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.
1727 East 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.
Brainstorm Movies, Comics and Gaming
1579 North Milwaukee, Suite 321, (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 West 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.
606 Davis, Evanston, (847)866-8659
The 15-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 West 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 West Walton, (312)943-9090
Though small, a lot is packed into the 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 East 57th, (773)684-1300
The unassuming entrance to this concrete-floor basement bookstore belies a sprawling, uncluttered space. The main room is home to the staff-loved “Sci-fi, Fantasy & Horror Fiction” and “Comics & Graphic Novels” sections and, if you’re not a genre buff, passionately written staff reviews will help guide you to excellent choices. This first room also features their wall of general recommendations, as well as African-American Interest and Chicago-related books. Roam the well-lit labyrinth that continues off the front room, and you’ll discover a wall of poetry recommendations next to an impressive poetry collection, a decent African-American Studies section, and a welcoming kids’ section that houses occasional children’s events. 57th Street Books is the general-offering counterpart to the more scholarly-minded sister store Seminary Co-Op a few blocks away, and plays host to genre fiction author events.
First Aid Comics
1617 East 55th, (773)752-6642
A tiny two-level shop, First Aid Comics still covers the basics, plus offers a great selection of graphic novels and a few games. Join them in their game room for card games like Magic: The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh! or for occasional giveaways and author events. All the books are covered in plastic for their protection, so just give a quick heads up to the staff when you want to leaf through the pages.
1501 East 57th, (773)955-7780
This used bookstore is well-labeled, including compelling subsections like “Surrealism & Dada,” “Salem Witchcraft Trials” and, in the Chicago section, “Jane Addams/Hull-House” and “Radicalism.” The main floor is where you’ll find general fiction and nonfiction, while the downstairs has genre fiction, journalism and foreign languages. At this location, buyers are ready for your used books 9am-5pm daily, but even if you’re on a tight budget, you may end up leaving with more than you brought in.
Seminary Co-op Bookstore
5751 South Woodlawn, (773)752-4381
The new Seminary Co-Op space is light and modern, with floor-to-ceiling windows in the front and back of the store where browsers can kick back with a book in one of many chairs and choose between people-watching and reading. With a basement of course texts for University of Chicago students and upstairs sections like Medieval Studies, Russian History and a huge collection of Literary Criticism, this sister store to 57th Street Books boasts the most academic selection in Chicago. Still, with the Plein Air Cafe on the south side of the library and accessible Chicago-related and comics sections, as well as more general literature, the Seminary Co-Op is a destination for any book-lover.
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 another bookstore 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 North 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 and has a unique dedication to the Beats. Test them—see if they don’t have your Kerouac.
3244 North 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 since 1991. 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.
3251 North 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 North 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.
2620 North 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 North Milwaukee, (312)890-3860
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. 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 North 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.
Selected Works Bookstore
410 South Michigan Ave, Suite 210, (312)447-0068
One of the better used-bookstores the city has to offer, it 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.
The Book Table
1045 Lake Street, Oak Park, (708)386-9800
Magic Tree Bookstore
141 North 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 also features a story-time session for toddlers on Wednesday mornings, as well as seasonal book clubs.
After Words Books
23 East 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 you’re 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 store credit any day or cash on Thursdays starting at 4pm.
714 South 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 North 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.
1218 S. Halsted, (312)243-9070
With reasonable prices even for used books and plenty of sunny reading spots, this Powell’s location is perfect for nearby UIC students and those willing to travel far for great books. Most books are in the $5 or under range whether new or used, and for treasures of a different kind, check out the Antiquarian section. Swing by for one of their recurring reading series (including a weekly Children’s Story Hour) or their frequent author events.
Shake, Rattle, and Read
4812 North Broadway, (773)334-5311
Owner and Brian Setzer-doppelganger Ric Addy oversees a growing 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 North 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 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.
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, Leah Westfall, and Brandie Madrid. The most recent update was July 16, 2014. Please send updates to firstname.lastname@example.org