When Ed Devereux opened Unabridged Bookstore on November 1, 1980, with two business partners and $18,000, he had no idea if the store would last. Though, to be honest, he wasn’t thinking very far ahead at all. “When you’re 27,” he says, “you don’t ever think you’re going to be 62. When you’re young, you’re fearless.”
But now Unabridged is celebrating its 35th birthday and pulling out all the stops: 10 percent discounts on every book in the store, and on December 12, a party with treats prepared by the store’s cookbook-testing team, raffles of some of Devereux’s favorite books, and a photo retrospective of the store’s growth from storefront to neighborhood institution.
Though Devereux was relatively young when Unabridged opened, he was already a seasoned bookseller. As a student at the University of Illinois, he’d reduced his course load to two classes a semester so he could work 37 hours a week at the campus bookshop. After college, he worked at bookstores in San Francisco and at Barbara’s in Chicago before taking a job as a publisher’s rep for Ballantine Books. As he traveled around the country visiting bookstores, he kept thinking, “I can do better.” Coincidentally, that fall, the storefront at 3251 N. Broadway in Lakeview, just around the corner from his apartment, went up for rent for $800 a month.
“How hard would it be?” Devereux remembers thinking. His father helped him build the bookshelves. In order to buy more books, Devereux worked full-time for less than minimum wage; his partners, who worked part-time, took no salary at all. “The store,” he says, “was a success from the start. It was a few years before I got a real wage or my first bonus. But we were surviving!”
Eventually the store not only survived but thrived, expanding to fill two more neighboring storefronts and a basement.
Unabridged has weathered some heavy competition throughout its history, starting with the discount chain Crown Books, which opened a location on Clark Street in the early 80s. Devereux realized he couldn’t afford to sell books nearly at cost the way Crown could, but he could provide another service: being a true neighborhood bookstore. Unabridged was lucky to be located in a diverse and densely populated neighborhood filled with educated people who liked to read. Thus Devereux stumbled on a consistent business strategy. “I had a purist notion of what a bookstore should be,” he says. “I had a mission and stuck with it.”
He has never been tempted to sell gifts (“books and books only”), coffee (“we already had Caribou and the Coffee & Tea Exchange on the block”), or e-books (“I never understood the idea of embracing e-books; it’s like being in bed with the devil”; they also don’t bring in any money). Instead he concentrated on providing a well-curated selection of titles, even in the remainder section, and maintaining a long-standing staff of well-paid, well-read booksellers who can be trusted to provide solid recommendations.
“I personally think the store’s success is due to its great employees,” Devereux says. “We pay them living wages, with health care and vacation time. This sets the store apart: that the people who work there make a good living.”
The staff has been central to helping the store build a solid core of customers, which, in turn, helped it survive the 2008 recession that buried every other bookstore in the neighborhood, including the behemoth Borders at Clark and Diversey.
Rachel DeWoskin, a novelist and memoirist; her husband Zayd Ayers, a playwright; and their two young daughters are regular customers and loiterers at Unabridged. “I bet our feeling—that Unabridged is an extension of our house, conversation, and bedtime story life—is one we share with countless other families,” DeWoskin says.
The novelist Carol Anshaw credits Devereux for launching her career. “When I started out as a writer,” she recalls, “Unabridged was my neighborhood bookstore and I asked Ed to go out for coffee to see if he could tell me how to go about getting an agent and getting published and he was so kind and helpful. Then when my novel Aquamarine was published, the store made a launch party for me with a cake that was frosted like the cover of the book. And when you bought a book there as a present and, like me, wrapped gifts that looked like you’d wrapped them with your feet, they would make a lovely package you were proud to take to the party. That’s my definition of a full-service bookstore.”
“It’s a rock of stability,” says the writer Jonathan Eig, who first moved to Lakeview 20 years ago and has never lived more than three blocks from the bookstore. “It hasn’t changed much, which is rare for our neighborhood. It’s had the same window shelf. When I got my first book published, it was a great, great feeling to see it in the window. There are two places you want to see your book: on your mom’s coffee table and in the window of your neighborhood bookstore.” v