Evolving chapters of Chicago books

By Brianna Wellen

In a small oasis sits on the shop-filled block on S. Dearborn Street with over-sized printing letters in the grass, a reminder of the industry that once dominated the neighborhood. After WWII, the printing presses filling the buildings slowly started moving to the suburbs, and Chicago’s bookstores no longer had a centralized location. As Borders stores sprouted up in the ’70s and ’80s, the Printers Row neighborhood evolved into a residential area. Over time, the literary hub became less relevant.

With Borders stores around the country cleaning out their inventory with “Everything Must Go” sales, Chicago’s literary scope narrows to independently owned shops, keeping a close eye on other chains, such as Barnes and Noble, to see if they meet the same fate. The death of the corporate chain leaves the book community scattered throughout the city, adapting once again to a shifting landscape.

“Now with Borders out of play, here’s this real opportunity for independents to strengthen themselves and become cultural centers,” said Cynthia Sherry, publisher of Chicago Review Press, who deals directly with the city’s bookstores on the distribution end of the business. “When I’ve gone to [the] Printer’s Row [Lit Fest] in the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of brand new publishers and art book publishers—publishing that has not been considered financially viable or attractive for a lot of publishers—and yet they seem to be thriving here. It seems in some ways we’re smaller, so we’ve got more opportunities to grow.”

Many small-city bookstores found themselves thriving alongside Borders and may remain unaffected in either direction because of the specialized niches carved out for them. Quimby’s Bookstore, 1854 W. North Ave., sets itself apart by selling zines, according to Quimby’s manager Liz Mason. She said because their business model differs from the mass market bookselling style, whether Borders succeeded or failed, Quimby’s would stand as a separate entity from chain bookstores.

John LaPine, owner of Printers Row Rare and Fine Books, 715 S. Dearborn St., agreed. He said because his business is in used and rare books, he’s unconcerned about the business of corporate or independent shops. For his store, the connection to the neighborhood’s history and the rare acquisitions sold make his store a place book lovers seek out.

“It’s a target destination,” LaPine said. “Principally collectors, who know exactly what they’re looking for, have checked our website and found out that we’ve got it and come in.”

LaPine’s store is based in the historic Donohue Building on Printers Row, which was built in 1883. It was the headquarters of the M.A. Donohue Publishing Co. until 1971 and, according to LaPine, was the largest purveyor of children’s books in the world.

According to Bonnie McGrath, member of the South Loop Neighbors board, M. A. Donohue Publishing Co. produced the first print of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” in 1900, along with many other first editions of what is now considered classic literature. Printers Row was the backdrop for many historic events, some unrelated to literature, McGrath said. The Transportation Building, 600 S. Dearborn St., which was built in 1911, held Eliot Ness’ office on the building’s second floor.

The buildings were built specifically for the site because of the rail lines, which served in the favor of the building’s functionality. Dearborn Station, 47 W. Polk St., served as the neighborhood’s hub, said Paul Gehl of Newberry Library.

“[Dearborn Station] was instrumental in the way … the printing houses went up on Printers Row,” Gehl said. “The narrow blocks meant you could build tall narrow buildings with large windows that could bring a lot of light in, natural light for the press rooms and the proofreading stations—places where they prepared plates and did all their work.”

Lacking the resources the city once had of having freshly printed books produced on a daily basis, the loss of Borders will make it harder for customers to find new and mainstream books, according to J. R. Melson, manager of Myopic Books, 1564 N. Milwaukee Ave. Myopic primarily sells used books, not unlike many other surviving independent shops in the city, and would often send customers to chain stores for anything its inventory lacked.

“The thing that makes it tricky for us is sometimes it’s hard to recommend where else people can go for books,” Melson said of Borders’ demise. “If people are looking for new books, it just means there’s one less place to send them.”

The shops lining the streets between S. State, S. Clark and W. Harrison streets and W. Roosevelt Road were Chicago’s premiere printing and publishing companies from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century. Now the buildings are more frequently used as lofts with a few businesses left supporting the neighborhood’s original cause.

According to Gehl, the neighborhood’s current appearance doesn’t accurately display the culture that built up around the printing and publishing houses. What are now parking lots and grassy parks were once gathering places for printing workers once they were off duty.

“There were bars and restaurants and cheap shops that served the printers who worked on the row because in many cases, the printing presses ran 24 hours a day,” Gehl said. “So you might get off at two in the morning and want a drink, or you might want a drink with breakfast. It was that kind of a neighborhood. It was literally an all night, all day business neighborhood.”

After the presses moved to the suburbs, other retail business—some bookstores, others restaurants and shops—moved into the neighborhood throughout the ’70s, while rooms where the printing presses were once held turned into lofts. In the past 10 years, many businesses have disappeared from the street, according to LaPine, and the neighborhood is now filled with vacant retail spaces.

While bookstores and publishers are no longer concentrated in one place, that doesn’t make today’s independent ventures any less strong, according to Melson. He said neighborhood loyalty may be the reason so many stores have continued to thrive throughout the run of the major chains such as Borders.

“I feel like Chicago’s a good city for that. Every neighborhood has its store and that’s kind of its strength,” Melson said.

Though Printers Row’s prominence has faded away, it continues to serve as a gathering place for bookstores in the city and across the nation every June. In 1985, the Near South Planning Board started the Printers Row Lit Fest to bring new life to the neighborhood. The festival, now run by the Chicago Tribune, allows independent publishers and bookstores to start a dialogue about the state of books in the city and reconnect with the now scattered community, Sherry said. According to her, the yearly visits to Printers Row have left her optimistic about Chicago’s literary growth, regardless of chain store’s unfortunate futures.

Sherry added, “It is a little worrisome for books in general, but I think it could be an opportunity for the independents to really make a stand here in Chicago.”