Some of Chicago’s greatest assets reside in its independent bookstores. Beyond their geographic spread on the North, West and South Sides, they also support each other. Pilsen Community Books is a part of that extended community. The bookstore opened in 2016 under the leadership of Mary Gibbons and her business partner Aaron Lippelt, but when Gibbons and Lippelt announced that they would be selling the store to focus their efforts on The Dial bookstore downtown in 2019, customers and other booksellers alike wondered about the fate of the store on 18th Street.
Luckily, Tom Flynn, Mandy Medley and Katharine Solheim—three experienced booksellers who have worked throughout Chicago—undertook the task of buying the store, and they plan to keep its doors open. This interview is just an introduction to what the ambitious trio is working on, their future plans, and the popular titles on the shelves at Pilsen Community Books.
Could you talk about how you decided to partner up and become owners of Pilsen Community Books?
All three of us have spent our entire adult lives working in books—Tom at Volumes Bookcafe, 57th Street and Seminary Co-op, Katharine at Unabridged and Barnes & Noble, and Mandy at the University of Georgia Library, Powell’s Chicago, Unabridged and Coffee House Press. All three of us have always dreamed of owning our own shop. Katharine and Tom both approached Aaron and Mary at the same time about buying the store, and we decided to combine years of experience and unique skill sets and go in on the store together.
How have people in the neighborhood responded to the bookstore now that you’ve started to do outreach to schools and the larger community?
We are still introducing ourselves to the neighborhood. Many regular customers have come in to say hello and welcome, which has been great and exciting, and we have a few collaborations with other local businesses in the works. We’re also looking forward to continuing the Pilsen Reads program, the book giveaway program with the mission to promote literacy through access to books. The response from the community has been very warm, and folks are excited that the bookstore will stay in the neighborhood.
What are the most exciting elements about bookselling?
Meeting, engaging with, and learning from readers. There’s nothing quite like the serendipity of books talking to one another on the shelf and that moment when readers— store employees, customers, authors, the community at large—notice that conversation and begin one of their own.
What are the most popular titles selling at your store right now?
We sold out of Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive” and Erika L. Sánchez’s “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” the first few days we were open. Ursula K. Le Guin’s books have also been in high demand. We also sold first editions of Edna O’Brien’s “The Love Object” and Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Mandarins” within an hour of putting them on the shelves.
In my opinion, one of the best things about independent book stores is the art of the hand sell. What books do you recommend to customers that differ from the popular books?
Tom: I really like to push smaller press titles. It really is our job, I think, to help champion books coming from indie and small presses that exist out of the same passion we possess.
Mandy: I agree—I consider Myriam Gurba’s “Mean,” Valeria Luiselli’s “Tell Me How It Ends,” and all of the poetry that Haymarket publishes essential for readers interested in the ways that literature actively engages with the big questions of our time. I also love to recommend lesser-known, excellent reissues from Feminist Press like Agnes Smedley’s “Daughter of Earth” and the feminist science-fiction classic Suzette Haden Elgin’s “Native Tongue” series.
What have been some of your biggest challenges with starting anew in an established space?
Getting the lay of the land. We’re getting to know every book that is in the store by seeing what’s here and putting our hands on every title. We’re also spending time figuring out what folks in the neighborhood want to read and making sure we have those titles on hand for them.
What do you want to do differently that you haven’t done before to draw readers into Pilsen Community Books?
We want to expand our literary events programming, and schedule more events with an emphasis on social justice, literature in translation and local authors. We want to do events in conjunction with community organizers to help put the ideas in books into action, in our neighborhood and beyond.
Every independent bookstore in Chicago has its own distinct style, including this one. What makes your bookstore unique?
Our particular blend of new titles we have read and advocate for and unique and interesting used titles, as well as our interest in the way literature intersects with politics and contributes to larger cultural conversations.
Are there a regular series or any special events that you’re excited about for the store in 2020?
Yes! We already have a packed events schedule for April and May, and we’re excited about all of them. We have two events in April related to reproductive justice—Jenny Brown’s “Without Apology” and “Choice Words: Writers on Abortion” on April 20. We’re also excited for a couple of literature in translation events, for Jazmina Barrera’s “On Lighthouses” on May 12.
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.