Indie Bookstore Guide
“Bookseller” remains a noble appellation in our digital culture, with all its connotations of imparting service and knowledge at compensation most modest. Movies and TV shows romanticize bookselling, perhaps jealous of its intellectual foundation, while the emergence of Amazon.com and its brick-and-mortar superstore counterparts threaten its future, albeit in a manner with charms all their own. But the indie bookstore, and its booksellers (no marking-time clerks here), know that books are not mass merchandise, that finding a book is personal above all. They call the matchmaking service provided by booksellers “hand selling” and that, above all, is what we’ll lose if we ever lose the indies. And that book she just helped you find? It might just change your life.
Women & Children First Bookstore
5233 N. Clark, (773)769-9299
1727 E. 87th, (773)768-8869
A bookstore whose name is justified by not only its selection but by its feel, the Underground Bookstore is a gold mine for anyone in search of African-American political knowledge. The size of a café kitchen, and the feel of a basement-a TV hangs from the ceiling boasting classic Muhammad Ali fights-the Underground offers a variety of books on movement, politics and magic, nonetheless. Browse its quaint selections of linens, posters, sculptures and stuffed animals while you’re there, too, and feel free to peruse the glass cases full of incense that’ll stimulate your reading senses.
African American Images
1909 W. 95, (773)445-0322
Welcoming its browsers with a painted mural to the left and a colorful sign overhanging the entrance, this two-story work of bricks is bound to satisfy those in search of African-American heritage. Beyond the first-floor publishing house lie stairs which will take you to the upper deck, where you’ll find books on faith, inspiration and history, not to mention an array of magazines, CDs and educational board games. A tutoring center in the corner doubles as a haven for poetry readings and speeches where Bernie Mac and Iman made appearances, amongst others.
4655 S. King, (773)924-3966
Brainstorm Movies, Comics and Gaming
1648 W. North, (773)384-8721
A comics shop and a rental store—movies, games—the store, opened in fall of 2003, prides itself as a “Geek Safe Zone,” or a place where no one cares if you live in your mother’s basement, if that’s the case. Wisely, along with the major comics publishers-Marvel, DC, Dark Horse-Brainstorm carries smaller imprints like Fantagraphics and Slave Labor, and house selections from local artists, as well as a large collection of zines.
1854 W. North, (773)342-0910
The sister store to Chicago Comics—both owned by Eric Kirsammer—was originally opened in 1991 in Wicker Park, and has been at its current location for ten years. Undoubtedly a favorite bookstore to many, Quimby’s offers the best in atypical lit, peculiar publications and vintage materials. Don’t go there to get the new Harry Potter, go to get that locally made zine that you heard about last night at the bar. Just check the sections the books are divided into—”Drugs,” “Erotica & Fetish,” “Conspiracy,” to name a few. With possibly the most consistent stream of author readings and events in the city, the store’s also a place to be entertained.
1256 W. Victoria, (773)506-0683
Specializing in mental-health literature, Kathryn Stern’s shop provides materials for health professionals and students. Ranging from topics such as foster care, addiction, sex education, art therapy and psychotherapy-making it one the city’s largest healthcare-lit providers—Stern’s also ships materials around the world via its Web site.
1712 Sherman, Evanston, (847)869-6999
A hidden gem: buried in an alley in neighboring Evanston, Roger Carlson’s two-decade-old store has the personality of an antique shop-the décor features everything from vintage toys to rugs and old-school knick-knacks. The rare and out-of-print dominate here-with a little bit of luck, you’ll find that uncommon pressing of Hemingway or Salinger.
606 Davis, Evanston, (847)866-8659
The 10-year-old Evanston stop mirrors Bucktown’s Quimby’s in its underground lit leanings and Beat author devotions. Expect the zines—largely known and largely unknown—plus a good stock of bad boys like Kerouac and Bukowski and, if you couldn’t guess from the store’s name, some of the best in contemporary comics artists, including Pekar, Spiegelman and Ware.
Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore
7419 W. Madison, Forest Park, (708)771-7243
The brainy Forest Park store dedicates itself to history and mystery-and along with the books, hosts monthly discussion groups and several author signings each year. Plus, there’s a solid devotion to local authors, and the store carries a selection of Chicago-area bestsellers, from Erik Larson to Rick Kogan to John Connolly.
