Breaking the chains
Chicago's diverse group of indie bookstores scratch every niche.
No one likes to bemoan the spread of chain bookstores more than armchair economists, but the truth is that for the average book-buyer a lot of independent bookstores look and feel like the chains. The difference is just one of local vs. national ownership, and occasionally of narrow vs. wide selection.But independents are also able to carve out niches that the chains overlook, and Chicago is filthy with cool, indie bookstores that give discerning readers what they want. From the South Side to the North and back out West, targeted bookselling may be how the indies survive, and may be your best bet for finding cool books.
It was a shame when Afrocentric Bookstore (4655 S King Dr at 46th Pl, 773-924-3966) left its space in DePaul’s Loop campus to make way for a Barnes & Noble, but it found a happy home at the 47th Street Market shopping mall in Bronzeville. The store carries 7,000 to 10,000 titles of African-American and African interest at any given time. It also hosts regular events; academic bad-boy Michael Eric Dyson often stops in for a reading, as do the nation’s prominent black novelists.
In a city so full of ex-pats, it’s strange there aren’t more bookstores serving foreign communities. Europa (832 N State St between Chestnut and Pearson Sts, 312-335-9677) carries more than 250 foreign-language and international periodicals. Readers can also find a wide variety of books for English speakers learning other languages, as well as titles in French, Spanish, German, Italian and Polish. Along with the diversity of titles and publications, the store offers shoppers an extra bonus with expert staff, each of whom speaks at least one foreign language.
Though they may seem like foreign countries, you shouldn’t feel out of place in comic-book stores. They’re not hostile environments staffed by anti-social, condescending snobs as portrayed in The Simpsons. Comix Revolution (600 Davis St, Evanston, 847-866-8659), the area’s leading comic-book haven, stocks more than 100 titles. The store focuses on circulating new books and merchandise, and doesn’t carry expensive collector’s items.
At Myopic Books (1564 N Milwaukee Ave between North Ave and Honore St, 773-862-4882), it’s possible to drop some serious cash on an antiquarian novel or two bucks on a reprint paperback. And because bookworms are notorious night owls, Myopic is open until 1am six nights a week (10pm on Sundays). There are between 65,000 and 80,000 used books occupying the wooden shelves of this converted three-flat. Fiction is the largest section, and old paperback classics go for a few dollars. Myopic fuels its nocturnal readers with $1 coffees and hosts regular events on the spacious third floor.
Unabridged Bookstore (3251 N Broadway between Aldine Ave and Melrose St, 773-883-9119) bridges the gap between new and used bookstores. Some of the dedicated staff members have worked here for more than a decade.A general-interest bookstore carrying the latest titles, the Boystown establishment openly supports and carries many books of interest to the GLBT community without pigeonholing itself as a strictly gay bookstore. It sells new books at the usual market prices, but it’s also known for its selection of “remainders” (marked down hardcovers).
Augey Aleksy knows his store, Centuries and Sleuths (7419 W Madison St, Forest Park, 708-771-7243), inside and out, and can make the connection between history and mystery, in a snap.
“Being a historian is like being a mystery writer,” he says, explaining that while many historians piece together the past, mystery writers often focus on the myths of historical events. Driving the point home, Aleksy cites Robert Goldsborough’s series of Nero Wolfe mysteries in which the lives of Richard J. Daley and Al Capone blend into the plots.