Backstory Cafe There are used books for sale in this socially/environmentally conscious cafe at the Experimental Station. For more, see Restaurants.
Blackstone Library By Hyde Park standards, this is a wee little library, off the beaten path and not exceptionally well-stocked. You could probably drop its entire collection in a corner of the University of Chicago’s Regenstein and the librarians there wouldn’t notice for weeks. In fact, compared to the Reg, Crerar, and sundry other U. of C. libraries, this CPL branch—the city’s first—has only three things going for it: it’s in a lovely old building by Solomon S. Beman, it’s home to the Hyde Park Historical Collection, and it’s open to the public.
Borders Borders outposts everywhere have been badly hit by the recession, and Hyde Park’s is no exception. In the last couple years its inventory has been slashed. DVDs and music are mostly gone, magazines and books have been heavily reduced, and notebooks, stationery, and tchotchkes have been brought in in an attempt to fill the yawning gaps. You’ll still see lots of folks browsing here, but with all the newly opened up floor space, this place has started to feel like a two-story tomb.
57th Street Books The Seminary Co-op’s more mainstream sister is one of the city’s most venerable independents. Though the steep stairs leading down to its basement location can look a little foreboding, the interior is well-organized and easily browsable, with a smart selection of recent titles always featured on the front tables. The children’s section is a highlight, and a small forest of strollers is parked on the sidewalk out front every Wednesday for story hour. The store runs two or three readings a month, featuring both local authors—from professors to Sara Paretsky—and out-of-towners.
First Aid Comics James Nurss opened his second-floor walk-up store 15 months ago, in the teeth of the recession. Lacking a street-level window, he put a stand-up sign on the sidewalk, emblazoned with a Jim Lee Batman, and hoped passersby would bite. And so far, miraculously, they have—Nurss is actually thinking of expanding to a bigger location. The current shop is a standard hole-in-the-wall, very light on the manga and independents. Still, Nurss is friendly and knowledgeable, and given the quixotic nature of his endeavor, you’ve got to keep your fingers crossed for him.
Frontline Books and Crafts & Crystal Power The crystals and crafts are at the front. Walk through, brush aside the curtain of beads in the doorway, and you’ll find the books—a mix of multiethnic spirituality, self-help, and black pride, heavy on Marcus Garvey, Rastafarianism, and Nubian pharaohs.
Neighborhood Writing Alliance This Hyde Park-based nonprofit offers free writing workshops for adults from low-income neighborhoods, publishes a quarterly magazine of the participants’ work called The Journal of Ordinary Thought, and presents readings by JOT contributors. NWA sponsors a free screening of the documentary Food, Inc., Wed 4/7, 6 PM, at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, 800 S. Halsted.
O’Gara & Wilson Modest in size, especially compared to its mammoth neighbor Powell’s, O’Gara & Wilson nevertheless carries substantial numbers of used books, shelved in neat rows. But the specialty of the house is rare and out-of print volumes. Expensive items (such as a 1931 edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, offered for $850) are helpfully marked with price quotes taken from the Internet, so you know exactly what kind of deal you’re getting. While I was browsing, the employees were discussing the relative importance of Methodism and Baptism in the African-American religious tradition. You don’t get more Hyde Park than that.
Powell’s Books This is a seriously large used book store—big enough to have immaculately organized shelves devoted to every topic from agriculture to the history of medicine, Einstein to Civil War generals (broken down further, in some cases, by individual general). The paperback mysteries, sci-fi, and series titles are tucked away in the basement. Weather permitting, the staff often leaves discards in boxes on the sidewalk. I’ve found more than a few free treasures there.
Series A A free monthly reading series “dedicated to showcasing experimental writing in the U.S., and specifically experimental writing in the Midwest.” The next event features poets Dana Ward, John Coletti, Jess Mynes, and Susan Slaviero (Wed 4/7, 7 PM).
Seminary Co-op Bookstore Stuffed into the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary, the co-op is so cramped that they’ve had to pad low-hanging pipes to prevent in-store concussions. And it’s so labyrinthine that they’ve put yellow lines on the floor so you won’t get lost looking for a title. Many U. of C. profs order their course books through this store, and the long hall of texts, labeled by class, is positively intimidating. Still, if you can stand a little disorientation, this is just about the best academic and literary bookstore in the city, filled with surprises and delights—including a well-stocked comics section with 20 or so volumes of Naruto, a popular ninja manga series for boys. Joining the co-op gets you discounts here, at 57th Street Books (within easy walking distance), and at the Newberry Library bookstore, 60 E. Walton. In 2008, the university bought the seminary building, raising questions about the bookstore’s fate. A U. of C. statement talks about assessing the “limitations of the current space” as plans “move forward,” but it also acknowledges the co-op as a “tremendous campus and community asset.” In any event, nobody’s going anywhere at least until the university takes possession in 2012.
University of Chicago Bookstore The official U. of C. bookstore exists mostly to sell branded gear, cards, stationery, and textbooks assigned by those professors who’ve decided not to work through the Seminary Co-op. It also stocks a number of medical and law reference books and a surprising amount of test prep materials. There are some other books too, presumably to cater to those students too timid to walk the three blocks to a real bookstore.