Turning the page: Chicago independent bookstores tell unique story

By Marisa Sobotka, Campus Reporter

Walk into a local bookstore and browse the aisles. Run your fingers over the spines of books holding infinite possibilities and sneak a peek inside the cover. It’s a different experience from scrolling a webpage with a limited summary and mysterious consumer ratings.

Online retail giant Amazon may have learned this lesson. The company—more of a universal marketplace than a bookstore these days—finally decided to open brick-and-mortar bookstores 13 years after being founded, including a Lakeview location that opened March 21.

With the bright, easily recognizable Amazon logo appearing for the first time on a Chicago building, the shop is hard to miss. Books from all genres classified by their popularity and Amazon ratings cover shelves alongside the latest Amazon gadgets including the Echo and Kindle—which may be the company’s real sales goal. Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment as of press time.

The company says the new branch of Amazon Books is an attempt to revolutionize the buying and selling of literature in Chicago, but according to a 2014 study held by Civic Economics, Amazon has hurt local businesses. The study states that in 2014, Amazon sold more than $1.8 billion worth of retail goods in Illinois alone—about the average sales of 1,298 small businesses and a possible state and local tax revenue loss of up to $59.8 million.

In response, Chicago’s independent bookstores have come together to show that Amazon’s discounts and convenience do not mean as much in the bookselling industry as community engagement and specialized services.

More than 20 independent bookstores in Chicago joined forces in the summer of 2016 to create The Chicagoland Independent Bookstore Alliance—just as Amazon announced its bookstore’s opening.

Rebecca George, owner of Wicker Park’s Volumes Bookcafe and one of ChiBa’s founders, said the group formed to spread “collective messaging” about  independent bookstores’ programming and to highlight their value to the Chicago community.

“We do not look at [Amazon Books] as competition, and people need to be reminded that, to us, [customers] are not a number,” George said. “We integrate and work with the community, schools, neighborhood organizations, host book clubs and have community discussions to show the strength of localism.”

Another member of ChiBa and co-owner of Andersonville’s Women & Children First bookstore Lynn Mooney has observed the effects of Amazon on locally owned businesses. She said the corporation is largely “reactive” in terms of what it carries and promotes.

Though the opening of Amazon Books in Chicago was the catalyst for the bookstore collective, Mooney said competition will not be its only motivation. She said the members work together to show the “energy and vitality” their bookstores bring to the city, with events such as ChiBa’s upcoming bookstore crawl on April 29 to celebrate International Independent Bookstore Day.

The Chronicle visited other Chicagoland bookstores that offer unique services to revitalize “bookstore tourism” in the city.

kibbitznest books, brews & blarney|2212 N. Clybourn Ave., Lincoln Park

Kibbitznest is part bookstore, part bar, part nonprofit. In what used to be a 1920s factory, exposed brick and wood ceiling enclose books of all genres—including gender studies, politics and religion.

Owner Anne Neri Kostiner, who opened kibbitznest in October 2016, said she wanted to create a space that could “preserve the quality of human connection” by promoting a balance of in-person and electronic communication.

The store’s full bar is equipped with more than 30 beer and wine selections, specialty cheese plates, Vienna beef hot dogs and homemade ice cream for readers and browsers.

In a separate room, a “wifi-free” sign hangs above a set of antique typewriters for patrons. “Genuine human interaction” is hand-painted on a wall that leads to a room full of used books.

“There are so many people that communicate online, and that’s OK as long as we don’t overdo or it doesn’t overtake our need to communicate as human beings,” Kostiner said.

kibbitznest also hosts monthly discussions and intellectual panels. Patrons can write poems on typewriters and hang  them on the wall, play board games, or read a book about philosophy written for children—with a glass of wine—during their lunch break.

“It is not earth-shattering and is not changing the world,” Kostiner said. “I am just raising awareness that for a least an hour a day, come on in, unplug and take a look at the things around you.”

