If you love books, you probably also love bookstores. Despite the rise of Amazon – including its foray into algorithm-driven brick-and-mortar stores – independent bookstores still remain an irreplaceable asset, with their staff recommendations, unusual selections, events, and sense of community. Luckily, Chicago has some wonderful examples, both old and new. We've already featured three stalwarts, but here are the stories of a few others – check back for even more next week!
You might expect a bookstore owner to have their head in the clouds, but Teresa Kirschbraun, with her background in management consulting for health care, belies that assumption. Before she opened City Lit Books in Logan Square in August of 2012, she drew up a business plan, commissioned demographic studies, and went in fully armed with knowledge and a strategy. As she points out, Borders didn’t go out of business because people suddenly didn’t want books anymore; the company just made poor management decisions. Kirschbraun knew that she would need an impressive website and a robust social media presence to survive in the age of Amazon and e-books, and that City Lit would have to offer a welcoming community, something you couldn’t get from ordering books online. City Lit has helped create that community through events such as weekly storytelling sessions, book clubs, and open mikes. Logan Square, where Kirschbraun has lived for 25 years, was an ideal neighborhood for a local bookstore, as the people there were beginning to build up and support local businesses. City Lit has even achieved local fame by being included as a location in the Chicago-boosting director Joe Swanberg’s Netflix series Easy.
Mary Gibbons and Aaron Lippelt worked at the literacy nonprofit Open Books before opening Pilsen Community Books in 2016, and they wanted to continue to encourage literacy in their new business. Inspired by Open Books’ Book Grants, they began a Pilsen Reads program, in which a portion of the bookstore’s profits are used to buy new books for schools, mostly in Pilsen and nearby neighborhoods. Pilsen Community Books aims to fulfill two requests by teachers per month, sending twenty to thirty books based upon a teacher’s wish list, which often includes books in both English and Spanish, given that many of the local schools are bilingual. The store itself mostly carries used books, and is working on building up a stock of new Spanish books for children in the area. It also occasionally hosts larger events such as their upcoming three-day book fair, featuring original literary poster art, live music, and lot and lots of books.
Gibbons and Lippelt are also responsible for Chicago’s newest indie bookstore, The Dial. It may have only opened in November of 2017, but it has a long and worthy pedigree as a bookstore in the Fine Arts Building. When the partners learned that The Dial’s predecessor in the Fine Arts Building, Selected Works, was closing, they decided to keep the Building’s legacy of literature and bookselling going, and named their new store after a literary magazine that was once published there – issues and clippings of it are displayed throughout the store. Like Pilsen Community Books, it mostly carries used books, but the selection is tailored to a different clientele: more foreign languages books for tourists, books about Chicago, and books from small presses.