Newberry Library Bookstore
60 W. Walton, (312)943-9090
Though small, a lot is packed into this nearly 10-year-old store, located just inside the library lobby. Beyond books for adults and children, they also sell stationary, postcards and books for seminars at the library. Don’t miss the second floor! Created through a donation from the McClurg publishing family, the store has a section devoted to Chicago and the Midwest, as well as topics as varied as Native Americans and the Renaissance, in addition to fiction. One thing to note-the store often stays open later for library events, so call ahead if you need some extra time.
57th Street Books
1301 E. 57th, (773)684-1300
O’Gara and Wilson, Ltd.
1448 E. 57th, (773)363-0993
Chicago’s oldest bookstore, this Hyde Park hideaway is warmly tucked-in to rest behind the cobblestone walk and trees that serve as its headboard. You’ll feel like you’re browsing the personal library of a millionaire with its narrow aisles and sheer aesthetic value of the store’s symmetries, but fear not. “The management here is so engaged,” says employee Lydia Laurenson. “[Owner Douglas] Wilson is very ethical. It’s important for him that people get a good deal.” The water-stained walls ensure that the store is as absolute as its staff, and if you feel like staying—which you will—grab a seat in an antique chair and look at comics, sheet music or a book on English History.
1501 E. 57th, (773)955-7780.
See South Loop location.
Seminary Co-op Bookstore
5757 S. University, (773)752-4381
2959 N. Clark, (773)929-8298
In these days of soy lattes, Amazon recommendations and alphabetization, one can long for the rugged, protracted glory of high-intensity, low-yield book browsing. This cramped, messy Lakeview store caters to bibliophiles who don’t always want to find exactly what they’re looking for, who don’t mind scanning disorganized shelves and knee-high stacks for unexpected morsels of philosophy, psychology or Egyptology. Bookman’s specializes in non-fiction. It rewards habitual customers, particularly those willing to muffle their cell phones and chat up the owner. Between heavy sighs, he directs a lot of flustered shoppers to the Borders up the block, but his oddball regulars, in their scattershot quest for history, information and esoterica, have somehow kept him in business. This joint laughs at your Christmas list, but if you enter with a few hours to kill and a genuine interest in the world, it can open a lot of windows.
3444 N. Clark, (773)871-5318
Could be considered as much an antique shop as a bookstore-owners Bob Roschke and Ronda Pilon pack their place with the traditional newly released fare, but, more importantly, offer rare and out-of-print books, as well as old, old, old records and vintage photographs. Along with the storefront, the duo provides an ordering service online at www.thebookworks.com and has a unique dedication to the Beats. Test them-see if they don’t have your Kerouac.
3244 N. Clark, (773)528-1983
The city’s much heralded—and rightly so—shop for comics, the Lakeview store has been a mecca for addicts to the drawn word for fifteen years. The shop stocks its shelves with major publishers, but also prides itself on its devotion to independent comics from small presses, making it a fully comprehensive store (with tons of material from local graphic artists!). Add zines and an assortment of underground lit, and Chicago Comics becomes the place for image and word.
2850 N. Lincoln, (773)248-1444.
See South Loop location.
Selected Works Bookstore
3510 N. Broadway, (773)975-0002
One of the better used-bookstores the city has to offer, Lakeview’s basement of literature has the introspective attitude and personality that matches the material it pushes. The second-hand books that stuff the shelves cover a wide range of genres—including the occult, no less—and feature countless pages of sheet music, as well.
3251 N. Broadway, (773)883-9119
One of Chicago’s best and most respected bookstores, Unabridged has built itself up as the city’s source for gay and lesbian literature (with no disrespect to Andersonville’s Women & Children First, of course). Along with the massive GLBT collection, Ed Devereux’s two-floor spot offers a gargantuan travel section, as well as traditional fiction and lit shelves. And the hand-written reviews by the staff are, bar none, the best, most helpful, in town.
The Book Cellar
4736 N. Lincoln, (773)293-2665
Lincoln Square’s top book stop doubles as a wine bar—with a café in tow, the shop offers food and drink along with its book selection. It’s stepped up a notch in recent months with author events, including a monthly local author night. And the best part? The Cellar’s dedication to Chicago lit—much of the books offered are by Chicago authors, or at least Chicago-related.
2630 N. Milwaukee
Get out your atlas and navigate to this friendly neighborhood shop in Logan Square, a stop that has used books and vintage treasures galore. The storefront’s window display, equipped with traveling artifacts, invites you in to embark on your literary journey. Sociology, fiction, art, or whatever your fancy, it’s likely the cases lining the brick walls will hold what you are searching for. Before setting out on your literary adventure, be sure to pat the head of fellow traveler Ramona, the white-haired dog who acts as the store’s mascot.
