Thursday, January 7, 2010

Five Days in Chicago Bookstores

It usually takes me a week to ten days to cover all the Chicago area booksellers I need to see. I do some of these with day trips but I like to start the season by spending a few days in the city and hitting some key stores.

Some reps prefer centrally located downtown hotels, while others swear by the edge of highway places where you take your life in your hands to walk to the Bob Evans across the road, which is- scarily- your best food option. They have their merits but when I’m in a city I prefer to stay in a neighborhood whenever possible. I relish the feeling of walking out the door and feeling as if I’m a part of the local working masses, a pleasure my colleague Adena shared with me twelve years ago when she was selling me on the idea of being a rep.

In Chicago, I’ve taken to staying at a Best Western on Broadway. On the plus side, it’s a charming old former apartment building in the busy Lakeview neighborhood. I can stash the car and use public transportation, there are loads of places to eat, and it’s down the street from Unabridged Books, which is open late.

On the minus side, it’s a whole different place when the Cubs are in town. And- no nice way to say this- it’s a bit of a dump. When I told a bookseller last summer that I was staying there he mentioned that the place had been closed for awhile a few years back after someone was murdered there.

Imagine my delight when I showed up to find a renovation in the works. The new rooms are fantastic with no lingering air of menace. I choose to interpret this surprise as an omen for the new season in general.

I spent a productive morning with the buying staff of the Art Institute shops. They are such smart and experienced people I always come away feeling as if I’ve learned more than I shared. The new modern wing has greatly expanded the type of books they can stock, and the prospect of more architecture book sales somewhat offsets the sadness over the tragic closing of Prairie Avenue Books.

I took the el out to the extremely cozy and friendly Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. This is the sort of neighborhood bookshop every community deserves. And beyond the stylish and authentic selection of titles, you can have a glass (or bottle) of wine and a bowl of soup. An aside: they have the cutest business cards ever. Ask for one.

The Museum of Contemporary Art shop has a whole different vibe from the Art Institute shops, which have a much more comprehensive mission. Chris Conti, the MCA buyer, brought his quirky curatorial sensibility with him from the excellent Wexner Center shop in Columbus, and every item on the shelf looks hand-selected (as indeed it was). I picked up an interesting title from a new small press called Museum Legs: Fatigue & Hope in the Face of Art by Amy Whitaker, along with the new Verso edition of Terry Eagleton’s Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. Chris recommended that I see the current exhibition, Italics: Italian Art between Tradition & Revolution. Spectacular.

“Esoteric” doesn’t begin to describe Quimby’s, the Wicker Park emporium of all things paranoid and fun. People who throw around the phrase “cutting edge” should really check in here to see what that debased concept actually looks like. The book selection favors conspiracies, erotica, alt this and alt that. The zines and comics are fascinating even for a novice, and the overall vibe is surprisingly warm and friendly given the angst-inducing inventory. I bought a copy of my new favorite literary journal, Public Space.

If you have some mental images of what a completely charming used bookshop should look like, Myopic Books just down the street likely embodies some of them. Narrow winding creaking aisles. Multiple levels with crazy staircases and pathways that can land you in a cul de sac or a grand light-filled reading room. The sort of place in which to spend an afternoon.

Very friendly staff (has every Chicago bookseller taken nice pills? What happened to the stereotype of the grouchy proprietor?) And clever, well-organized selections. Someone’s gone a little mad with the signage, but all the warnings seem to be effective. I wouldn’t dare re-shelve a book in the wrong place.

I stumbled on an old edition of Edward Upward’s In the Thirties, (which I’d never read but I’ve been on an Isherwood kick lately and he was a friend) and an irresistible little Oxford edition of Trollope’s The Warden. This is the kind of bookstore atmosphere where you make instant rash resolutions like “yes, I think I WILL read the entire Barsetshire series this year!”

I’ve always been a big fan of Unabridged Books and even thought about working there several lifetimes ago. Owner Ed Devereux is a book purist, and as other stores have been lured into all sorts of exhausting competitive strategies, he’s all about books and books alone. They stopped doing events a few years ago even though the likes of Bette Midler and David Sedaris drew thousands because it distracted from bookselling.

A general interest independent urban neighborhood bookshop with a strong gay focus, it works. Ed all but invented the idea of the little “staff recommends” comment cards that are a bookstore mainstay these days, and they still do them better than anyone. I always leave with something I hadn’t expected, which in this case was Aidan Higgins’ novel Balcony of Europe, out in a new edition from Dalkey Archive.

My takeaway themes of the week? Display and sell what you love. Know your neighborhood. And never skip the spring rolls at Penny’s Noodle Shop.

No comments:

Post a Comment