Wicker Park’s Underworld Used Books, a storefront operation with erratic hours on a scruffy stretch of Ashland, is closing its doors after just over two years in business. But that doesn’t bother proprietor Michael Workman: “From the beginning the store was never meant to be a long-term thing.”

In 1997, Workman’s girlfriend, Marie Walz, saw a man emerging from a dilapidated space down the street as she left for work. She and Workman had been tossing around the idea of opening a bookstore, so she stopped to ask him some questions. The next day Workman put down a deposit.

“When we first moved in,” says Workman, “it was almost beyond repair.” It took almost five months of toil between day jobs and classes at Northwestern, where he’s finishing up his BA in English, but eventually “it was habitable.” He stocked the shelves with books from his own library and opened for business in March of 1998.

Over the last two years the store has hosted music performances, film nights, birthday parties, and discussion forums on such topics as Richard Rorty and Pierre Bourdieu. Along the way some books were sold, but Workman insists that wasn’t his primary goal. “It’s helped me meet a lot of people who are interested in this idea of what their life is about creatively–not just writers, but photographers, designers, musicians,” he says.

“I felt really good about selling books,” he continues, “especially right here, because we’d get people in who probably stop in a bookstore once a year. So we’d sell books to people who otherwise wouldn’t have bought them. And I would sell them for cheap. There were a lot of times I’d even let people walk out without paying for books. I’d just give them to them.”

Underworld’s combination second annual Escapist’s Ball and farewell party this Friday is also a benefit to raise seed money for the next project from Workman and Walz, who’s a graphic designer: Bridge Magazine, a literary journal whose mission, as the name implies, is “to make the relationships between…isolated fields of inquiry clear, exposing the basic humanity from which every idea originates.” With a somewhat daunting conceptual framework that organizes the content into “focus articles,” “fusion articles,” and “anchor departments” like aesthetics, religion, and philosophy, the magazine is, as Workman explains, an attempt to create some sort of literary “unified field theory”–the natural next step after running the bookstore and writing his first novel, Relative Chill, slated to be released this fall by Neshui Press, a small Saint Louis publisher.

“To me,” he says, “it was all kind of fated that the pieces would fall into place.”

The Escapist’s Ball features music by Andy Hopkins, Andy Creighton, Jason McDermott, Frank DiConstanzo, Geoff Greenberg, Greg Hamilton, and Mosey Walker, plus puppetry by Ralph Syversen, poetry readings by Thax Douglas, and lots of books for sale at low, low prices. It starts at 8:30 PM Friday at 1331 N. Ashland; admission is $6. Call 773-395-8454 for more information. –martha Bayne

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michael Workman photo by Jim Newberry.