Bucket O’Blood Books and Records
2307 N. Milwaukee, 773-715-5901
With a name befitting a bookstore specializing in used speculative fiction, horror and fantasy, they offer literary accompaniment in a selection of indie punk, rock, and metal vinyl and CDs. Proprietor Mark Ruvolo, a musician and owner of the record label Johann’s Face, ties his interests in music and literature together quite nicely. The store has become a neighborhood staple and regularly hosts in-store musical performances and author readings. It’s a one-stop shop that appeals to more than just one of your senses.
City Lit Books
2523 N. Kedzie, (773) 235-2523
City Lit Books is Logan Square’s newest bookish offering. The bookstore builds off the neighborhood’s sense of community, with its friendly staff and inviting space — their aesthetic is part bookstore, part public library. The stacks are neat and orderly, allowing for intimate spaces for customers to engage with one another. The atmosphere invites you to take a seat after browsing, the perfect opportunity to become engrossed in your new purchases.
Brent Books and Cards
309 W. Washington, (312)364-0126
This well-lit corner spot resembles that of a mini Waldenbooks with its multi-colored burbur-esque carpeting, oak shelves and book-draped pillars (which we’ll assume is to cater to the business tastes of the surrounding corporate area). Chances are you won’t find that first-edition “Gatsby” you’ve been scouring the planet for, but only three blocks from the Brown Line you can browse sections of social science, wines and spirits and history, and if you need help just ask one of the friendly helpers wading the aisles, ready to assist.
Prairie Avenue Books
418 S. Wabash, (800)474-2724
An architect’s dream, Prairie Avenue Books not only specializes in literature that inhabits the sense of worldly design, it’s an actual art of its own. Designed by Wilbert R. Hasbrouck, co-owner, retired architect and now author, Prairie Avenue’s tri-level interior is an eye massage, and births new arrivals and out-of-print stock for those with the itch for building composition. For the hardcore collector, blueprints and other antique buys like cloth-backed chairs and an old Stickley Bros. screen are available. Grab a seat at the massive Scottish banker’s table or opt for one of the sofa chairs found in one of the establishment’s nooks to preview a purchase.
Near West Side
1218 S. Halsted, (312)413-2665
The largest store of the small Chicago chain, the Barbara’s at UIC outdoes any Borders stop in more ways than one. With a mass selection of books of every variety, Barbara’s also boasts a large room built for author appearances-it even housed a tour stop for Bill Clinton a few years back-and, every Saturday, hosts a Children’s Story Hour. Here’s a tip: Always screen the Sale Book section before departing, you almost always find a gem.
The Book Table
1045 Lake Street, Oak Park, (708)386-9800
Magic Tree Bookstore
141 N. Oak Park, Oak Park, (708)848-0770
Oak Park’s topnotch children’s bookstore—originally opened in 1984—doesn’t just push the “Harry Potter” series. Rose Joseph and Iris Yipp’s shop offers a wide array of foreign children’s books as well, including manga and an all Spanish-language section. The store features a story-time session for toddlers on Friday mornings, and, through Saturday, hosts an all-store mega-sale. So get to it.
After Words Books
23 E. Illinois, (312)464-1110
Although tourists frequently drop in due to its location just off the Mag-Mile, this bookstore is nothing fancy. Just books. Lots of them. Open since 1997 and housing two floors of new and used books, this place has an unlimited selection and carries almost everything. Can’t find what your looking for? The knowledgeable and personable staff will walk you through the store and help search, or find you something you’ll like. Owned by Beverly Dvorkin, After Words will take your used books off your hands, offering you cash or store credit.
Hard-Boiled Records and Books
2010 W. Roscoe, (773)755-2619
Primarily a record store, this RV hot spot still manages to reserve a seat for a small selection of books which are packed like cigarettes between DVDs for rent and sale. Flip through CDs or vinyl while the store’s stereo envelops your ears with indie rock, or check out a book on the Cubs, music, fiction or even a Film Encyclopedia. And don’t let this store’s size fool you-although tiny and hidden behind large glass windows braised in band fliers and posters, this depot aims to please. “I’ve been in business for ten years and in this location for two and a half,” explains owner Mark Ferguson. Sounds like someone knows what he’s doing.
828 S. Wabash, (312)341-0748
One of three Powell’s locations in the city, Brad Jonas’ used-and-remainder warehouse annex on Wabash may seem a bit disheveled due to the high volume of inventory that consistently rolls in, but don’t let that intimidate you. “You’re going to find a lot of stuff here that you won’t find at Barnes & Noble,” comforts employee Brian Reese. “People come here to find those ‘lost treasures.’” Its lower level, a garden maze of book shelves, is host to a seemingly endless stock including poetry, literary criticism, philosophy and sports, and its knowledgeable staff is more than willing to help you find what you’re looking for-whether or not you know what it is.
