rockford. At the behest of friends, he scouted areas in Washington D.C. and California. Ultimately, he settled, quite literally, in a back alley.

Opened just last month, AlleyCat Comics is squeezed in the courtyard behind a Potbelly and Starbucks, and accessible only through a gated alley no wider than a yard or two on North Clark. A handmade metal sign forged by Idell’s dad is the only signal to sidewalk traffic that it’s there. Idell admits he wasn’t floored by the location when it was first presented to him, but fellow owners David Ballard and Tim Harris both had a feeling the secluded spot could be a special one, so Andersonville’s first back-alley comic shop was born.

“We knew that this neighborhood could really use a store,” Idell says. “Everyone loved that space. And I thought, ‘Well, if everyone loves it so much, how much is not having a storefront really going to hinder this business? Or could it help?’” Read the rest of this entry »

Unkindled: Indie bookstores wade into uncharted eBook waters

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Photo: Linda Bubon

By Alex Baumgardner

Amazon has become a four-letter word in independent bookstores around Chicago. Linda Bubon, co-owner of Women & Children First in Andersonville, can barely bring herself to speak the name of the e-commerce company aloud in her store. She only mouths it when talking about lost sales to the online giant.

This is the perceived relationship between local bookstores and big business and modern technology: resilient holdovers from an era long past, community nooks that serve only a niche market of collectors and literary snobs, fighting to even tread water as corporate stores flood the market around them. “We’ve never been like that,” says Bubon, whose store was one of the first in Chicago to go online over twenty years ago. “We’ve always tried to be very relevant. But God forbid we don’t sell eBooks. That would just reinforce that stereotype.” Those like Bubon readily admit Amazon has taken a good chunk of their business. And its proprietary device, the Kindle, threatened to slice even deeper into profits and essentially cut them off from the eBook market. So it would make sense for independents to be a bit wary of the eBook trend. But since Google settled a class-action lawsuit filed against Google Books, which paved the way for it to enter the online distribution scene in December of 2010, more than 250 independent stores across the country, including ten in and around Chicago, have begun selling eBooks. Many, like Women & Children First, have made them available directly from their websites, offering them the ability to sell them competitively across platforms.

Unlike the Kindle, which only supports Amazon’s extensive library, Google eBooks allow independent stores to make their curated selections available on numerous devices, like the iPad, Barnes and Noble’s Nook and the Sony Reader. Still, independent bookstores thrive on their community of customers and theoretically would be hurt by the disintegration of that culture. Read the rest of this entry »

Weighty Reading: Market Fresh Books sells by the pound

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Susan Frischer’s husband knew they would need to think of something that would stick in people’s minds. Independent bookstores are typically the place to find rarities, relics and expensive antique bindings. But Market Fresh Books in Evanston has a different idea of what an independent bookstore should be.

“We joked it was how you would buy salami,” Frischer says. Market Fresh sells books by the pound, rather than pricing them separately. The store began online, through outlets like, but decided to open a brick-and-mortar outpost last Halloween. The idea has apparently caught on, because a second location has popped up, just a few blocks away.

While their main focus is books, you can also find DVDs, CDs and records, also sold by the pound. The store focuses on books that people could find in Barnes and Noble, more recent titles. But they do occasionally get more unique finds. Read the rest of this entry »

411: Reading is Fun(draising)

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Open Books saw one of its goals met this past November with the opening of their bookstore in Chicago’s Near North Side. “The reception to the store has been tremendous, and shows the store is filling a need in the Chicago literary scene,” says Becca Keaty of Open Books. “We survived the winter season and we’re really excited for the weather to be nicer.” To kick off the (hopefully) approaching warm weather, Open Books is celebrating its fourth year as a nonprofit. On May 1, Open Books invites families to come and enjoy tours of the literacy center, contests, a birthday-party-themed “Storytime” and, of course, cake. Read the rest of this entry »