Read It & Eat|2141 N. Halsted St., Lincoln Park

Not only does this North Side store carry books about every type of food and cooking technique, it also sports a fully functional kitchen and culinary school.

Owner and founder Esther Dairiam describes it as a “destination for culinary books and events.”

Dairiam said she opened the shop in May 2016 after visiting a culinary bookstore in Paris. She added that the store fulfills Chicago’s need for a place that sells specialized cookbooks while providing a hands-on culinary experience.

“We are more than a bookstore, and we are more than a casual or social cooking school,” Dairiam said. “We have tried to look for ways to combine different events, products and content so it provides a differentiated experience.”

The shop holds events for food enthusiasts, homecooks, chefs and restaurant owners including pop-up dinners, cooking classes, author demonstrations and private events, such as a signing with cookbook author Serena Wolf.

Dairiam said that Chicago independent bookstores often plan experiences for patrons, and because Read It & Eat focuses on food, its kitchen offers customers something new.

“We have got every book that [Amazon Books] offers and more,” she said. “People who come to us continue to come to us because of the experience, and people who have always shopped at Amazon will continue to shop [there].”

Occult Bookstore |1164 N. Milwaukee Ave., Ukrainian Village

Spirituality and mystery have been the specialties of this Chicago-based bookstore for the last 98 years.

Described as a “spiritual metaphysical bookstore” by current owner Louvel Delon, the shop opened in 1918 to provide what clients would use in their “daily spiritual practices.”

Delon, a Chicago native who took over the shop 11 years ago from the original owner D.G. Nelson, became interested in the occult as a 16-year-old.

“The store is a place that saved me,” Delon said. “I was at a formative age searching for something, and the oddity of the bookstore combined with the taboo of the book [topics] is what made it interesting.”

The shop sells a variety of products including tarot cards, gems and herbs along with books on religions, holistic and self-healing practices, astrology, and other spiritual topics.

The store’s brick walls are covered with art by local artists as well as handmade jewelry and sculptures.

The bookstore also offers classes by practitioners who have worked in their respective fields for more than 20 years. These classes and events include weekly discussions called “Coffee Clutch,” defensive magic classes and movie nights at which customers can discuss the spiritual significance found in old films.

While Amazon Books can provide customers with discounts and a “convenience factor,” according to Delon, independent bookstores will continue to focus on the “little things” that mean more to the community.

“We will give you our insight and what we have been through, which you are never going to get at a big chain bookstore,” Delon said.

Open Books |651 W. Lake St., West Loop

Celebrating its 10th anniversary in May, Open Books began in the basement of founder Stacy Ratner’s home where she collected books and used them to help students learn reading and writing skills.

Now located in the West Loop, the shop is covered in bright pastel bookshelves holding hundreds of used books.

The store’s Director of Marketing Curtis Flagg said the bookstore is a “nonprofit social venture” that specializes in literacy programs and selling used books.

“Our mission is transforming lives through reading, writing and the unlimited power of used books,” Flagg said.

The shop works with Chicago Public Schools students as well as those in neighboring suburbs.

One of the programs, “reading buddies,” has volunteers who work with students to build reading skills.

The store also offers a creative writing workshop at which students learn to write short stories and read for a live audience.

“They see how their words translate into an active piece, and they are legitimate authors at this point in time; that is a lot of people’s bucket lists,” Flagg said.

Open Books funds it programs with the sales from it’s used books.

Special programs and community outreach drive the success of  independent bookstores in Chicago and set them apart from larger companies, Flagg said.

“There is a connection to the community that is very genuine and authentic,” Flagg said.

He said the business prides itself on its staff and volunteers who have a  true passion for reading and literacy, adding that no money could buy what having a conversation with employees provides for customers.

“At the end of the day, we aren’t looking to make big bucks,” he said. “We sustain ourselves with books, but our end game in this matter is to provide a resource for the community through literacy.”