Printers Row Fine and Rare
715 S. Dearborn, (312)583-1800
For those who really love literature and the art of books, Printers Row Fine and Rare is the most ideal place to visit. With complete sets of work by Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, the store feels like an antique shop. Owner John LaPine is truly a Renaissance man who spent his young adulthood in Germany, returned stateside to pursue law and then turned to his first love, books. Prices are understandably high, but with impressive first editions of some of the best fiction from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries-the store’s specialty-it’s very possible that, “it’s one of the best collections around,” LaPine says.
714 S. Dearborn, (312)922-2104
There is something about Sandmeyer’s Bookstore, but you just can’t put your finger on it. By appearance, it reminds you of a smaller version of a modern chain store (remember where those chains got their inspiration, after all). And it carries a nice selection similar to larger stores—cooking, fiction, fashion, nonfiction, travel and so on. However, it’s quiet, you can easily browse without being overwhelmed and the owners, Ulrich and Ellen Sandmeyer, are there to help or there to let you be. Prices are fairly standard, with sale items spread throughout—maybe you’ll pick up Al Franken’s “Truth,” for just $7.25.
1103 N. Ashland, (773)489-0930
“This is another one we are encouraging people to read right now,” says Lou Downey, plopping “The Science of Evolution and The Myths of Creationism” on top of “From Ike to Mao and Beyond.” Downey is one of five volunteers who make up the staff at politically charged Revolution Books. The store is filled with about ten bookcases, a wooden table and three folding chairs where discussion and forums are held while Marx, Mao, Lenin and Avakian fill the shelves. Around since the 1970s this store is frequented by those in the neighborhood, students, professors and activists. Stop in to purchase, read, discuss and debate-and don’t forget to pick up a copy of weekly newspaper Revolution on your way out.
Shake, Rattle, and Read
4812 N. Broadway, (773)334-5311
Pornography may be its bread and butter, but it’s the selection of vintage magazines at cheapo prices that keep us coming back. Everything from the earliest issues of Rolling Stone and Spin, Esquire, Playboy and Ramparts from the sixties. Even issues of National Lampoon from the mid-seventies can be found hanging on the walls and crammed into boxes on the floor. Owner and Brian Setzer-doppelganger Ric Addy also oversees a mid-size vinyl selection and towering shelves of used books. Revolving racks of yellowing Star Trek fare and trashy lonely teen novels sit next to racks of still-wrapped issues of Barely Legal, but the real meat here is the pop-culture section (think rock and movie star bios). Organization’s not Addy’s strong suit, however zinephiles should find the disarray part of the grandpa’s basement charm. Come ready to dig and expect to leave with dusty digits.
1564 N. Milwaukee, (773)862-4882
Located just off the Damen Avenue Blue Line stop in Wicker Park, Myopic Books has a staff of knowledgeable bibliophiles to help you find the right book from its inventory of more than 80,000 used (and a few new) editions. The store boasts impressive fiction and history collections, as well as more specialized interests like occult studies and literary criticism. Its labyrinthine shelves (the tops of which are patrolled by a tomcat named Leonard) wind around three-and-a-half floors to maximize its limited real estate. There is barely enough space on the main floor for browsing, but the wide-open reading area on the third floor compensates for the tight quarters below. The top floor also plays host to local poets, while experimental musicians make use of the unique acoustics of the main floor. Even if you don’t leave with one of Myopic’s treasures, the cozy, cool atmosphere is worth the trip.
New World Resource Center
1300 N. Western, (773)227-4011
This store isn’t hard to find—just look for the giant colorful mural on the wall. Politically charged, New World is a liberal and activist store, with a strong anti-war and anti-Bush stance, as well as a clear aim to gain equal rights. Beyond their non-fiction book selection, New World offers a used-book room, T-shirts and buttons that all reflect the progressive stance of the store. The store, which was formed in 1972, is a non-profit venture, staffed entirely by volunteers. It is also the largest store of its kind in Chicago.
The Indie Bookstore Guide was originally published January 25, 2007, and was written by Kevin Baum, Emerson Dameron, Joanna Gustafson, Matt Hlinak, Tom Lynch, Jake Malooley, Molly Sullivan, John Thompson and Leah Westfall. The most recent update was May 19, 2009. Please send updates to firstname.lastname@example.org