Credit: Robert Andre Gregorio

When I stepped off the Loyola el station in the summer of 1992, it was oh so very hot.

It was my first visit to Chicago, and I was trying to get my bearings with only the official 1992 CTA map. My goal was the nearby youth hostel on North Winthrop. I was completely lost, despite Chicago’s celebrated grid system.

I walked north to a two-story building that contained a hodgepodge of tiny retailers. I noticed a sign for a bookstore on the second floor and made my way upstairs, carefully navigating neatly stacked piles of old Life magazines. Once within, I felt at home.

I hadn’t come in to purchase a book, but does anyone ever enter a bookstore just to purchase a book? I wanted to meet the owner, to see if there was a cat curled up on a pile of coffee-table books, and maybe find out if they had a special section for urban studies. Before I had a chance to look for felines, a bookseller appeared and asked if I had any questions.

I got my map out and explained my predicament. She laid out the map on the only surface in the store that appeared to be clear of any printed material and deftly drew a series of directional arrows that would lead me to the hostel. She also informed me that there was no better food than Chicago diner food and drew a star around Standee’s on Granville Avenue and said, “It’s open all the time. And try the francheezie.”

I did try the francheezie, and it was a greasy and gorgeous introduction to Chicago diner food.

As I initially contemplated my 25-plus-year personal history with Chicago’s bookstores, I found myself taking a sharp turn into a morass of nostalgia, pining for the refined environment of the Rizzoli Bookstore in Water Tower Place, the tall and well-ordered shelves of O’Gara & Wilson in Hyde Park, and, inexplicably, the Borders on State Street that Great Street, which, to its credit, had remarkably clean bathrooms.

Mere nostalgia will not suffice, so here’s a modest set of meditations on what I’ve seen transpire amidst our shared shelves.

In the mid-1990s, there was much hand-wringing about what the rise of Borders and Barnes & Noble would do to independent bookstores in the Loop and beyond. They came, they (mostly) conquered, and for one brief moment they stayed at the top of the bookselling heap. Until Amazon.

The carnage wrought by this one-two punch included the demise of Kroch’s & Brentano’s on Wabash (once billed as the “World’s Largest Bookstore”), Stuart Brent Books on Michigan Avenue, The Savvy Traveller, and Prairie Avenue Bookshop, among others. Stuart Brent had the irascible Stuart Brent himself, a bookseller who once told me, “You’re not too pretentious for someone affiliated with the University of Chicago.” The Savvy Traveller had a special section for “Urban Adventures.” And Prairie Avenue Bookshop had a tiny space dedicated to campus planning. It’s where I first encountered the Princeton Architectural Press’s Campus Guides and their detailed, peripatetic yet scholarly traipses through Vassar, Harvard, and the University of Cincinnati.

And guess what? There were no algorithms getting between you and those precious tomes. You had to come in and stay awhile and see what serendipitous browsing brought. Sure, books are commercial products, but at least you didn’t have to worry about “suggested products” popping up in front of you via a suggestive hologram. (Jesus, maybe that’s the next frontier in bricks-and-mortar shopping.)

While once the casual visitor could make his or her way through over a dozen independent bookstores within a mile radius, there are now just a few. Rising rents and real estate investment in the Loop and its immediate environs have made operating a bookstore while not owning the entire building outright an increasingly untenable proposition.

The brightest development in recent years is The Dial Bookshop, which maintains a well-lit space on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building formerly occupied by Selected Works, a used bookstore. It’s quite possible, of course, that this much-more-modest assemblage of printed material may be only a passing moment. After all, bookstores have always come and gone from the Loop and every other neighborhood in Chicago with regularity. What remains to be seen is whether they will maintain even this greatly reduced presence.

One of the reasons I still go to bookstores is that I like to talk with other people about books. I also like to hear what other people think about the books that we have read in real time and face-to-face. One of the best places to do this in all of Chicago is the Harold Washington Library Center, which offers more free book-related events than any other institution in the city, more than 300 a year, in addition to events at the 81 neighborhood branches.

The Harold Washington Library Center is a public treasure that is open to everyone. Its programming reflects Chicago’s diverse population, something that could not always be said about older and more established bookstores. Where else could you find a talk on Rafael Torch’s posthumous memoir The Garcia Boy, an artists’ entrepreneurship class, and a hands-on musical instructional class for toddlers on the same day?

Bookstores have always had competition for time and money, including movies, concerts, and television. In the past decade or so, they’ve competed against mobile devices that function as personal appendages, alongside an exposition of entertainment and shopping options that are by turns exhilarating and completely exhausting. And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that while bookstores and libraries do operate with a blush of overlap in their general mission, there certainly can be a bit of friction at times.

As I look over this bookish landscape, I find that more bookstores are adopting the diverse range of programs that one finds at institutions like the Chicago Public Library. They have to be wide-ranging as they continue to expand their tents with programs that make room for the generally curious as well as individuals with highly specific interests.

What strikes me as the most compelling thing about bookstores like Volumes Bookcafe in Wicker Park and Women & Children First in Andersonville is that they see themselves increasingly as spaces for community gatherings, trivia nights, listening sessions, and places for people to enjoy each other’s company.

Sure, they want to sell books and other accoutrements as a function of their business, but they also see themselves, much like libraries, as valuable gathering spaces. They are much more than the books they sell because they offer conversations that enhance and enliven the ideas contained within those books. One can find a place for meditations on Afrofuturist zines, informal dialogues about gentrification that avoid pedantic planning argot, and get practical information about gardening in an age of climate change.

As for the original bookstore I first visited in Rogers Park? It’s gone and the entire building was demolished for a CTA expansion project a number of years back. The hostel is also gone, demolished as part of Loyola University’s ongoing campus expansion. And Standee’s is no longer a fixture a few feet from the Granville el station, so you’ll have to go elsewhere for a francheezie.

But even though I am caught at a loss for the bookstore’s name, which I can’t find in the Tribune archives or any of my Chicago guidebooks, I will not forget that face-to-face encounter given to me by an interlocutor who set me on my way through Chicago.   v