By Jill Riddell

On my first visit to N. Fagin Books I’d just gotten inside the door and taken in a breath of book-scented air when a woman with short brown hair and glasses asked me if I was looking for anything in particular. I told her about my need for information on butterflies and spiders, and she directed me to the insect section in the center aisle. Long cases were filled with books on insects, mammals, birds, and plants–all areas of potential interest to me. To view the lowest shelves I sat on the floor and leaned back against the bookcase behind me. Next to me were about 20 books arranged in a pile that came up to just the right height to serve as an armrest. Before I put my elbow down I glanced through the first few titles: Evaluation of Insect Mating Systems, The Wisdom of the Genes, and The Fundamentals of Fungi.

A young boy with blond hair, long eyelashes, and a grasshopper in his hand pushed open the door. He trotted back to a man at the counter, showing him the bug. “I need to get some grass for him to eat,” he explained, and the man obligingly walked outside with him to find some. Meanwhile the woman had done a search of her own for butterflies and spiders, and offered me a stack of selected materials.

This was the beginning of my love affair with N. Fagin Books, a store specializing in new and used books on anthropology, archaeology, botany, and zoology. There’s no other place like it in the midwest. Over the past few years the shop has become a comforting source of information for this column, other articles, and for life in general. It’s nice to have a place where I can call to ask for The Handbook of Slime Molds and not be laughed at.

Nancy Fagin owns the store and runs it with her husband, Ron Weber. They receive moral support from their grasshopper-loving nine-year-old, Nathan. Nancy studied anthropology at the University of Illinois at Champaign in the 1970s, and after a brief stint in graduate school there left to work for a publishing house. She opened N. Fagin Books in 1980, starting out in a 200-square-foot space on the 13th floor of an office building in the Loop and moving to this location, an 800-square-foot space at 1039 W. Grand, in 1988. “When we moved here it seemed so huge and spacious,” she says. Her implication is that it doesn’t feel that way to her now, and I understand what she means: books on the shelves have begun to lie crosswise on top of the ones arranged side by side. Others haven’t made it onto shelves at all and sit in deep piles on the floor.

But this adds to the sense of being an explorer when you visit. While you may never travel to Peru to study Andean lichens, to Australia to find new species of sharks, or to Afghanistan to dig for lost civilizations, at N. Fagin Books you might literally stumble across the treatise written by someone who did.

I’m not the only patron who’s happy as a wallowing pig while I’m in the store. “Customers have told me they wished they had to feed a meter outside just so they’d have something to drag them out of the store,” Nancy says. I was chatting with her last week while searching for information on Canada geese and crows. A customer buying books on Custer and the Plains Indians nods her head vigorously and says, “It’s hard to leave.” The man waiting behind her is less vocal but expresses his appreciation by buying four books. As Nancy writes up his bill by hand–nothing, not even the cash register, is computerized–she tells him she’ll keep an eye out for other books on coastal Canadian geology for him.

“I let my customers do some of the direction for the store,” Nancy explains. “If someone’s interested in a subject I’ll acquire more books on it.” She has no fancy marketing schemes, and she doesn’t sway her customers to books heavily promoted by publishers. “My hottest sellers right now are The Neotropical Companion and Experimental Determination of Stone Tool Uses.”

I ask her if there are any particularly rare books she’s excited about having found, and she grabs a heavy canvas bag. She pulls out a volume with a brick-colored cover and hands it to me. It’s called Ashanti and written by Captain R.S. Rattray. Published in 1923 by Oxford University Press, it contains a couple hundred pages of text and illustrations and photographs of the Nigerian tribe. I can imagine that for someone this book will be precisely what’s needed to solve something perplexing in his or her research; perhaps one of the photographs will illuminate a feature of tribal life previously overlooked, or one of the casual observations made by Captain Rattray will help make sense of someone else’s story.

But there aren’t many political books in the store. “I may have a book on the lives of seals on Baffin Island, but I probably won’t have a book on the politics of killing seals,” Nancy says. “The books here give information from which you can draw your own conclusions.”

Which makes me wonder if she has a mission in mind for her shop. I ask her what she’s after with her 20,000 books. First she mentions business goals of wanting to have a good range of material and to be different from other stores. But then she admits, “I want to overwhelm people.”

N. Fagin Books is open 10 to 5 Monday through Friday, and 10 to 3 Saturday; 829-5252. But Nancy notes on her message on the answering machine, “If you call and say you’re running late we can probably stay open for you.”